Monday, May 09, 2016

Is Modern Man Irremediably Cut Off from Tradition?

Modern thinkers — Charles Taylor particularly comes to mind — often write with a sort of melancholy fatalism about how modern man is irremediably cut off from his ancient and medieval roots. They write about how we have won great material and political gains at the expense of our spiritual and cultural life (it sounds, I must admit, like a devil’s bargain). Most of all, they speak as if we are doomed to the prison of the present, for, no matter what our desires and aspirations may be, and no matter how much they seem to harmonize with those of the great tradition that precedes us, “we cannot go back.”[1] It is as if the uncrossable abyss between Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and the suffering rich man were transferred into the domain of history and culture.

This, I submit, is a form of discouragement, and discouragement, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux teaches, is a form of pride. It is the language of those who are proud, not those who are humble. As G. K. Chesterton nicely puts it: “This wrong is, I say, that we will go forward because we dare not go back . . . to repent and return; the only step forward is the step backward.”[2] Dennis McInerny develops the same thought:
Let us say that, with regard to this or that matter, where we presently find ourselves is not where we really should be. Somewhere in the past, distant or proximate, we took a wrong turn, and ended up on a road which led us to a rather bad situation.… We would need to retrace our steps, go back to that fork in the road where we took the wrong turn . . . .To continue to follow a road which has brought us to an admittedly bad situation would be only to bring us eventually to even worse situations.… There are times in life when the only responsible and rational way we can go forward is by going back, returning to the point where we became disoriented and started going in the wrong direction.[3]
One cannot go back in the sense of re-living or re-creating the past as past, but one can and must always be reaching into the past for inspiration, for tried and true models, for a trustworthy way of life. One looks to the past in order to bring something of its fire and spirit into the present moment and into every future generation. To think that we are uniquely stranded in our age, cut off from the beneficent and fertilizing influence of tradition, is a peculiarly modern form of pride and even, perhaps, a subtle form of vanity. We want to view ourselves as different from every former age and therefore as freed from our obligations to our predecessors — the fundamental obligation of grateful receptivity that every Christian generation owes to its inheritance. To think that we must forge ahead on a new path that is not in continuity with the past is a pernicious error, actually a denial of our creaturely dependence on all the causes that made us what we are and continue to make us what we are.

A certain vision of modernity becomes a kind of excuse for giving up on the arduous labor of preserving, cultivating, and faithfully passing on tradition. No doubt we are facing new challenges, new levels and degrees of rupture with our cultural and religious past. No doubt there are new human elements in the grand mixture of our times that require attentive judgment and a ready adaptability. Nevertheless, the basic ingredients of the Christian life are still those furnished by our common human nature, the apostolic deposit of faith, age-old theological discourse, ecclesiastical monuments, the capacity of reason in man to resonate with the truth wherever and whenever it is found, and, most of all, the yearning of the heart to belong to a family that has, and knows, its own proud history. Some of these ingredients can be held in contempt by some people for some time, but together they continue to exert their force, which is inherent in them, and always susceptible to awakening. It is the role of poets, philosophers, and priests, among others, to stir up this inherent force, to keep it brightly awake so that we can live truly human and divinized lives. Without a lively and ardent connection to the givens of our historical and metaphysical journey, individuals will be lost, wandering, perishing, seeking water where there is only wasteland.

It is not without significance that, throughout the history of the Church, reform movements always look back: they look to the apostolic age (as when religious orders conscientiously model their way of life after the blueprint given in the Acts of the Apostles); they look back to the origins of monasticism in the desert or the wilderness; they look back to the spirit and rule of their founders; they appeal to the Church Fathers, the Councils, the annals of the saints. It is part of the very essence of Christianity to be looking both backwards and forwards — indeed, paradoxically, to look to the future only through the past. This is what is meant by “the binding force of Tradition,” which liberates those it binds from the fads and fashions of their own particular age and its blind spots or prejudices. For a genuine Catholic, it could never be legitimate to lay aside vast portions of inherited tradition—be it artistic, intellectual, liturgical, or what have you.

Yes, it is possible to enhance the vast treasury we inherit, but we do so by augmenting it, not by suppressing, dismantling, or destroying its contents, or considering them impossibly distant and irrecoverable. There may be times when some component of our Christian life needs to be modified, but this will be done rarely, reverently, and conservatively. New things will emerge out of old things, in a manner that is gentle and organic, not violent or mechanistic or self-punishing.

In my last visit to a certain Benedictine monastery in Italy, I saw a remarkable example of this peaceful and fruitful continuity with past tradition — such that it becomes vibrantly present anew in our midst, as our own and yet not merely our own. Living with the monks is a professional painter who is systematically painting the walls and ceilings of the monastic refectory, for the benefit of the monks and their table guests. His work is exquisite, as if the gap of centuries between us and the age of Giotto or Fra Angelico had dropped away by a miracle, and yet all the iconography in his work was requested by the community itself and appears nowhere else in just this combination of Old Testament, New Testament, and Benedictine narratives. The old, the new, the traditional and the unique come together harmoniously, as they are intended to do. Here are two photos of this artist's just-completed work:

To problematize tradition, to imagine that our relationship with it has to be complicated, torturous, self-doubting, anxious and agonized — as if we have to make apologies or find excuses or plausible reasons to love it — is one of the gravest symptoms of modern man’s disease. He problematizes tradition to the extent that he wants it to be a problem, because he somehow thinks this will “free” him to live a more “authentic” life of his own. It is, in other words, a thirst for autonomy, for being free of precisely those bonds that perfect us as social and spiritual beings. Modern Western man often lives according to the opinion and feeling that “it’s all up to us.” But the beauty of tradition is that, fundamentally, it’s not up to us. We are in the position of receivers, not inventors or fabricators. And while we have to use our free will to receive, we can freely exercise humility and gratitude by choosing, again and again, to make good use of the treasures of theology, spirituality, and liturgy that have been handed down to us.[4] As educator Michael Platt says:
Revolutions in manners and morals often start with just one or two or a few persons saying “no” to something. Human things are often like an army in flight that will never turn until one soldier stands and fights. It is sometimes said “you can’t bring back the past”, but you can, and strong ages, such as the Renaissance and the Reformation, do precisely that, revive and renew something lost, forgotten, and good.[5]
In every genuine Christian society, the spiritual aristocracy of the saints, not the technocracy of the latest experts, will be in the ruling position. This is no less true of the Church of God and her sacred liturgy.


[1] For more thoughts along these lines, see my post: “Backwards vs. Forwards”—What Does It Mean?

[2] What’s Wrong with the World, ch. 3.

[3] The full article is available here.

[4] Or that should have been handed down to us; we might need to practice the asceticism of finding buried treasures, because they are beautiful and because they actually do belong to us by right of inheritance. Just as it is a lack of humility and gratitude to receive from our tradition, so it is a serious dereliction of duty to fail to pass on the content of that tradition. It, too, can stem only from inflated pride and a habit of ingratitude.

[5] From his essay "A Different Drummer," available here. I don't know if Platt is saying that the Reformation, as such, revived and renewed good things, but certainly the age in which it took place was notable for having the strength to look to the past with confidence, although obviously, from a Roman Catholic point of view, not every attempted recovery was intelligently or appropriately done.

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