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Orthodoxy
 

Revelation is the raw material of religious tradition.  A shepherd tending his flocks in the Sinai wilderness comes upon a bush that burns without being consumed, and he turns aside to see.   The followers of an itinerant rabbi executed by the Romans visit his tomb and find it empty.  A notorious persecutor of Christians has a blinding encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  These stories become the stuff of legend.  Eventually they are written down and then interpreted.  Theologians debate the finer points, and church councils meet to hammer out doctrines.  Doctrines must be guarded against heresy, and in due course wars are fought to defend the traditions against new revelation.

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors," G.K. Chesterton wrote approvingly in Orthodoxy.  "It is the democracy of the dead."  The main trouble with this idea is that the dead can never change their minds -- nor do they have to live with the outcome.  And, of course, they can't really vote.  Usually it's someone who is still breathing who wants to cast the graveyard vote by proxy.  Who's to say how our ancestors would actually vote if they were still around?

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes,"  Emerson once complained. As it happens, there are fundamental differences in how we behold God and nature.  With nature, disputes usually revolve around which theory best fits the facts.  With God, we are dealing with metaphors, which some people confuse with the facts.  Metaphors aren't necessarily any less true, but they cannot be verified in a laboratory or in a court of law.  The only way disputes can be resolved with any degree of finality is to burn somebody at the stake. 

Francis Bacon, an early proponent of the scientific method, once drew on an excerpt from the records of a Franciscan friary to make a point about grounding arguments in fact.  It seems there had been a lengthy disputation among the brethren about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth.  Learned men argued for days, consulting ancient texts.  Then a young friar brought everyone up short by suggesting they resolve the matter by looking in a horse's mouth.  For his effrontery, he was promptly beaten and cast from their midst, for "surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding the truth contrary to all the teachings of the fathers." 

Bacon's point is well taken, at least with regard to matters that can be resolved through direct observation.  But what about theological disputes?  In such matters, it matters whether we behold God face to face or though the eyes of another -- and if the latter, then whether we are hearing first-hand testimony or hearsay.  Tradition can certainly lend weight to an argument.  But does tradition alone make it true, or is it merely something repeated often enough that people assume it must be true?  Alas, the only way to know for sure is to get it straight from the horse's mouth. 

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