What Does It Mean To Be A People of Tradition?


Tradition.Soul.MattersTradition. It’s not had an easy road among us Unitarian Universalists. For much of our history, we’ve seen it as a threat. UU preachers and theologians have talked about it as “chains,” “tethers,” even “a jailer.” And that’s certainly how it’s felt to many of us at times. We know what it is like to be bound tight by tradition. Suffocated by rules and rituals that limit what we can think or who we can love. So, rightfully, our UU message has long been: “Don’t be afraid to throw tradition out!”

But we also know it’s more complex than that. We are not always perfect at it, but for a while now, we’ve also recognized that tradition can be a gift, not just a threat. We’re more and more likely to agree with W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” And not just a guide, but a connection to the wisdom and wonder of the past. We’re even coming to recognize that tradition can be a source of freedom. Voices of the present oppress and mislead as much as voices from the past. Sometimes, allowing the voice of tradition to speak is the only way we make our way safely through the shallowness of modern day “wisdom.” G.K. Chesterton captured this perfectly when he wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” And then there’s the way that tradition helps us imagine the new. As the poet Carlos Fuentes reminds us, “There is no creation without tradition; the ‘new’ is an inflection on a preceding form; novelty is always a variation on the past.” Aware of these many gifts, we UUs have brought more nuance to our relationship with tradition. Sometimes the task is to throw it out; other times what’s needed most is to listen. And so our message regarding tradition has also become “Choose carefully.”

But one wonders if even that message is nuanced enough. Watching the speed and fullness of our days, it’s difficult to see any place for tradition at all. Forget throwing it out. Forget choosing carefully. Most of the time, it seems we’re not thinking about tradition at all. We talk about traditions that were valuable to us as kids, but we speak of them as memories more then practices we protect and carry on. We would have liked to make that thanksgiving recipe that mom always cooked at Thanksgiving, but it’s been an awfully busy week so the store bought dish will have to do. We value the wisdom of voices from the past, but it’s much easier just to quickly read the latest two-paragraph post from our favorite blogger. We envy our religious neighbors practices of Lent and Ramadan, but that takes a lot of time and our schedules just don’t have room. Truth be told, in modern day life, tradition is not so much oppressive as it is absent. Out of sight and out of mind.

And so a new UU voice is emerging. Yes, “Don’t be bound.” Yes, “Choose carefully.” But maybe most important of all: “Hold on and make room!” This is the voice we are invited to listen to this month. People of tradition know that tradition guides, heals, inspires and connects us. People of tradition also know that these gifts of tradition can’t live on without our help. So, this month, friends, let’s make some room. Let’s invite it back in. Let’s make tradition more than a memory. Let’s allow it to be a gift.

Rev. Scott Taylor