Apologetics and the Down Side of Tradition

Mark Mittelberg: "Are we willing to step back and examine our inherited beliefs?"

The answer is that they probably didn’t give this vitally important area nearly the focus it deserves—and maybe not even as much, going back to chapter 1, as I gave to researching and buying my mountain bike. And yet, far too readily, we’re prone to accept what they handed down to us as being absolute, gospel truth.

We must beware of turning our traditions—or our family background, heritage, culture, or ethnicity—into an excuse to blindly perpetuate something that may or may not be healthy, helpful, or even true. The philosophy of “that’s just what you have to do” simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to embracing a faith you can confidently live with over the long haul.

My philosopher friend Paul Copan, who is an expert in these matters, was asked whether we aren’t culturally conditioned to just accept and live with the beliefs we grew up with, regardless of what they are. The question was posed to him like this: “Isn’t it true that if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d probably be a Muslim, or if you were born in India, you’d probably be a Hindu?”

“Statistically speaking, that could be true,” Copan replied. “And if the pluralist had grown up in medieval France or modern Somalia, he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. So the geography argument doesn’t carry much weight. Besides, I could make the claim that if you lived in Nazi Germany, the chances are you would have been part of the Hitler Youth. Or if you lived in Stalin’s Russia, you would have been a Communist. But does that mean Nazism or Communism is as good a political system as democracy?

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“No—just because there has been a diversity of political systems through history doesn’t prevent us from concluding that one political system is superior to its rivals. Presumably, there are good reasons for preferring one political system over another. There are good reasons for rejecting a system like Nazism or Communism in favor of democracies. So why can’t it be the same with regard to religious beliefs?

“The point is: are there good reasons for believing one religious viewpoint over another?”

It’s interesting that Jesus, the greatest teacher of all time, was also perhaps the hardest on tradition. Listen to his surprisingly stinging words, aimed at the spiritual authorities of his day and recorded in one of four early biographies: The Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’
For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”  (Mark 7:5-8)

If you read this story in its surrounding context, you’ll see that Jesus was so incensed with the Pharisees and teachers of the law that he repeated his indictment against blindly following tradition three times in one short conversation. Apparently, he saw the spiritual devastation that resulted from blindly following the beliefs and edicts of earlier generations, and he wanted to jolt his listeners into a more careful consideration of these matters. For him, it was much more important to get it right than to keep the peace, gloss over problems, or fit into familial or cultural expectations. And interestingly, he was echoing prior warnings given centuries earlier through the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “The Lord says, ‘These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote’” (Isaiah 29:13).

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