The Sources of Theology: Tradition

This post is part of the series Theology and Philanthropy: A Dialogue.

This post is also part of the sub-series The Sources of Theology.

In my last post in this series, I wrote about scripture as a source of and for theology. Scripture, I wrote, is an authoritative textual touchpoint for a community. In this sense, scripture is granted a place of authority not occupied by other texts and is used as a common reference by a community. While it can be difficult to conceive scripture outside of a religious context – if only because ‘scripture’ is often used to mean little more than ‘religious book’ – once we see scripture as an authoritative textual touchpoint we can see it in non-religious contexts. Or, at least, we can allow the borders between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ to become fuzzier. We can see, for example, the Constitution or other texts as part of the scripture of Americana.

While there are challenges to the idea of scripture outside of religious contexts, there should be no such struggle with tradition.

A list of Christian traditions would be challenging only because the list would be so long – Christmas carols (and other hymns), liturgies, nativity scenes and plays, vestments, paraments and so on. All of these things, like scripture, are authoritative touchpoints for a community. Unlike scripture, of course, they are not texts. Though there is less difference than one might expect: traditions can be ‘read’ and interpreted in different ways by different communities; the same practice might signify a very different thing in the Catholic church than it does in a Baptist church. The point remains, however: to the degree that there is a difference, traditions are non-scriptural authoritative touchpoints; the difference between scripture and tradition may, however, be scant to non-existent.

Similarly, we can identify traditions in secular society: the State of the Union address to Congress, for example, or Black Friday or fireworks on the Fourth of the July all qualify as American civil traditions. We could say the same about any number of practices engaged in by individuals, families, groups of friends, organizations and societies. And, as demonstrated by the already linked book by Stephen Prothero, the line between scripture and tradition can be thin at best.

And so the question becomes: what are the traditional influences on philanthropy?

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