In an article in Mere Orthodoxy, Leah Libresco Sargeant points to the need for traditions in culture: “Traditions are tutorials in practical wisdom.  At their best, they are desired paths, wearing a clear trail to follow through the landscape, shaped by the experiences of many prior walkers.”  She quotes philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on the danger of losing clear trails, walking rather on slippery ice: “We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground.”

We certainly seem to be slipping a great deal today.  With so many opinionated voices pontificating on the future, the impression is given of a group of children, sliding on the ice, indifferent to any possible collisions… simply enjoying their freedom without regard to any consequences. Growing up in northern Michigan, I have fond memories of playing on ice with my buddies, unaware of ensuing chaos.  The illusion of safely playing on ice was soon met with the reality of painful accidents.  I remember the bumps and bruises received from playing so carefree on the ice.  

This image of slippery ice reminds me of Jesus asking his generation if they were really listening to him.  Remember: John the Baptist portrayed Jesus as “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him'” (Matt. 3:3).  Jesus asked, “How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy.  I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff.  Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they?  The proof of the pudding is in the eating” (Matt. 11:16-19 – Message).  Are we listening to Jesus or are we more concerned about the opinions of our culture?

Slipping on ice is like having our finger in the air, paying more attention to opinion polls than to the potential consequences of slipping on the ice.  Without traction there is little hope of finding direction for the future.  We will continue to be like children, enjoying our freedom, with no sense of direction? How can one make sense of this carefree chaos, when this seems to be the dominant narrative?      

As followers of Jesus, we belong to the “Way” (Acts 9:2).  We walk on the ancient paths of pilgrims who have gone before us.  Jeremiah warns us of a crossroads: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths; ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls ” (Jer. 6:16).  It behooves us to get “back to the rough ground.”  It may not seem like freedom, but it helps us prepare for the collisions ahead.

Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that we are “surrounded by… a great cloud of witnesses.”  We embrace “the great tradition” – walking in the path of those who have gone before. We belong to the communion of saints. To maintain our focus on the great tradition and the well-traveled paths, we need community.  “The nature of tradition,” notes Sargeant, “is that it is too large to be contained in only one person’s life.”  We need to cultivate the work of living an alternative to the dominant culture.  This can be found in the body of Christ.