My task is not to describe the contents of tradition, whether Reformed or more broadly Christian, but how we relate to or inhabit tradition. To do so I want to begin by exploring two metaphors that may help us grasp how we do this and its relevance for thinking about theological education and formation. The two metaphors are the river and the house. But keep in mind that metaphors like analogies are never fully adequate; at some point they break down. Their purpose is to prompt theological imagination and thus open up perspectives that might otherwise be lacking.
The River and the House
Rivers start their journey from a source that might be many kilometers from where we experience them and where they eventually find their way into a lake or the sea. Rivers vary in size and significance, are fed by different tributaries and often flow, sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, through several countries towards their destination. Many forms of life inhabit rivers drawing nourishment from the nutrients they carry. They can, of course, also carry disease and other dangers. Humans depend on rivers for water, for transport, for food, and over time some rivers become sacred, their waters renowned for healing properties. There are several ways we can relate to a river. We can stand on the bank and watch it pass by; we can fish in it for something to eat; we can paddle along the banks or boat down to the ocean; we can swim to the middle and tread water; we can float downstream, going with the flow; we can swim like salmon against the tide; and, of course, we can be harmed by pollutants or drown. So it is with tradition which begins in the distant past but which we experience here and now. We can observe it passing us by or dabble in it in the shallows; we can fish for nourishment in its waters, or tread water as if to preserve its present form; we can let it carry us along as we journey or we can struggle against it and even drown in the attempt, or we can be hurt and harmed by unhelpful even dangerous elements. If a river stops flowing, it stagnates, and the life that inhabits its waters perishes. Likewise traditions die if they are not continually renewed from their source, flowing through the landscape, giving life to all that inhabit them, and when necessary changing course.
Tradition is also like a house in which you live. The house can be venerable and grand, it can be modern and modest; it can be built of wood or brick or corrugated iron; it can be dull and somber in appearance or decorated and brightly painted. A house can simply be a place where you eat and sleep, but it can also be a home in which you live, a habitat in which you feel comfortable and nurtured. Homeless people long for homes in which they can find shelter from the winter storms and of which they can become proud inhabitants. We all inhabit a tradition, and often more than one. For some, like a house, it is one into which we have been born, for others it is one we have chosen for ourselves. Sometimes traditions like houses do not become homes we inhabit, spaces in which we feel comfortable, places of nurture and meaning. We simply pass through them, briefly stopping for a meal or a sleep, but always looking at other houses, glancing through their windows to see what is on their table, admiring their architecture, searching for something better than we have. Some houses may hold bad memories we would prefer to forget. But even when we do find a tradition we wish to inhabit, we are always seeking ways in which it can be improved, new rooms added, fresh paint applied to the walls. To inhabit a tradition is to feel at home in it, to cherish it, to improve its quality, so that it becomes our natural habitat, a home in which to live, think and act in ways that are fulfilling.
Theological education and formation are intended to train us for swimming in and navigating rivers in such a way that we are sustained by them rather than threatened, able to find the life-giving source from which they flow and understand the way they have eventually arrived where we are. Theological education and formation are meant o help us inhabit houses so that they become our homes, to appreciate their foundations, to explore their rooms, to find hidden treasures in their attics, to appreciate their shape, form and colour, places where symbols surround us reminding us of who we are and music sounds good to the ear; places where we find community and where meals become holy banquets.
Like rivers and houses, traditions are a complex. This has to do not only with their variety, for within the Christian tradition there are many streams and tributaries, not just one river, or to use our other metaphor the Christian tradition is a mansion with many rooms. The complexity is magnified by the fact that traditions like rivers are constantly flowing, on the move; they are like houses to which new rooms are always being added, new windows opened, fresh paint applied. That is why it is more correct to say that we inhabit traditions, rather than a tradition. When it comes to tradition we are all hybrids. This brings me to another metaphor we need to explore, one derived from biology.
While some of us may inhabit the Reformed or Anglican traditions, and others Catholic, Methodist or Pentecostal, complex as these are in themselves, we also inhabit other discernible traditions, continually crossing over from one to others. We inhabit several traditions at the same time, for example, African, Christian, and Modernity, or more specifically Sotho, Lutheran, and the secular academy, and we do so, as I say, all at the same time. We might even claim to be, as some do, Christian-Buddhists, and there are those like myself who label themselves as Christian humanists to distinguish ourselves from fundamentalists and secularists! Why, even this theological faculty, so deeply rooted in the Reformed tradition has now positioned itself more broadly as ecumenical, thus encompassing other traditions. Some would see this hybridity as a weakness, preferring to shut doors and windows to prevent change. But we should salute it as a strength, in fact, a necessity even if it seems a little risky at times.
Hybridity describes what happens in botanical nurseries (an appropriate metaphor for the Kweekskool!) through the nurturing of new types of plants, Such genetic modification sometimes happens naturally as plants change character in order to respond to changing conditions, but more often today it is brought about by grafting a new cultivar onto an old stock. Cattle and sheep farmers know the importance of broadening the gene pool, for there are dangers when there is too much inbreeding. These earthy analogies indicate the important role of diversity in the development of traditions. Of course, I would not want to push the analogies too far, for hybrid roses evidently lose their smell and cannot reproduce!
Nonetheless, the whole history of art and science supports this hybridity hypothesis, for it is only when an art tradition encounters another one that is different from it (like Picasso discovering West African masks) that something fresh and creative emerges, and it is only when something challenges an accepted scientific hypothesis that a paradigm shift occurs revising the entrenched view or radically changing it. It is no different with theology, liturgy or spirituality. A specific tradition, let us say the Reformed, cannot thrive on its own, turned in on itself. It needs to open the windows of the house to let fresh air blow through the rooms. It needs to be exposed to, interact with, and learn from others in creative ways if it is to be vibrant and alive. Theological educators are in the business of genetic modification and encouraging hybridity, of ensuring that there is creative mix breeding, the blossoming of new cultivars. But, of course, this does raise the problem
of identity, for when is a new rose no longer a rose, when is the Reformed tradition no longer Reformed? How do we retain our identity in a world of complexity and hybridity?
Despite the fact that traditions change over time and in different contexts, each tradition has its own discernable character. Traditions have their specific DNAs. Human’s and dolphins might share 97% of the same DNA, but it is the remaining 3% that gives them their specific identity. This is recognizable when we observe their patterns of behaviour, reproduction and general appearance. So it is that while Christians of different traditions may share a very large percentage of the Christian gene pool, and invariably benefit from interacting with each other, they still have distinguishing features which give those who inhabit them a specific identity.
Nothing I have said thus far should be understood, then, as a denial of the importance and significance of specific traditions in which we may have been nurtured, or are presently being formed. The fact that we are increasingly and rightly engaged in theological education and formation in an ecumenical way, and therefore learning from and imbibing elements from different traditions does not mean that we should not be well grounded in our own specific traditions. You cannot swim in all rivers or live in several houses at the same time. In order to do theology or worship you inevitably adopt a certain approach or style and locate yourself somewhere in Christian tradition. Many theologians and pastors today, including myself, have benefited greatly from a range of traditions within the ecumenical family, but remain Reformed in orientation.
Tradition is not only the foundation on which we build, it also provides resources for doing so and thereby sustains us going forward. Those who imagine or think it possible to do theology without being rooted in a tradition or traditions, soon discover that there is nothing to sustain them, no way of tapping into those resources that are essential for life. For the nutrients that make it possible for us to live today and sustain us are embedded deeply in the soil which has given us birth.
Traditions provide a habitat that sustains us in the same way as a house becomes a home within a family is nurtured. Through symbols and scriptures they remind us of things we may have forgotten. That is why it is important not to reject or jettison parts of the tradition that in the present may not seem of much value, but which at another time and place may be exactly the resource we need to meet fresh challenges. So it is not a question so much of us sustaining traditions, but allowing traditions to sustain us. The biblical critique of traditionalism which we find, for example, in Jesus’ teaching, is not a rejection of tradition, but rather the drawing on the resources of tradition in order to challenge a false mutation, to remain authentically rooted in tradition.
Traditions remain authentic when those who inhabit them remain in critical conversation with the past – above all, for Christians, in conversation with Scripture — and engage in debate with each other and their critics about the meaning of the tradition for the present. Traditions remain authentic only when contested from within and challenged from without. That might sometimes mean swimming against the stream. An uncontested tradition is one that is in danger of petrifying, of becoming in-authentic. When the guardians of a tradition shut the windows of the house in order to protect its authenticity from the prevailing winds, they may also shut out the breath of the Spirit who gives new life and keeps them authentic. For that reason critics along with those perceived to be heretics at this moment in time are often God’s way of challenging those who claim to be the guardians of true faith and knowledge.
Our task as theologians and especially as theological educators is to draw deeply from the well-springs of Christian tradition in ways that result in authentic and therefore sustainable expressions and embodiments of Christian faith and life. For just as traditions can and do sustain us, we also have the responsibility to ensure that they remain authentic and resourceful. That is why we must speak also of the critical retrieval of trajectories within a tradition that relate meaningfully to the context in which we now live. In so far as traditions have to be continually re-invented, we have to retrieve trajectories which speak to us today without denying other trajectories that spoke yesterday and might well speak again with new authority and urgency in the future. The guardians of tradition and its radical prophets need each other even if they frequently engage in theological fisticuffs. Theological educators, whether in the academy or within the church more broadly, are the agents of tradition, conserving, critiquing, and retrieving at the same time within a given historical context.
To truly inhabit a tradition is not to live in that tradition as it flowered, flourished or decayed elsewhere, but to live in that tradition as it takes form and becomes embodied here and now. We do not live in first century Palestine, sixteenth century Geneva, or seventeenth century London or wherever our denominational traditions first took shape. We live in the twenty-first century, and most of us live in South Africa and for that reason we have to take seriously the way in which the traditions we inhabit have come to inhabit this context that is ours.
During the past fifty years several theological and related spiritual and liturgical traditions have emerged within our historical context which, taken together, represent an emerging South Africa tradition that is important for us and the task of theological education within our context today. Let me remind you of some of the traditions we inhabit: African and Black theologies, Confessional theologies as represented by the “Message to the People of South Africa” and the Belhar Confession, liberation theologies as articulated in the “Kairos Document,” feminist/womanist theologies as expressed in the writings of the Circle of African Women’s theologians, and so forth.
These traditions certainly embody elements of traditions inherited from elsewhere (such as Anglican, Catholic and Protestant), but they have developed uniquely within and because of our own context. Within this development many traditions, both cultural and social, both theological and ecclesial, have been critically brought together to form a whole which is both diverse and yet recognizably South African. And those of us who do theology today in South Africa need to do theology in dialogue with this tradition that we inhabit within the broader framework of our denominational and Christian identities. For we inhabit all these traditions at the same time.
Our task now is to work out of these diverse traditions as we face the new challenges of our time both in South Africa and Africa, both in this context and globally. These challenges vary from the obvious challenges of social development through to the challenges of science, technology and the environment. And it is in response to these challenges that theology must enter the future, drawing deeply on our traditions whether inherited from elsewhere or developed right here, to help us respond. This should mark the way in which we engage in theological education, it should be reflected in our curriculum, and it should become both a habitat inhabited by aspiring theologians, ministers and priests, and a habit that becomes part of the way in which we not only do theology and but embody the Christian faith.