Tradition(ed): What Does It Mean to Be Faithful?

I started last week’s post introducing this series on tradition by commenting on how so much contemporary discourse around tradition seems to be either revolutionary — expressing a desire to tear down what has come before — or reactionary — rejecting the present in favor of the (imagined) past. These two misunderstandings of tradition are not surprising; they are just one expression of the long-noted truth that ‘conservatives’ want to preserve what worked well in the past while ‘progressives’ want to create a better future. Despite the polarization of our particular cultural moment, these are not mutually exclusive ideas. We can both uphold the beauty and richness of what we have received and critique it in the name of better embodying its best values. In this way, conservatism and progressivism at their best represent a positive-positive polarity that we would do well to engage with constructively. But beyond this, the two misunderstandings speak to a long history in the West of intellectual wrangling about tradition. In this post, I’d like to address some of this history, tracing the important questions put to the idea of tradition in the premodern, Modern, and postmodern periods. In so doing, I hope to clarify some of the reasons why tradition is such a controversial idea today, and how we might engage with it responsibly.

To return to the definition of tradition I introduced last week — that tradition is something passed on from one person to another — there is little doubt that tradition naturally has a conservative bent. Thus, the early twentieth-century Anglo-Catholic-turned-Roman-Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, famously framed tradition as “the democracy of the dead.” With his characteristic snark, he added: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about” (Orthodoxy). There’s a humility in this approach, an honest recognition that those who have gone before us weren’t stupid and therefore that the past has legitimate wisdom to offer us in the present and future. Technologies may have changed and the world may be simultaneously much bigger and smaller than it once was, but the human heart is as it always has been. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in every generation. To try to do so would be inefficient — wasting energy trying to solve problems that have already been worked out — and make cultural development impossible. And so there’s a sense in which this conservative principle within tradition — preserving what has worked well in the past — is actually forward-looking, allowing us to build on what we have received.

Even the most intentionally conservative tradition, if it is a living tradition, will retain the capacity to grow and manage ever-changing realities. As Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware has noted from within the Eastern Orthodox tradition:

True Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity; for true Orthodoxy can never be satisfied with a barren ‘theology of repetition’ … An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit, he must re-experience the meaning of Tradition in a manner that is exploratory, courageous, and full of imaginative creativity. (The Orthodox Church, 198)

It is this aspect of tradition that has allowed Orthodox theologians to provide some of the most engaging contributions to emerging areas of theological discourse, such as bioethics and ecology. Embodying and speaking from within their tradition, they are able to bring its rich, ancient resources to new areas of study.

This represents the conservative element of tradition at its best. For the unchanging aspects of the human condition, tradition is understood to provide wisdom that has stood the test of time. And, in addressing new questions, the tradition is understood to provide a vast pool of approaches, insights, and resources. We can consider this approach ‘premodern’, not because it is necessarily ancient (indeed, both men I cited above are twentieth-century figures!) but because it is an understanding that exists apart from the questions of modernity and postmodernity. There is an innocence to this approach (what Paul Ricoeur referred to as a ‘first naïveté’). The governing question here is ‘How do I receive the tradition accurately?’ The concern is with continuity; we know we’re on the right path because the path has worked in the past.

So, at its best, a respect for tradition embodies a receptivity to the past that is still living and active in the world. But, at its worst, this receptivity can easily turn into passivity, a thoughtless repetition of what has been done in the past and a refusal to take ownership of our own lives and situations. Here, we build wheels not because we need wheels, but because that’s what we’ve always done. And we don’t think to try to improve the wheels we make because we cannot imagine that they can be improved. And it’s this aspect of tradition — what we might call traditionalism — that Modernity rejected so thoroughly. As Bernard Lonergan summarized it, Modernity sought “to liberate humanity from the heavy hand of ecclesiastical tradition, ecclesiastical interference, ecclesiastical refusal to allow human beings to grow and be themselves” (Collected Works, 28). This understanding, which grew from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries, takes a more intentionally critical eye to tradition. It asks questions like: Is the tradition accurate? Does it do what it says it does? Are there better ways of doing things? Here, we know we’re on the right path if it gets us where we want to go as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Even at the height of Modernity’s sway, it was clear to many that this approach had its own problems. A reactionary movement quickly developed (of which, G.K. Chesteron’s Anglo-Catholic movement was one example) that saw, in the words of Edward Shils, modern civilization as “a scientistic, rationalistic, individualistic, and hedonistic civilization,” which “‘uprooted’ human beings from an order which gave meaning to existence.” In this perspective, which we see to this day in the reactionary proponents of tradition, tradition is understood to be “a guarantor of order and of the quality of civilization” (Shils, Tradition, 19).

Much of our contemporary discourse about tradition today was set by this modernist-antimodernist dynamic. If anything, the advent of postmodern criticism over the past seventy years or so has only heightened the polarization. Postmodern thought has (correctly) pointed out that all ideas and practices are shaped by the times, places, and circumstances in which are developed; there is no truly objective perspective from which we can understand the world, as the modernists maintained, but only subjective perspectives that are finite, contingent, and contextual. This challenges the idea of tradition by asking questions about who benefits from the traditional ways and who they leave out. As Jeremy D. Wilkins notes, the challenge of postmodernism is how to receive a tradition that we increasingly understand to be “not merely a matter of logical deduction nor even of patient learning, but a compound of attention and inattention, intelligence and stupidity, truth and error, responsibility and moral renunciation” (Before Truth, 2). This postmodern critique refuses to allow us to hide behind the wonderful aspects of our tradition and avoid talking about its darker legacies. To cite the clearest example, as I wrote about extensively over the Summer, Christian theology was used to justify European imperialism and white supremacy for centuries. We may now rightly recognize this as a shocking betrayal of Christian values, but we cannot simply ignore this aspect of the tradition as though it didn’t exist. In the postmodern lens, we know we’re on the right path if it’s open to everyone and if walking it doesn’t do harm.

And of course, these challenging critiques have again been met with an equal and opposite reaction.

So, we’re left with a strange dynamic. If we take the challenges of modernism and postmodernism seriously — and I think there is no question that we must — we either have to dispense with the idea of sacred tradition entirely, or broaden our conception of what it means to receive the tradition ‘faithfully’. To the ancient question of how we can receive the tradition authentically, we must add the modern question of how to do so without being stifled by it, and the postmodern question of how to do so in a way that does not perpetuate — or even sacralize or idolize — past harmful dynamics that have lasting legacies into the world today.

This is the challenge of engaging with tradition today. It’s not as simple as someone like G.K. Chesterton would want it to be, but I think it’s all the more beautiful for its hard questions. The questions of modernity and postmodern thought don’t take away from the idea of receiving the tradition faithfully. They simply broaden our understanding of what that means, contributing to our being traditioned faithfully — allowing us to better show up for our selves, each other, and God.

The next post in this series will tackle the complicated issues of boundaries in tradition: orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

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