Posted on: Feb 2, 2020
The Jan Hus Bohemian Brethren United Presbyterian Church was located on Manhattan’s East 74th Street. Founded in 1874, the congregation came into existence to serve the Czech immigrant community concentrated in Manhattan in the late 19th century. It was a focal point of their village in the big city. The shared religious life provided a foundation on which people built their hopes and dreams.
I became acquainted with the church during the academic year 1966-1967 when I held a field work position there. Nearly a hundred years after its founding, we still held a worship service in Czech each Sunday (followed by an English service).
In the 1960s many church members were descended from the 19th century immigrants. Attendees came from many locations, largely beyond the boundaries of Manhattan. The congregation had become an isolated village of sorts. It reassembled each Sunday, but it was no longer a place where people built their hopes and dreams. Its purpose was to preserve a particular tradition.
At one time we could claim that most churches contributed significantly to the development of young people. Today, few younger than 60 reference their faith life when speaking of their hopes and dreams. Churches are no longer integral components of a village community. Many serve only to perpetuate traditions that have little meaning beyond the few who gather each Sunday.
Many years ago someone whose name I do not recall described this phenomenon with two words: tradition and traditionalism. Tradition, he said, is the living faith of dead people. Accordingly, folks who inherit particular faith practices and worship styles assess what they mean. As necessary, they create new ways to express the faith and values that grow from their previous village life and have become important to them. New villages come into being to nurture and care for its inhabitants.
In contrast, traditionalism is the dead faith of living people. That is, folks inherit certain beliefs and practices and, through inertia or active resistance, stick with “how we do things here.” It’s not likely that new people will move into their village.
Writing in the mid-50s CE, the apostle Paul urged the Christians in Rome to “… be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God” (12:2 NRSV). That’s what the living faith of dead people is about — exploring and discovering what God’s will is today for our faith villages — our faith communities.
We don’t have to look hard to see how far off the mark the world is when it comes to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. A living faith urges us to become engaged with a world that needs more justice, more kindness, and more humility. A living faith energizes our hopes and dreams. “How we do things here” is not an option. Unless we don’t want new people to move into our village.