WARNING: this is even more scatter-brained than usual
At the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, the protagonist Tevye praises tradition, saying
Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.Tevye was only partially right, but like many of us, that didn't make him unsure.
"Often wrong but rarely in doubt" -- is that an apt description of the human condition vis-á-vis these questions? I'm going to say "Yes", based on this comment from Jesus:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.Jesus also said,Matthew 7:13-14
Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?'Apparently they'll be surprised on that day -- they're wrong but not in doubt.
Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'Matthew 7:22-23
There are all sorts of reasons why we're this way. For one thing, there is no one universally-accepted unequivocal standard by which to judge answers to this question, so we tend not to sense a credible challenge to whatever folly we happen to be pursuing. Instead, we face an abundance of conflicting advice. Self-proclaimed experts abound. And family, friends, colleagues, celebrities, literature, film, etc., all influence us. There's also a lot of confusion about these questions within the church, not to mention other religions.
But the biggest reason we unquestioningly pursue our folly is that we are sinners. I know; I'm one, too. We all have a natural tendency to turn away from God and to seek meaning elsewhere. We choose goals poorly -- the first one being to find fulfillment apart from God -- and pursue them more or less without question. Some of the things we do actually seem to work.
Here's an example. For many years, the way I chose to feel good about myself was... to be "right". I wanted to know what the rules were, and to follow them well, so as to be above criticism. I hate being criticized. And if I follow the rules more closely and carefully than you do, then I might think to myself that I'm a better person.
Pretty dumb, huh? The goal is completely wrong, but the actions I took in pursuit of that goal... well, they had some positive results. Following the traffic regulations, for example, avoids a whole class of problems. Nothing wrong with that, as far as traffic rules go, anyway.
There are unwritten rules about social interactions, too. Following these rules (which include, but are not limited to, "etiquette") will tend to make those interactions go more smoothly. But will etiquette guarantee good results? Nope. Will it give you or me a deeply satisfying life? Forget it! Will etiquette make you a warm and attractive person? Ha! All it can do is make you correct. Following it will reduce the incidence of certain kinds of unpleasantness all around; this isn't bad, and it isn't trivial, but it has nowhere near the power I had sought. "Love me, I always say 'Please' and 'Thank you'" Or whatever.
A couple of weeks ago, we enjoyed the company of a missionary couple who told us about some of the things they were doing. They work for an outfit focused on specific technical tasks, but in a recent meeting with their team, they asked, "What would it look like if the Kingdom of God were to come to this people?"
What a terrific question! Now what does Headquarters think about this? Well, they're mostly OK with it. I mean, the reason this organization does all those technical tasks is for that purpose. Do we not pray, "(May) thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"?
Yet there are members of the team who say, "God called me to do this technical task"; they apparently want to limit their activities, and their thoughts, to this technical task.
I certainly can understand that way of thinking; I've felt that way myself at times. "This is what I do, and I do it well," goes the mantra. And "When I run, I feel His pleasure," as Eric Liddell said. And this is a good thing -- no, a very good thing. It is very good for us to exercise our gifts and to do things that God has gifted us to do.
Yet it somehow shortchanges us, and God, to limit ourselves to things we've always done, to look for satisfaction where we've always found it. To limit ourselves to tradition, in other words.
I'm no iconoclast; I think tradition is great. It's just not everything.