Tradition Vs. Traditionalism

Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Let’s unpack that a bit. I think Pelikan offers both a word of caution and a word of life for the tradition-rich season of Advent and Christmas.

He says that tradition is the “living faith of the dead.” Yup, it’s a weird phrase and kind of makes me think of zombies. But he’s really just referring to the dynamic Christian faith that endures through the ages.

Even though followers of Christ from previous generations are now physically dead, the faith lives on still. This is the idea behind Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…”

The word “tradition” itself traces back to the Latin traditio, referring to the delivery or handing down of something. In this positive sense, tradition refers to the things we do from generation to generation which embody and carry forward our beliefs.

Traditional-ism, on the other hand, is the “dead faith of the living.” That’s clearly not a good thing! It’s a reference to people simply and mindlessly going through the motions and only assuming a posture of faith.

At this point, maybe the zombie imagery isn’t far off. He calls their faith “dead.” Perhaps they don’t know the meaning behind what they’re doing; but most likely they’re simply being insincere or apathetic.

We’re in Advent. It’s a word that means “coming,” referring to the coming of Christ at Christmas—and more broadly, to his second coming. And it’s a season thick with traditions.

But do our traditions mean anything? Are we engaging in dead traditionalism, or living traditions? As December unfolds, I encourage you to engage in the latter.

  • If you set up an advent wreath, and as you light a new candle each week, take the opportunity to talk about what each one means—the hope, peace, joy and love God offers.
  • If you set up a nativity scene, chat about who the characters are and why they’re significant to the story.
  • If you attend a worship service to sing, learn and pray about God’s outpouring love for the world, make the connection and proactively help someone who is experiencing significant need.
  • Even the daily tradition of a family meal can be an occasion to pray and thank God for how he never stops providing for us.

Traditions, yes. Traditionalism, no.

Don’t let the We’ve-Always-Done-It-That-Way mentality turn you into a zombie. A pulse doesn’t guarantee that you (or your faith) is alive.

It’s a tough year. I get it. Some traditions will need to go—at least for now. Perhaps a few new ones will start. Either way, let’s keep the main thing the main thing—Jesus.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”


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