Is the "Living Tradition" an oxymoron?
The discussions that have blossomed elsewhere in the UU blogosphere about whether and to what degree our denomination is accurately described as "post-Christian" leave me wondering about another of our UU shibboleths: the "living tradition". We like to flatter ourselves that we are the heirs and stewards of a religious "tradition" that can be traced in a continuous line back to, depending on how you count, William Ellery Channing and John Murray, or the Enlightenment, or the Radical Reformation, or prominent theologians of the pre-Nicene Christian Church. We like the turn of phrase so much that we even use it for the title of our hymnal.
I have argued against using the term "post-Christian" normatively to describe all of us in the aggregate, because it imposes a false uniformity on what is in fact a broadly diverse collection of individual personal spiritual orientations, and because it seems to exclude both the enduring witness of some of our oldest congregations and a renewed appreciation for our own unique permutation of the Christian way of seeing among our newer members and clergy. Such exclusion seems to me inconsistent with our relatively newfound, but ostensibly denomination-wide, "prophetic" calling (as Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described it) to name and resist oppression in all its forms. Others have argued with equal merit that as an empirical description, and in spite of permissible but uncharacteristic deviation, “post-Christian” accurately describes a prevailing theological orientation among a majority of us.
If the "post-Christian" epithet is correct, however, either normatively or as an empirical description of a dominant faction, what is the "tradition" we are referring to that still lives? What is it in what we do today that would cause our denominational ancestors of a century or two ago to recognize us as remaining in unbroken covenant with them? What are we, either as a whole or at least a quorum, doing to preserve our tradition, teach it to the next generation, and keep it vital?
Or would it be more accurate and honest to say that the "traditional" elements of our religion no longer live except in the family scrapbooks and photo albums of happy but bygone memories?
[The Revs. Amy Freedman, pastor of Channing Memorial Church in Newport, RI, and Carl Scovel, pastor emeritus of King’s Chapel in Boston, posing in front of a statue of William Ellery Channing and a tower that according to local legend was built by pagan Norsemen. Is one monument more authentic than the other?]