12 September 2008

A Caution on "Tradition"

As Quakers, we need to be very careful when we invoke an automatic and inflexible “tradition” to justify any of our practices without thought and prayer. It is certainly true that we should learn from the valuable past experience of others in our Society. But our Society was founded on the premise that it is our own present-time experience with the Inward Light of Jesus Christ that should guide us personally and corporately, not the discoveries and habits of others, no matter how exemplary. We are directed to seek unity with God and loving agreement with one another, not conformity to a history of rules, written or unwritten.

Tradition is a useful but explicitly limited tool in our Society, no matter how attractive its authority. If tradition becomes the primary rule, then shadow has triumphed over substance, and the Holy Spirit is pressed down as a cart under sheaves. Jesus scorned the Pharisees and their love of tradition. He told his contemporaries that he would disregard their traditions if it conflicted with his teachings, and His disciples should do likewise. He healed on the sabbath, handled lepers, tossed moneychangers out of the temple on his own authority, commended David for eating the showbread, called the lovers of tradition vipers for upholding it instead of his commandments, and redefined 613 detailed Mosaic ordinances into two short sentences. None of this sat well with Tradition, or those who defended it.

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