Dear reader: I apologize in advance for the disjointed, rambling nature of my next two posts, but my vanity tells me that they are interesting enough and just barely coherent enough to merit publication here.
Here at the Guild Review one of our abiding interests is the place of tradition in the modern world and in what way we can shape that tradition.
The very idea of shaping tradition, however, may seem problematic to some. Most of us reading this blog, I assume, are Catholics, for whom the most important tradition is the deposit of faith, which was complete upon the death of St. John, from which nothing can be subtracted and to which nothing can be added; it can only be more perfectly understood and expressed by the Church. One is rightfully hesitant to shape that tradition; much safer simply to assist in handing on that deposit of faith to future generations unchanged. As graduates or friends of the University of Dallas, we went to college to learn from the tradition, not necessarily to “shape” it. It is arrogant in the extreme for a youth to think that he will revolutionize any particular field of learning; much better to listen in respect to our elders before setting on a lifelong journey of learning. Finally, the phrase “shaping tradition” also smacks of poorly-disguised novelty, usually imposed upon an indifferent group of people to encourage more “enthusiasm.” How often have we heard school administrators trying to win support for an unpopular program by proclaiming that “the tradition begins now”?
But, hopefully, all of us here would recognize that there is a legitimate place for all of us to “shape” our tradition, to one degree or another. Unfortunately, however, we tend to think of tradition as a culture’s or religion’s roots in history and not as the flower and fruit of the plant which spread the seed and preserve that plant for the future. To understand tradition and how we should shape we need to understand its relation to historical consciousness.
More precisely, we need to develop a historical consciousness that is in harmony, not in conflict, with tradition. Christianity can supply us with that proper understanding of historical consciousness and tradition. In more primitive cultures, tradition is opposed to historical consciousness in the form of myth. According to Mircea Eliade, in a pre-historical culture everything relates back to illud tempus, “that time” when the gods walked the earth. (Eliade uses the phrase “in illo tempore,” which he takes from the customary beginning of the Gospel in the Latin Mass: “At that time [Jesus]…”) Myths are concerned with origins. Any deviation from the example of the gods set forth in the myth is a sin.
Christianity clearly shares some of these qualities of myth. However, there are two crucial distinctions between Christianity and other ancient myths. The first is the distinction that Tolkien explained to C.S. Lewis in 1931: Christianity is a myth, but it is a true myth. And by “true” we of course mean “historically true.” Our God actually did create the world and then entered into that world and performed the actions that form the basis of our Christian myth. For Christians the origin with which we are concerned is not just the creation of the world, but also the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. But, as Catholics, each time we attend Mass, we also enter into what Eliade calls “mythical time”: we are present at the un-bloody renewal of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What happens at Mass is essentially the same event as happened on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago.
The second crucial distinction is that Jesus preached that he would come again at the end of time. He ends the history of this world by judging the living and the dead. Our actions on earth matter—we are not condemned to endless cycles of reincarnation. The time between our origin, redemption, and eschaton has a direction in which we are free to move closer to or further from God. Through the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Second Coming Christianity gives history a movement from beginning to end; eschatology transformed myth into history. Christianity gives history a shape; it is up to us—with God’s grace—to shape our Christian tradition within history.
But, how should a Christian shape a tradition? One way Christians have always shaped their tradition is by reclaiming their principles—their origins—in the creation, redemption, and continuing sanctification of the world. Every time a Christian meditates on the life of Jesus and ponders how to apply that true myth to his life he is shaping the tradition in his own life and those around him. But, Christianity also allows its followers to subject the principles of other cultures and religions to itself; everything that is good can be referred back to Jesus Christ in some way.
An example should make this second way of shaping tradition a bit clearer. In Scholasticism: Problems and Personalities of Medieval Philosophy, Josef Pieper depicts scholasticism as a twofold endeavor: to recover the learning of the ancient world and to synthesize it with Christianity. The barbarian invasions had devastated scholarship in the late Roman Empire and many authors have been lost in part, if not in whole. All this is well known. But, then, in a somewhat surprising move, Pieper compares the project of medieval theologians with the Great Books programs of mid-20th-century America. In both instances, there was sufficient source material, but this source material needed to be catalogued, understood, and finally synthesized. The cultures undertaking these projects were arguably intellectually underdeveloped and in need of spiritual roots to prepare them for them for the role they were to play on the world stage. Both projects sought to rescue the ancient wisdom from the barbarism of the present age.
However, there is one important difference between the intellectual atmospheres of these two periods that needs to be emphasized: in modern America, historical consciousness is far more developed than it was in medieval Europe. Until relatively recently in history, it was possible to be considered learned while having only a very general idea of the past; that is impossible now.
One key effect of this increased historical consciousness is to turn anachronisms into glaring errors. While increased historical consciousness is generally good, it can also overshadow the main point in a novel, a piece of art, or in philosophy. For instance, when he employs examples from etymology, St. Thomas Aquinas loves to explain the origin of the Latin word lapis (“stone”) as a compound of laedere (“injure”) and pes (“foot”). This etymology is, of course, incorrect. But, how many readers will lose trust in Aquinas once they find out inadequate his knowledge of historical linguistics was, even though it really has no bearing on his philosophy? Likewise, it can be more difficult to appreciate past works of art when we recognize their anachronisms. For instance, any visitor to Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen with even a minimal knowledge of the history of architecture will notice the incongruity between the original octagonal Romanesque chapel (and its distinct Byzantine influence), the high Gothic apse, and the Baroque side chapel (the Ungarnkapelle). Finally, certain ideas about art become laughable when viewed in their historical context. Opera, for example, began as a pet project of wealthy and learned Florentine noblemen who thought they were reviving ancient Greek music and drama, especially in the form of a singing chorus. This anachronism does nothing to affect the aesthetic value of any particular opera, but it may color moderns’ views of their forebears.