Having taught a number of years at an undergraduate institution within the evangelical world, I observed on more than one occasion students who wrestled with the particular brand of Christianity in which they had been raised. Some students had even departed the faith entirely when they stepped into my required classes in theology and ethics; or, so they thought. What they had done, in fact, was reject a particular version of Christianity that they had mistakenly taken for the whole. They had not yet looked beyond their own tradition.
The task was not to defend the particular stream of Christianity in which my students had first touched the waters of baptism, but to show them that it was fed by a vast river stretching back two millennia. In short, I defended Christianity by helping them swim upstream so that they could discover just how deep and wide Christian Tradition was. Through a confrontation with full-throated Christianity, students had the resources to criticize the stream to which they belonged while also locating that tradition within the great river of Christian Tradition. It was a matter, then, of introducing them to the differences between tradition and Tradition.
As a result of this strategy some students switched from one version of Protestantism to another; other students left Protestantism entirely and became Orthodox or embraced certain features of Catholic teaching such as no longer practicing artificial contraception; others returned to their own branch with a greater sense of where its strengths and weaknesses resided; and still others discovered that their journey away from the Christian faith was not as simple as they had once conceived.
At one point a student pronounced that he was fatigued by reading scripture. It did not seem alive to him any longer. I advised him to read broadly in Christian Tradition and then return to scripture informed by what the voices of the great cloud of witnesses to which he belonged had said about it. If the Spirit makes scripture come alive, then one cannot ignore the living communion that the Spirit continues to create as the larger context within which Christians learn to hear the Word.
When the Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff described the difference between Tradition and traditions, he contrasted the living truths of the faith received in fellowship with the triune God over against its various cultural embodiments. Tradition is alive because it is the permanent presence of the living Christ in the communion of the saints who have been united to Christ through the Spirit.
As the final form of this revelation, Scripture stands at the center, and yet the work of Christ continues because Christ is alive in the communion of the whole. For Protestants, sola scriptura is a theological reminder of the centrality of Scripture as the inspired Word of the Incarnate Word. This does not mean a nuda scriptura because, as Meyendorff argues, the Bible requires the reality of a fellowship that exists in the whole people of God. Scripture takes its place in organic relation to a larger whole. Hence Meyendorff’s definition that “Tradition is the sacramental continuity in history of the communion of the saints.” Disagreements over which church most fully embodies this communion should not distract from the fact that it exists among all of the baptized.
This definition of Tradition implies that it must be viewed as an organic whole even though it contains a dogmatic center. Tradition is a cultural fabric that emerges from the diversity of the people of God. Finding the dogmatic center over against cultural expressions is challenging because dogmatic truths flow in and out of a spirituality that expresses itself in patterns of worship, works of art, the lives of saints, and other forms of cultural life.
To locate the center requires an immersion into the cultural whole. Yves Congar employed the phrase hierarchy of truths to underscore the organic relationship among the various parts of the Christian faith. Within this organic whole one can begin to discern the differences between what is and is not central, always keeping in mind that each part flows in and out of a deeper reservoir.
In light of this great river, cultural exile is more about inhabiting a way of life that is its own cultural expression. Because Christian Tradition flows in a culture that is global and local, Christians should feel at home in this culture. Regardless of the forces of secularism, there is no mistake that Christian culture is woven into the fabric of so many cultures that one cannot easily disentangle it. Christians will always be cultural exiles insofar as Christian Tradition is not co-extensive with any single culture or any form of ecclesial existence and thus calls all forms of life into judgment in the light of Christ. In some countries, this will mean that Christianity has to fight for cultural capital while in others it must build or recover cultural capital.
No doubt Christians can no longer claim as Cyprian once did that the fabric of the body of Christ is seamless. The great river has split into numerous branches. This is why we must swim back upstream to find those deeper waters lest we equate our tribe with the whole. In those classes I tried to remind my students that they have been woven into a vast cultural fabric and that they must feel the moral and theological weight of those voices. I told them that one cannot speak of the history of the United States without acknowledging how much Christian culture is embodied in American music, art, institutions, ideas, etc. And yet, because Christianity is not reducible to the cultural forms it has created in the United States they should question whether those forms faithfully express the whole. Christians are better equipped to face the challenges of any society when they do so from within the communion of the saints and the cultural life this communion embodies.