There is an inherent tension in spiritual life – particularly in its liberal forms – between that which is ancient, venerable, ‘tried-and-true,’ and traditional, on the one hand; and that which is fresh, new, progressive, innovative, and ‘cutting-edge,’ on the other. This tension – which can be creative and healthy – is already apparent in the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible.
On the one hand, there’s the world-weary and somewhat cynical judgement of “the preacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Contrast this with the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah, who declares (on behalf of the deity):
From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, so that you could not say, “I already knew them.”
Clearly, Isaiah finds something “new under the sun,” and trusts in a fresh creative outburst of spirit in his own historical moment.
Another of the ancient Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah, appealed to the people of his generation:
Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
Trust in the dawning future does not necessarily mean a wholesale abandonment of the old traditional teachings. I recently heard a local Ojibwe spiritual elder in Duluth, for example, speak of a powerful dream in which he was urged to ‘learn the old ways,” and teach them to others, as a way to face the challenging environmental crises facing humankind.
A few years ago, I attended a workshop led by Chuck Collins, the author of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It and other books. As part of the process in that workshop, we spent time sharing stories and learning from our elders about some of the important life-skills that were simply taken for granted during the Great Depression, but which now seem new and innovative, even chic. Recycling, for example, is an idea that is itself being ‘recycled.”
That old wisdom teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, summed it up as well as anybody when he described the ideal disciple of his own path:
“Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings out of their treasure what is new and what is old.”
The choice between treasures old and new is not an either/or. May we continue to draw upon the rich resources of the great religious traditions – what Huston Smith called ‘the winnowed wisdom of the world” — while continuing to adapt these teachings in new and creative ways to the world in which we live, and love, and grow.
In faith and fellowship,