Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Received Tradition vs Special Revelation

Alice C. Linsley

Religious belief is conditioned by the faith tradition which we receive from our parents, grandparents and even, if we are to believe Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, from our ancient ancestors. If Jung is right, those who practice paganism or atheism must experience a constant inner struggle against the affirmations of God's love that their ancestors experienced. Perhaps this is why their lives are often tragic.

Likewise those whose ancestors were pagans are still inwardly pagan until their Baptism into Christ's death and resurrection miraculously breaks the great delusion, freeing them to embrace Holy Tradition. The Häme region of Finland, for example, is traditionally known for its paganism. It is reported that when the Catholic missionaries began baptizing people there, some would later repent of their baptism and wash it off in a lake where the shamans sacrificed animals to the lake spirits. The familial tradition is so strong that elements of paganism continue for generations even after the families convert to Christianity. A young Fin, Jaakko Olkinuora, reports: "In western Finland, the Catholic Church was very strong before the Reformation, as was Lutheranism afterwards. Our region, however, still has its native pagan place names and stories about spirits and demons of the lakes. When I was a child my mother had a book of Finnish stories collected from the old people. They were all pagan: demons of the lake, demons of the forest. My father has two Finnish names, Seppo and Tapio, both names of Finnish gods." (Road to Emmaus, Vol. IX, No. 4, p. 33)

Even among Americans who are notorious for being consumers of religion, familial tradition influences our choices. When asked about our church affiliation, especially if we are complacent about religion, we may say that we are Baptist, or Presbyterians, or Lutherans simply because our parents were. Or, we may say we are agnostics in reaction to religious parents whose devotion we reject. Either way, familial tradition exercises no small influence on our lives.

It seems that the tradition of our biological ancestors may predispose us to certain avenues and not to others. My family on both sides are English, Welsh and German. In seeking a religious milieu that I could embrace I've been most attracted to high-church Anglicanism, of a sort that my priest's wife, who was raised in a Serbian Orthodox family, would not find comfortable.

This suggests that we are not meant to worship God in the same way, though all are to worship the same God who has self-revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came into the world to save sinners. This is the unique claim of Christianity, and to it is added the claim that this Holy Tradition is received through a long line of priests who were kin to Abraham, the "father of our faith."

Traditional societies which revere the wisdom of the ancestors don't seem to have the synthetic religions that we find in Western civilization: groups like the Mormons or Scientology which have fabricated histories and cobbled together seductive notions of reality. These groups seek to establish new familial traditions, claiming special revelation. They do not develop organically within the great religious traditions of the world. Instead, they seem intent on shoving aside those traditions.

If we go back far enough in time we find basically two religious traditions: one involving priests and the other involving shamans. While priests and shamans serve similar functions within their communities, they represent distinctly different, even opposite worldviews. Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve blood sacrifice.

Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit (God) holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony. The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers sacrifice according to sacred law. The law represents received tradition preserved through the priestly lines.

The catholicism of East and West can be traced to Father Abraham and his people, the ancestors of Christ our God. The Genesis genealogies speak of the ruler-priests who preserved and passed along a tradition concerning the appearing of the Son of God. Their blood flowed through the veins of Joachim and Ana, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

The origins of the faith of the Son of God came to Abraham, not as special revelation, but as a tradition received from his forefathers. The distinctive traits of this tradition align remarkable well with the key features of catholic faith and practice:

All-male ruler-priests
Sacrifice at altars
Expectation of the appearing of the Son of God
As in heaven, so on earth
Belief in an eternal and undivided Kingdom

Article VII is one of the best of the Articles of Religion found in the Book of Common Prayer, especially this part: “Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises.” Indeed.

To read more about the religious tradition of Abraham and his people, go here and here.


Dharmashaiva said...

Alice, do you think shamanism exists in Judaism?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, and in Christianity also, but it is not the natural worldview of these faiths.