In an age when everything is new and improved, tradition seems to have taken a backseat. It is still evoked nostalgically; to create an illusion of stability in an otherwise chaotic world. Reference is made to the traditional turkey dinner or to that semi-mythical age when things were simpler and children were better behaved. Tradition in this sense may generate some good feelings but is not something to give direction to our lives.
In the business world and sometimes in churches, "tradition" is commonly used to dismiss something as backward-looking and stodgy. This rejection of tradition grows directly out of an eagerness to distance ourselves from our own pasta central characteristic of western culture since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.
Whether we like the feelings associated with tradition in the sense of the turkey dinner, or regard it as something which blinds us to current needs, it is perhaps time we reassessed the role of tradition in our society. Tradition has the potential to play a more powerful role by providing a clear identity for us as individuals and communities of faith. If tradition is to serve such a purpose, we must understand it as a living part of us, rather than something dead and past and commemorated on plaques.
An important part of my teaching role at Canadian Bible College is to teach a course called Alliance History and Thought. This course has developed a rather unenviable reputation over the years. Believe it or not, it commonly has been referred to by students (in hushed voices and with furtive, over-the-shoulder glances to ensure the offending professor is out of earshot) as "Alliance Misery and Rot." This was rather shocking to a new teacher and enough to make one nostalgic for whenever it was that students were better behaved.
Reflecting on this, it seemed to be a significant thing that the least popular course at an Alliance Bible college was the one course on what it meant to be Alliance. After recovering from the blow to my self-esteem, the clear message was that students didn't like this course because they felt it had nothing to do with who they were or who they were hoping to become Theology students want to know who God is and what God is doing in the world. Biblical studies at the Bible college are popular. Students see the relevance of learning how to read and interpret Scripture well. Sociology, psychology and literature can help students understand themselves and their world more clearly. But what is the point of denominational history? After all, this "stuff" happened long ago and only serves to remind us that we are pretty small fish in the big pond of church history. Would it not make more sense to spend time on things that really matter?
In asking these sorts of questions, my students were clearly in a broad stream of thinking flowing out of the Enlightenment which views particular traditions, like denominational histories, as irrelevant. Worse still, such traditions are held to actually distort truth and thus must be abandoned. The Enlightenment approach is perhaps best typified by the seventeenth century French thinker René Descartes. Descartes regarded knowledge based on any tradition or authority as suspect. He decided he must discover a firm foundation for knowledge and so resolved to disbelieve anything and everything that could be disbelieved. This systematic process of doubt led to the speculation that God might be an evil joker and thus nothing, not even Descartes' own existence, could be sure. A this point Descartes discovered his foundation for all true knowledge, for even in doubting all, he was aware of the working of his own mind. His famous conclusion cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), was the beginning of the modern view of truth in the western world.
Now the free use of reason unencumbered by any preconception or tradition has become the sure guide to the truth. Descartes was convinced that this truth could be found and with it the solution to all human problems if we would just shed our traditional biases. This promise of salvation required that each individual be freed to think and act on the basis of reason alone. A rootedness in tradition and community was sacrificed in the modern age to the right of the individual use of reason.
However, reason unbounded by tradition has not proven to be the salvation of humanity. The cost of this great modern experiment is still not fully calculated. One of these costs has been the neglect of the spiritual needs. A quest for a renewed spirituality seems to be one of characteristics of our age. Recent cover stories in Canada's Macleans Magazine and the United States' Newsweek reveal a sincere hunger for spiritual depth. People are willing to speak openly of their spiritual quests which are taking a wide variety of directions. To many, Christianity lacks the spiritual vitality they are seeking
Beyond this spiritual poverty is a loss of community. The individualism which accompanied the right of individual choice is far reaching in our culture. Rather than being connected into significant networks of relationship, the experience of most North Americans is alienation from one another. As part of this modern culture we are conditioned to protect our own interests at all costs and resist the claims of community or commitments which would limit the exercise of our personal freedom. At the same time, there is an urgent human need to be connected and committed which is at odds with this. Rising unwanted pregnancy and divorce statistics probably have less to do with the "joy of sex" than an unshakeable sense of aloneness.
The kind of tradition which I have suggested we need to consider, answers these cries of need. A tradition that is alive serves to orient us to what is ultimately of value and to ground us in a wider community that shares these values.
But this is rather abstract. Let's return to Alliance History and Thought. If my students are to feel this course is worthwhile they need to be able to see how it connects with who they are and what they feel called to do. When understood as a living tradition, Alliance history and thought is more than something to be read about in a textbook or studied for an exam. It is who we are, what we teach and preach, and how we live our commitments. We are Alliance because this tradition, expressed by Albert B. Simpson as the Fourfold Gospel, has continually witnessed to the fact that Christ's work has implications for us right now. It calls us to, and empowers us for holiness, it affirms Gods interest in the physical as well as the spiritual and it points to the hope of our calling.
What I have discovered is that these core values of the Alliance are tremendously attractive to students. Alliance history and thought is now not some dead system they have to somehow fit themselves into, but an expression of who they want to become and the message they want to proclaim. In this tradition there is something which can provide focus for their ministry and their lives no matter what the vocation to which God has called them.
The course has taken on new life as it ceased to be a recounting of what is past and became a dialogue between the tradition and those individuals and communities seriously committed to living this tradition. It is essential in this process to understand the vision and insights of A.B. Simpson and other great Alliance leaders in their context; then to distil the spiritual, theological and pastoral resourcs from them and finally discover ways to embody these in our lives and communities today.
At Canadian Bible College we have tried to fully integrate these aspects of our tradition into the life of an academic community. Our weekly schedule includes times of pause for prayer and worship. This is not an interruption of the academic agenda, but an essential part of it. Worship reminds us who God is and who we are and this serves as a foundation for what we do as a learning, thinking community.
Two days in each semester are specifically dedicated to prayer and the centerpiece of this day is a communion service at which we experience together the wonder of God's love, the forgiveness in Christ's sacrifice and unity by the Holy Spirit's presence. A significant aspect of this service is an invitation to trust the Lord for healing. Many of our students, even those from Alliance backgrounds, have never participated in such a service before. Our tradition is made alive to them as we profess together and for one another that Christ is indeed our healer.
Once during each semester there is an opportunity for reaffirming our tradition's distinctive connection between a vital spiritual life and our mission to the world. For three days our attention is turned from assignments and readings and classes to the wider reason for our life together, that of being made more fully into the character of the indwelling Christ and more fully committed to the task He has set for us. These are simple and perhaps obvious things, but they provide a grounding for our work of bringing the spiritual resources of the Alliance to a new generation.
Simpson himself may stand as a guide for how tradition may be given life. He inherited the rich resources of nineteenth century North American evangelicalism but was troubled by what he perceived as a lack of spiritual vitality. His solution was not some new message. Simpson was not a theological innovator but took the evangelical tradition and framed it in new language and practices which were alive to his generation.
Tradition cannot live by our being content with precise doctrinal definitions and well worn methods. It will come alive as we take the central insights of an indwelling Christ who awakens us to the needs of our world and embody them in new ways. Simpson connected with people by modeling how the Holy Spirit works in lives to remake them into the character of Christ by a daily, moment-by-moment abiding in Him. The measure of the Alliance as a living tradition will be how well we are able to live this out in our generation.
To conclude this consideration of tradition it might be useful to return to the needs of this generation for spirituality and community mentioned above. Our Christian tradition, and the message of the Alliance in particular, provide direction for addressing these needs. The full salvation which Simpson encapsulated in the Fourfold Gospel was a clear call to the full experience of Christ's work and the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit in each Christian life. We need to model and to teach a vibrant spirituality which a new generation of spiritual seekers will see as the true alternative to the spiritual vacuity of the modern world.
Spirituality is too often seen as an entirely private and individual pilgrimage. This I believe is the influence of modern individualism. Community is essential to an authentic spirituality. The transforming power of the Holy Spirit and Christ's call to mission are experienced in the community of Gods people. If there is one area in our tradition that needs careful thought it is our understanding of the Church. Let's call one another to a full experience of God's work in our churches so we can offer a true alternative to the false spiritualities and loss of community characteristic of the late twentieth century.