Sunday, April 20, 2008

Three Stages of Tradition

[Apr. 20, 2008] So much is said about Tradition in the Church, either for good or ill. Customs are said to be traditional or not traditional, along with whatever positive or negative connotations those phrases may carry depending on the speaker. Songs, books, prayers, music, devotions, and liturgies can be labelled as traditional or not. We are all sufficiently familiar to understand what is meant in this context of the word Tradition: whether or not something is in keeping with what the Church has always done and believed. But as I reflected on this word "Tradition," I thought about it in its larger context, that is, not just Catholic Tradition, but Tradition as such. What do we mean in general when we use the word tradition to refer to something?

There are many definitions we could give; the 2006 Random House Dictionary says tradition is "the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice." But, on an even more basic level than that, we could define tradition this way: Tradition is simply what we've always done.

Isn't this what somebody means when they say, "It's tradition!" The thing in question is something that has simply always been done. The word "simply" is very integral to the definition, almost as important as "what we've always done," because as I thought about tradition, I realized something: tradition is reflexive. That is, it is unthinking, or "simple." It is not "what we've always done," but "simply what we've always done": what we've always done reflexively, unthinkingly, because it was less about what we do as much as a part of who we are.

In looking at tradition, we can identify three stages in the development of any tradition.

Stage 1) Reflexive Tradition

When we carry on any tradition because we have always done it, the tradition does not seem like a tradition to us at the time. Rather, it seems like just what we do, part of our daily lives and bound up intimately with who we are, culturally, personally, ethnically, or whatever. For a Catholic in the Middle Ages, abstaining from meat on Friday was not a tradition (though it was in the strict theological meaning), but was to the people living then simply a part of life, as normal and predictable as paying taxes or going to the bathroom. Only when traditions are done reflexively, without thinking, can we be certain that the tradition is still in its most virile stage of development. This is because, when traditions are lived, they define who we are and how we think of ourselves, and thus become a part of our very identity.

It is important to point out that in this stage of the devlopment of tradition, nobody rises up to protect the tradition; in fact, nobody even has to consciously hand it on, for it is done automatically. This is because nobody thinks of it as a tradition, either to be attacked or defended or consciously passed on. A tradition of this order right now is shaking hands. Everybody shakes hands; we cannot imagine a world when people do not shake hands. But let's say that in a few decades, hand-shaking starts to become old fashioned and is replaced by some new greeting. Only then will we identify hand shaking as a tradition, and only then will people rise up to defend this venerable tradition of hand-shaking, examine its origins, point out its merits and attempt to foster a return to it. But by that time it is already on its way out.

So, tradition is originated and passed on reflexively without it being identified as tradition.

Stage 2) "Traditional" Tradition

By and by, as cultures change, there comes a time when traditional practices and beliefs begin to be at variance with the popular culture. At this point, those things we have always done change from being "what we do" into the "traditional way of doing things." To put it bluntly: as soon as we realize that something is traditional, that tradition is already on the path to extinction. Once we identify something as tradition or traditional, it is already out of the common experience of life. We may still study it, replicate it, experience it, but it is outside the mainstream by this point.

Think about all the things we identify as being traditional: a traditional family (working dad, stay at home mom), traditional folk-music (almost now non-existent), traditional farmstead, traditional Christmas (no TV, singing hymns around the piano by firelight). Everything we think of as traditional is something that, while it may still exist in little pockets here and there, is for the most part gone. Sure, we can still get together all our relatives at Christmas, shut the TV off, play piano by firelight and sing hymn while grandma cooks desserts from scratch in the kitchen, but if we wanted to do so, it would have to be quite intentionally and with much effort and coordination. It certainly would not be reflexive; and thus we have lost our traditional innocence, where we could do these things just because that's what we did.

It is important to point out that during this stage, traditions, while identified as traditions, are still highly valued and even seen as the ideal. This is the change: the traditions have gone from being the norm to the ideal, from reality to exemplar. Consider how many women nowadays say with longing, "I wish I could stay home with my kids." The tradition is acknowledged, but as something afar off that can at best be grasped after or only replicated with great effort in a minority of circumstances. America from the 1940's to today may serve as an example of a culture in this middle stage of the development of tradition.

Stage 3) Historical-Tradition

During the third stage, it becomes more and more obvious that the highly praised ideal traditions are so far removed from the current reality and lifestyle of most that they cease to even be ideals to be strived after and start to become pieces of history. As they move into history, they tend to acquire a negative connotation, for the new mentalities that have replaced them can only find validity in denegrating what they are replacing. Culture has shifted so much that there is a radical break with what came before, and people look with befuddled confusion and derision upon their own traditions. There may be some who stubbornly cling to the traditions, but the hostility to tradition in the culture forces them to become full-time apologists for their position, knowing it intimately in every detail, being able to masterfully explicate every pro and con and skilled at debating for the tradition out in the public forum. They may win admirers or converts to their position, but even if they do, this is the farthest thing from real tradition that you could imagine: tradition originally is reflexive and unthinking, here in its final stage it is dogmatically defended with great intentionality and mental effort. This is because as the culture falls farther and farther from their origins, the amount of mental work it takes to convince people of the validity of their tradition is greater in proportion to the distance between the traditional way of life and the status quo.

In the end, the adherents to the traditions become so inconsequential that they begin to look like obscure throwbacks to a bygone era, like the Amish of Southern Michigan and Ohio.

Catholic Implications

What does this imply for us? Well, no matter what we say, there can never be a restoration of tradition. It cannot happen, for a restoration comes only at the expense of great effort, and a tradition imposed with great effort is no real tradition; at best, it is a replica of a tradition, the difference between the true Renaissance and a Renaissance Festival. We can have a Renaissance Festival where all the costumes of the Renaissance are worn, where Renaissance lingo is spoken and Renaissance style is supreme, but we do not have the Renaissance, only a bunch of people playing like the Renaissance is still going on.

Similarly, we can never get back to where we were, not in our generation at least, and probably not for ten generations, even if we started doing things correctly right now. We can restore discipline, dust off our old books, pick up where we left off, but only with great effort and much resistance from the culture (or dare I say it, Church) at large. But we will not be reinserting ourselves into Tradition. Tradition is a plant, which takes millenia to grow but can be plucked up by the roots by one snobbish child. It will take a long time for another plant to grow.

So is our case hopeless? No, but it is a much bigger task than we understand. We are struggling and praying and fighting just to do things right. But, once we start doing them right, we'll have to do them that way for a long time. How long? So long that they are passed on to our children unthinkingly, and from them to our grandchildren in a similar way; until our Tradition becomes simply who we are, and until people do not see us as Traditional Catholics anymore but just Catholics; until so much time has passed that nobody can imagine a time when we would have done otherwise; when modernism in the Church and liturgical progressivism sound as far off and as foreign to our ears as the bizarre worship rites of Bacchus among the ancient Greeks sound to us today. Will it require two millenia? I don't know, but it will take many generations. But we are in no hurry. The best we can do now is get our own minds and hearts in the right place and set future generations off on the right track, then urge them on with our prayers and intercessions from heaven.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating reflections.