Reclaiming Rhetoric in the Christian Tradition

Article excerpt

THE DYNAMIC CHARACTER of the Catholic understanding of the Christian tradition was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council. This achievement offset and overturned a one-sided emphasis on a fixed, propositional, logic-sustained, and authoritarian approach to tradition associated with certain tendencies in post-Tridentine and neo-Scholastic theologies. Vatican II's alternative was to present tradition as historical, biblical, sacramental, and communal. This renewed understanding of the Christian tradition was accomplished not only by the hard labor of retrieving biblical, liturgical, and patristic sources of Christian faith, but also by earnest commitment to an ecclesiology of communion and dialogue. Living tradition requires communion and dialogue: this is the legacy of the council.

Since the council, wide-ranging concerns about the continued vitality of the Christian tradition have been raised. Diffuse fears about the erosion of traditional beliefs and practices have been accompanied by ongoing debates about modern secularization and postmodern pluralism and relativism. The necessity and limits of criticism and change in tradition have been hotly contested, occasioned especially by debates about sexual ethics and liberation and feminist theologies. And, as if that were not enough, ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, and efforts at inculturation in non-Western societies have raised a host of questions about the relationship between alien traditions and the past and future development of the Catholic tradition. These very different concerns have certainly helped to clarify the communal and dialogical understanding of tradition advocated by the council, but they have also stretched it considerably.

In response to these issues, I have joined many others in urging that the conventional Catholic concern to highlight the harmony and unity within the Christian tradition must be complemented with an appreciation of the literary, social, and theological diversity of traditions, and a recognition of the conflicts between them. In addition, in cases of doctrinal change, the standard efforts to defend continuity and cumulative development in the Christian tradition need to be joined with an honest admission of discontinuity in teachings and practices both as a historical reality and as a future possibility. And furthermore, in the generation and transmission of the Christian tradition, the orthodox affirmation of divine inspiration, indefectibility, and infallibility must allow for a greater receptivity to the Spirit working through human creativity and criticism in the traditioning process.(1)

Seeking to address these contested issues, numerous postconciliar theologians have advanced an understanding of the Christian tradition that reflects the ecclesiology of dialogical communion and draws from communication theorists in philosophy and the social sciences.(2) As a result, dialogue or communication has become a focal metaphor or framework for understanding the nature of tradition.(3) This has generated an understanding of the Christian tradition, fully in accord with the Second Vatican Council, as a communicative process and practice through which deliberations, judgments, and decisions about the reality or content of the Christian faith take place. So understood, the Christian tradition is a conversation extended through time and around the globe about things that matter--the true, the good, and the beautiful as affirmed and practiced in Christian faith. This communicative action is exhibited in biblical traditions especially, but also in doctrinal and liturgical traditions; and through conversation with these traditions people are initiated into the living communion of faith. The mystical, liturgical, ethical, and political practices of the Christian community both embody and nurture this dialogical act of traditioning.

Concurrent with these efforts to clarify the communicative character of the Christian tradition, there has been a rediscovery of the role of rhetoric in the manifold expressions of the Christian tradition. …