Carpentry, Christianity, and Tradition

by Chris Haw The adventurous keepers of this blog, perhaps in a moment of either confusion or provocation, asked me “to share about why tradition matters.” I have a problem with brevity, especially when asked about anything relatable to the ten year long mental renaissance I’ve experienced in the most dangerous city in the U.S. Hence I don’t write shortly, like in blog posts. But, also having a problem with accepting provocations, I kindly write to you, people on the internet.

As to a short reflection on tradition, my mind immediately turns to my questionable life as a carpenter, and not my even more questionable life as a theologian-author. You see, I moved into Camden, NJ, ten years ago because I felt Mother Teresa’s call to “find your own Calcutta.” And so, having met a Catholic priest who was working with a parish in—what he described as—a violent, polluted, abandoned, drug and prostitution infested city, I felt the urge to jump into the fray. And, once I had moved into an abandoned crack house in his parish, I soon noticed that I needed to learn how to rebuild things—hence my learning carpentry.

The average hominid who does not work in the craftsmen trades might look at my subsequent accomplishments—the total renovation of my house, lots of fun reclaimed woodworking, and so on—and appear impressed. But, by my lights, any master of the trades would—if full of Christian charity—kindly smile, start petting my head as if I were a five year old, and speak in slow, child-talk, “Oh, that’s cute how hard you tried.” He or she would condescend as such because I entered trade work the way many Christians relate to their Christianity: we often fail to learn from the masters, and/or we fail to learn from the mistakes of the elders. Instead of standing on the shoulders of a master, I had to reinvent the wheel. (I’m still doing it after several years, and its not as great as the old models!) I’ve come to see that for any carpenter to truly be a master, to be truly “progressive,” they must be in a constantly deferential learning posture toward the written and oral traditions of carpentry. I came to see how “tradition”—in both carpentry and Christianity—is not some kind of mindless obedience, but is almost like the scientific attention to the lessons of trial-and-error. Any young buck who walks onto a job site and starts working without reference to the master, or how things are best done, will be looked at with contempt and suspicion. Ninety percent of his brilliant new ideas were actually already tried, and the masters who paid attention to them over time can say why they didn’t work out.

This is exactly how I’ve come to regard my Christian faith. I was reared in a “nondenominational” Church, and taught their numerous “innovations” on Christianity. Or, for them actually, it was the many ways they were going to forgo the older traditions, bypass their old fashioned rituals and dogmas, and apply Christianity as freshly as the early Church. But if I had been attentive to the master-tradition of the Church’s lessons over the last two thousand years, I would have first recognized that being neutral or “nonaffiliated” was attempted as early as the first century and it was regarded as a mistake and heresy (largely because of its arrogance and isolation) by the likes of St. Ignatius. Or, a few moments of reading the history books would have clarified that “nondenominational” is a word to avoid saying “Protestant evangelical.” Or, regarding the constant evangelical agitation for emotive and sincere worship, and the denunciation of “ritualism”, if I had pondered the inner meaning of the older liturgies, I might have shared in the ancient discovery that sincerity is not all its cracked up to be, and that there are profound psychological reasons why written prayers, symbols, processions, and rituals were developed. Or I might have studied Montanism from the second century, sharing this drive for the emotive, and learned why it was rejected as a heresy.

In short, I learned in both my carpentry and my partnering with the aforementioned Catholic parish, that to be truly progressive you must learn from the tradition. But to learn tradition is to learn mistakes and to hopefully correct them. This may seem common sense to many readers, but it doesn’t seem to be commonly held in our culture these days. For we live in a society of constant upheaval, planned obsolescence, and tossing the ancestors as quickly as we toss our cell phones. Mindless “progress” is really regression. But mindful attention to the lessons of the past is a solid way forward.

Chris Haw is a carpenter, painter, theologian, and potter. He is the co-author of the best-selling book Jesus for President with Shane Claiborne. And he recently released a book about his joining the Catholic Church, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart (Ave Maria Press). He, his son Simon, his daughter Amelia, and his wife, Cassie, are members of Camden Houses, a small Christian community in Camden, New Jersey. Besides being a mostly full time carpenter, Haw now enjoys periodically teaching at various churches, conferences, and classes, as well as hosting with his community small conferences on “the new monasticism.” A graduate of Eastern University with degrees in Sociology and Theology, Haw did his graduate work in Theology at Villanova University and now occasionally teaches Religious Studies at Cabrini College. For more information, visit his website: chris-haw.com.