I read a couple of interesting articles on the Guardian digital site lately that deal with very different issues--one on religion, the other on food, but there were so many potential intersections. The religious article was a response to the ridiculous response to an experiment with changing the verbiage in the Baptism Rite--taking out the reference to 'renouncing the devil' and replacing it with more culturally accessible wording. Of course, for some this is tantamount to sacrificing chickens on the altar and naturally heralds the absolute decline of the church. According to one retired bishop (generally the best kind of bishop in my mind), this amounted to a 'dumbing down' of Christianity--blah blah blah. So the article defended the experiment and attempted to argue for a more reasoned response to this kind of thing.
The second article was in the food section, and was about tradition, culinary tradition, and the fuss that happens when things get changed. There is some small comfort in knowing that religion is not alone in being subjected to stupid arguments in the name of the defense of tradition. And I call them stupid, because like many arguments from the upholders of the status quo, there is a naive understanding of the very concept of how tradition is both preserved and honoured. The complete title of the food article, which was drawn from a forthcoming book, The Virtues of the Table, by Julian Baggini is , The changing taste of food and drink traditions. his essay essentially argues that tradition is safest in the hands of adapters, not preservationists.
This stuff appeals to me because I work in an environment where tradition is often sacrosanct and apparently unassailable, where 'we always done it that way' is perceived as a legitimization for continuing to do things that are no longer helpful. I get it, we all hold arcane ideas that get in the way, things become so special to us, so familiar, so comfortable, we cannot conceive of a way forward without them, but when it comes to religion, I think that is death--and that goes for ritual practices and theological ideas--the ideas and the praxis.
Baggini argues that what we view as tradition, usually has a much shorter history than we know--he cites pasta-the definitive Italian dish, declaring that it did not become so until after WW2. This and a few other little tidbits about the development of 'italian cooking' underscore his argument that tradition is movement not stasis,, that adaptation, incorporation, synthesis and innovation are as much a part of tradition as historic practice is.
This reminded me of Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism, which exposes the cross-pollination of cultural ideas and exchanges in creating the world we live in--he does a great piece of the development of Kente cloth and the role of outside cultures in the development and creation of what became a defining pattern cloth of a part of Africa.
“Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren't authentic; they're just dead”--I would argue that you could replace the word society with food, or religion and come to the same conclusions.
The church in general, and perhaps mainline Christianity in particular, is feeling a little pressed and threatened at the moment, and for many the answer lies in a sort of circling of the wagons, appealing to tradition as a way to resist change, rather than seeing the moment as an opportunity to authentically honour tradition by adapting. I think it was Picasso who said, "you can honour tradition by wearing your grandfather's hat or by having grandchildren" all too often the church I work in reaches for the hat. Now I am not a traditionalist, or a purist on any level, so it might be easy for me to say, I can be quite utilitarian at times and let things go without too much heartache, I realize that is not true for all, but please let's not pretend we are defending or protecting tradition, let's just be honest and say we like things this way and are uncomfortable with change--aah but that's a bit personal isn't it? That means taking responsibility for ones own choices, preferences and proclivities, something we often find difficult-but that's called maturity, and if religion has any purpose for me grwoing up and taking responsibility for my life is a central part of how I understand Christianity to be of value to me.
Perhaps those who are worried about the dumbing down of all things Christian should read Alan Mann's book, Atonement for a Sinless Society, which, when it was published a few years back, argued that the concept of sin has dramatically changed in our culture and we need new ways to engage concepts of evil, sin etc.,--but that would require adaptation and for some...
They used to think the entrance to hell looked this this as well--maybe we should bring that back, or maybe some still do?