Old and new

“Tradition!” sang Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. New Years is a time to reflect on tradition. Some people long for the lost Golden Age and fear the future. Others look to the future and expect better things, wanting to forget the past.

I spent last August to December in a part of the Old World that is wondering about old and new. Some are looking for a revival of the glory days – of the Russian Empire or of the church. Others fear it. I saw the church and students struggling to figure out the relationship between past and future.

I was in St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel (three days before 7,000 LED lights, installed to better illuminate the frescoes, were turned on) in Rome, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris, as well as other cathedrals in Italy and Lithuania. I saw the old Evangelical Lutheran churches of Latvia and the 17th century Reformed Church in Copenhagen. In all these places I felt a connection to the past. For me it was like visiting the homes of my grandparents. As a Christian and a churchman, this history forms me.

What I heard in my students at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania was disconnectedness. They were often alone in the present and uncertain about the future. Many of the students still had a strong sense of family tradition. For some their national identity was very important, but most were disconnected from the church. Some had rejected the church, but most just did not know how the church fit into their world and lives.

As we explored different Christian traditions, the students were intrigued by the past and curious about each other’s practices. In the Orthodox tradition students saw the deep sense of history in ties to the Church Fathers, the early Christian Councils and the old Christian cultural holidays and practices. The struggle the Orthodox students experienced was in making this personal and present. The church was a part of the past, of the national identity, but not really of their daily life. The customs were there, but not the conviction or the conduct. If it affected their life at all, it was only hope for a heavenly future, not an earthly present.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council wrestled with two primary principles – aggiornamento, bringing up to date, and approfondimento, deepening of tradition. In practice these seem to split into those losing the traditions in trying to be up to date and those keeping traditions but losing connections. My Catholic students were often caught in the middle. They did not know their traditions, nor did they feel the church connected to the present, although some see hope in Pope Francis’ leadership.

The Protestant students were knowledgeable and proud of their own traditions but unaware of the larger church. The Anabaptist Mennonites, the Evangelical Germans, the Wesleyan Methodists and the Pentecostals knew what made them distinctive, but not what made them catholic. Especially when it came to the sacraments, which were given to unite the church throughout time and place, the divisions were the strongest. Often, in the attempt to be different for a new time and place, the past is lost. The particular becomes the peculiar for some. For others the particular is discarded for generic practices without connection to the past and without deep content for the present.

Yale theologian Jaroslav Pelikan expressed that tension as follows: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Every traditon wrestles with this. Traditionalism is rightly rejected, but when tradition goes with it, we are lost and alone, disconnected.

I saw hope and desire in my students. They enjoyed learning about the past, seeing other Christian traditions and expressions. They were overcoming the ignorance, arrogance and narrowness of thinking that “my way is the only way.” They longed for a context that took into account past, present and future and gave their lives meaning. They wanted to understand and respect others so they could connect and cooperate.

My wife sings a Girl Scouts’ song, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other is gold.” Jesus concluded his parables in Matthew 13:52 saying, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

The future will be based on traditional and contemporary, aggiornamento and approfondimento, silver and gold, old and new.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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