A blogger on Patheos, the much-ado-about-religion website, recently wrote on Tradition as an authority in the Church. I enjoyed it and recommend it and might even agree with it. Of note, he wrote that the standard household professor would “refer to a three-legged stool of authority for the Christian faith: The Bible, Tradition, and Reason.” All of these have a commanding voice in Christianity, and the end of each is truth. But what I wish to remark on here is his suggestion that there should be added a fourth leg: “Experience.” I consider this a poor understanding of Tradition.
After raising this issue with the three-legged model, the writer immediately informs the reader that he will not speak of it further, which I regret since it was more interesting than what he ended up saying. Moreover, it silences would-be critics such as myself. I concede he may be using “Experience” in a fashion which I don’t take him for, but if I – the common household reader – understand correctly, he is using “Experience” to cite the wisdom discovered by the individual, as opposed to the wisdom handed down by the dead. With this leg, the single person has not only the past pushing him where it left off, nor the inferences of Reason compelling him, nor the revelations of Scripture beckoning him, but also his mere solitary existence – the fact that he eats and enjoys a pie, for example – being a heavenly prompt to worship. If this be so, it is not that I find the blogger incorrect so much as redundant.
His blunder is that he separates the wisdom given to him from the wisdom he discovers himself. There is this distinction, but both are traditional.
At the turn of the century, many people treasured tradition as though it were a badge to be worn – a hallowed memorial to a bygone and better era, raised volitionally against the seismic changes of an industrial society – rather than the ongoing play in which we are characters set in the next scene. This crowd, such as the pre-WWII British estate lord (and to a lesser extent the modern Hipster), believed they were the servants of the past; and while perhaps a noble sentiment, it was not “traditional,” in that it was not shared by the past which they worshiped. They failed to understand that by treating history as a contained inheritance which they were outside of and charged with preserving, they made themselves its lords: reducing it to an item doomed to live or die by their choosing.
Tradition is not our slave; the opposite is so. We are all of us its debtors. Family, nationality, sex, hair-color, life itself – these were given to us without our consent. We had no say in some of the most important things about us – these first loves from whom all other loves flow. Each of us is the product of so many wills. A traditionalist is he who accepts his blessed slavery, the powers at work upon him, and the Providence behind it. He looks upon it as a third parent; not only because it is older than he, but because it was wise enough to make him. Yet it is more terrible than a tyrant because it cannot be overthrown: it has already happened, and now is happening some more. To be a traditionalist is but to confess that all is a gift, and to bless the bearers with gratitude.
In the words of Catholicism’s champion layman, G.K. Chesterton, “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” Including the dead is only half the enterprise. Only when their voices are mingled with ours is tradition made whole.
A traditionalist sees himself as another verse in the song of the world; a progressive sees himself as the start after a dark prelude of which he is the triumphant culmination. The progressive believes he is the wisest generation yet. Yet no one can be a traditionalist without believing in something wiser than he. The traditionalist does not believe he is advantaged by his place in time, and so is free to indicate when the dead were wiser. The progressive believes the present and future belong to him; the traditionalist belongs to eternity.
Tradition is not a separate entity from your own personal Experience. Tradition is not a dead static heirloom which you may or may not perpetuate. Tradition is an unfinished narrative, and you are a part of it. You are not outside of it, but inside it; and whether you like it or not, you are what future generations will call tradition.
Tradition is not the antithesis of “new.” Wherever the “new” appears – whether in spring after winter, or sunrise after sunset, or from generation after generation – it is in its nature cyclical. Tradition, in this understanding, is like a liturgy of time. Your Experience is but the old becoming new again. Your Experience is what makes tradition traditional: “What has been is what will be,” says the Holy Book, promising not cursing, “and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Everything we would call common – meals, laughter, sleep, joy, tears – are also the most ancient rituals. “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” We do not keep tradition because it was theirs, but because it is ours.
For the Christian this is especially significant, since he sees not only his existence but his very redemption in the hands of men and women he never met. Abraham’s salvation is a part of our own salvation. If it weren’t for Abraham’s faith, and the subsequent Covenant made with God, we would be lost. Why else would the Church keep a calendar with days appointed to honor the Saints, except that in them we see the reception of grace us younger souls inherit? Our Salvation Himself was incarnated in history, and is made present for us in the traditional acts of Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. In these, we briefly see time as eternity sees it: past, present, and future consummated before the face of God in a single present. To speak of our fleeting Experience as though outside the marriage of the ages is, ultimately, absurd. We are not so alone.
Blake Adams is a freelance journalist and children’s book illustrator from Powder Springs, GA. He studied journalism at Patrick Henry College. He collects glass bottles with funny shapes. And that’s the extent of his qualifications.Google+