Tuesday, March 1, 2011

As the Moon Reflects the Sun

A good look at the complementary natures of Scripture and tradition, from the pen of a poet:

"This collection is a mere taste of the bountiful feast that awaits any who would pursue a life of faith and prayer, equipped with both the holy Scriptures and the holy tradition that surrounds them.

Having done time—the first forty or so years of my life—snug among the sola scriptura crowd, I spent a good bit of time reinventing the prayer-wheel. That wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, I suppose, if any of my poor prototypes had turned out like anything approaching the well-grounded, efficacious, and frankly quite beautiful construction that preceded mine.

This book is but an introduction to some of the rich and enriching tradition that has always (perhaps until the twentieth Century) and everywhere (except, perhaps, large sections of North America) been understood as an expedient accompaniment to and illumination of the Scriptures, and has long been understood to be of great assistance to the spiritual life. It is, after all, only relatively recently that the terms tradition and Scripture have been mistaken for separate, and perhaps even antagonistic authorities.

It is good to note that even Martin Luther—the father of our cranky phrase sola scriptura—was himself utterly well-equipped with and assisted by a rich and enriching communion with the traditions expressed by the fathers and mothers of the Church. Having thoroughly ingested that tradition, he was, perhaps, in a unique position to say he would thereafter proceed “by Scripture alone.” We and our interpretations, on the other hand, might fare better with a little company.

Dichotomies—I’m thinking—are probably not always false, but they are certainly always fictive. A dichotomy becomes false and misleading only when we imagine it to be more than the tool than it is: a way to talk about two parts of a whole. We generally suffer from taking too seriously the distinctions between, say, faith and works, body and spirit, perhaps even life and death, this world and the next.

In our current spiritual pinch—smarting between tradition and Scripture—it is good to remember (and to point out to our fellow travelers) that our Scriptures were composed by and, later, determined by many of those same saintly characters who we refer to collectively as the tradition. Not to put too fine a point on it: the tradition preceded—and therefore equipped us with—the Scriptures.

Jewish readers and the more liturgically canny among Christian readers won’t apprehend much of a conflict here, not much of a surprise. They generally know that the Hebrew Bible is itself compromised of both Scripture and tradition, each speaking to the other in an endlessly provocative, continuously generative conversation. Most notably, the Torah—our Scripture proper—is understood to have been, even in its initial transmission by God to Moses, attended by an oral accompaniment, which has continued as an attendant tradition.

In an age when so many competing ecclesiastical enterprises—the small, the large, the enormous—are busily chipping out endless lines of new and improved wheels—none of which seem to roll quite so roundly as the original—we would do well to gear up with our thus-far-squandered inheritance before we take to the road."

--excerpt from the preface of Scott Cairns' poetry collection, "Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life"

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