Australian apologist JOHN SMITH looks at the tension between traditionalism and experimentation.

John Smith
John Smith

This is a day of fierce polarisation between the traditional and the innovative, with public debate about core issues often generating more heat than light. The traditional family is challenged by those whose experience of abuse and dysfunction gives rise to new forms of blended families and non-contractual cohabitation. The Church ceases for most to be a primary institution and becomes a voluntary association of more marginal significance. The pragmatic forces of global economics shape a new world which ignores the minorities on the margins.

Nature provides us with a magnificent example of life at the margins in the structure of a tree's annual rings of life. The entire history of the tree in terms of its environment and its pattern of growth, even whether a particular year was a drought year or a year of plentiful rains, can all be ascertained by a dendrologist who has been trained to read the rings.

The trunk of the tree, apart from the outer ring, is that strong sustaining core upon which future growth depends for stability. This reminds us of our cultural history and of tradition, form and symbolism as expressed, for example, in the Christian Church. These are the rings of history. But the life of the tree is found in the vulnerable outer ring of the bark. Cut an inch or two deep around the circumference of the tree and it will die, as the sap will have no way to rise up the trunk to feed the foliage.

So it is with our life together. History and tradition grant us stability, but it is at the margins of experimentation, vulnerable faith and counter cultural innovation that the life of the Church and society is to be found. That which appears to be unconventional and risk-taking today will become a ring of history in our children's world. While the Church is often obsessed with the solid trunk-like core of its own history, liturgy and security, the Gospel ever calls us to the vulnerable margins of human suffering and frailty, where hearts are seeking life and transformation in communal grace which transcends the dark side of ethnicity and class.

On the other hand, in a day of innovation and fascination with novelty, it's easy to dismiss the great traditions and institutions of the past. Politics, for example, often ignores religious and social tradition in the interest of mere public novelty and electoral volatility. But as experimental and "up to date" as we may be, we need to recognise that it is the core or trunk of the tree which gives stability for the thin outer tube of creative growth. Time-honoured values and traditions provide the core for change which enrich rather than disintegrate.

Even the most astute futurologists admit the dizzying pace of change makes secure predictions of tomorrow's world nigh on impossible. While some cling to the belief that humanity has survived other eras of massive cultural change and will do so again and again, others fear we face an unprecedented time of such piecemeal yet significant change that we may easily lose the moral and social principles necessary to sustain us amidst accelerated turmoil.
Some of us believe there1 is a guiding hand behind the universe, and humanity must seek spiritual, not just political, wisdom in such an hour as this. The tree mutely reminds us that growth and stability, innovation and sound tradition must co-exist rather than compete. The core values must be maintained if the fluid zone of creative life and cultural adaptation are to survive the powerful winds of change. CR

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