April 30, 2012
The Living Faith of the Dead
I don’t preach much, but recently I did—on “The Living Faith of the Dead.” The reader board in front of the church read as follows:
The Living Faith of
Dr. Dan Reid
My wife told me that no one walking by would want to enter the church for that sermon. I rather thought it would come off as a séance, and the unchurched would flock. I was being seeker sensitive. Look, there’s a reason why I’m invited into book titling meetings.
I took my sermon title from a line by Jaroslav Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” (p. 65).
The sermon was about tradition, the Christian tradition—the Great Tradition, or mere Christianity. I started from the New Testament’s use of tradition and then made the case for the resilience, intelligence and reliability of tradition over the centuries. I preached this in a mainline church where orthodoxy is eschewed on the left and underappreciated on the right. Needless to say, I was able to draw on G. K. Chesterton’s peppery point about tradition being “the democracy of the dead.”
I pointed to several examples of the reality and intelligence of tradition, including a startling instance that came to light a little over a year ago. When the great earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of northern Japan in March of 2011, at least one village escaped the destructive waters. The hamlet of Aneyoshi consists only of a few families, but a single centuries-old tablet saved the day. Inscribed on a tall stone slab, prominently placed, is written, “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”
There are reportedly hundreds of these markers along the coastline of Japan, not all as old as this one, but some as old as six hundred years. But Aneyoshi was spared by heeding the warnings of the ancestral tradition.
Others, who had these warnings but decided to neglect tradition, were not so fortunate. They proposed that by building thirty-foot walls, a town would be saved from a tsunami. As we know, that was great foolishness. “‘Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school,’ said Yuto Kimura, 12, who guided a recent visitor to one near his home. ‘When the tsunami came, my mom got me from school and then the whole village climbed to higher ground.’”
I wrapped it all up by telling the story (in his own words) of Tom Oden’s conversion from being a Bultmannian and a “movement theologian” to a classical theologian. In his forthcoming autobiography (IVP Academic), Oden tells the story of a day in 1970 when, over lunch, the Jewish scholar Will Herberg reamed him out: “You will remain theologically uneducated until you have studied carefully Athanasius, Ambrose and Augustine… . If you are going to deepen to become a rooted theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best get at it, and until you do, you are not a theologian except in name only, even if remunerated as one.” Yikes! Oden took it to heart, and it changed the course of his life.
Between the early and late service, I crept away to a coffee shop to recoup (introverts need to do this) and reread some passages in Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition. This popped out at me (Pelikan is speaking of John Henry Newman’s thinking on tradition):
In light of folks who promulgate the theory that mean-spirited bishops bullied and squelched the cheerful diversity of early Christianity with a top-down enforcement of triumphant orthodoxy, it is interesting to consider and envision this “filtering up” of orthodoxy. Is there a recent book that takes this direct approach? I’d like to find it.