The ethics of living a tradition, radically

June 1, 2009

One word we – collectively – now seem to have an impoverished understanding of is ‘tradition’. We live in a post-traditional society, sociologically speaking, and although there’s much literature on that, not much of it reflects on the fact that the idea, concept and notion have themselves largely been destoyed – ‘tradition’ fails to signify, as it were. Tradition cannot just be textual, but must be lived, a point Yves Congar grasped in his important work The Meaning of Tradition:

…”tradition” connotes something more than mere conservatism; something deeper is involved, namely, the continual presence of a spirit and of a moral attitude, the continuity of an ethos. We might even say that just as rites are the expression of a profound religious reality, so these traditions, which enshrine and safeguard a certain spirit, should comprise external forms and customs in such perfect harmony with this spirit that they mold it, surround it, embody and clothe it, so to speak, without stifling its natural spontaneity or checking its innate strength and freedom.

Tradition, then, is not just a matter of the text and its transmission or dissemination, even, after Jacques Derrida, its citation and iteration throughout the ages. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer – exponent of hermeneutics in a somewhat phenomenological mode – insisted, rightly, that tradition is a relation. We are thrown into the world, and our horizons of understanding are inevitably situated within our culture. But it would be completely wrong to see this as some sort of linguistic relativism or historical determinism. Rather, we constantly negotiate through and beyond texts – mediated by our lived experience – with the past that has been handed down to us and by looking forward to those who will come after. We live, and speak to ghosts, and spirits live in us. It is a matter of understanding, and harnessing, the good that moves in our hearts.

If the hermeneutics of living tradition is in part a process, then, it is also a creative one. It offers us options, within a particular field, for re-appropriation, reshaping and creativity. But it also requires of us a responsibility to those who have gone before, a relation to the truth, and an appreciation of the endless horizons of the things we create and inhabit. Tradition, then, is an ethical thing. And there is a freedom, a true freedom because one which is lived in response to the other, within a tradition.

Congar again puts this well:

Paul Claudel compared tradition with a man walking. In order to move forward he must push off from the ground, with one foot raised and the other on the ground; if he kept both feet on the ground or lifted both in the air, he would be unable to advance. If tradition is a continuity that goes beyond conservatism, it is also a movement and a progress that goes beyond mere continuity, but only on condition that, going beyond conservation for its own sake, it includes and preserves the positive values gained, to allow a progress that is not simply a repetition of the past. Tradition is memory, and memory enriches experience. If we remembered nothing it would be impossible to advance; the same would be true if we were bound to a slavish imitation of the past. True tradition is not servility but fidelity.

[My emphasis]

The liberal spirit of the modern age, it seems to me, often posed a false antinomy between tradition and freedom. It was as if to choose was to liberate oneself. But that misunderstands the nature of choice, which is always bounded by situatedness in culture. If the relation to culture, and the ethics of the decision, is not foregrounded, then there is no genuine choice. And decisions are taken for us by structures which constrain our actions and intentions, and by the shards of old traditions and their spirits which surround us as ineffably as the air we breathe.

Any decision requires a leap in the dark, an act of faith, again something Derrida has emphasised. The moment of decision is incalculable and inexpressible, and not, and should not be, limited to rational calculation. The very way in which we rationalise decisions we might not wisely have chosen proves the principle. A decision must be, Derrida suggests, one for the other, and one made by the other in me. The other moving in me. The spirit.

So, true creativity, then, is an ethical act, which exists in a temporal relation outside time, but which breaks into time. We are bound to those who have gone before us, and bound to consider those who come after us, as well as the other paths of those others whom our choices affect, and the way our choices shape an overall field of action or configuration of choices. It is here that the art of discernment, about which I’ve been writing lately, is key.

It is vital to reflect that we might be in error in our thoughts and deeds, and to parse, if you like, the spirit in which choices and paths are taken. One need not be a slave to a tradition. And a tradition is not just a text. But a meditation on a text can be an aid to choice, not in some mantic way, but through an infusion of the spirit through which that text has been read; read collectively, and the spiritual fruits it has inspired, throughout the ages.

The liturgy is such a text – a living text, to which we have an anagogical relation. It is an enacted text, and when we enact it, we give it life, draw life from it, and cite and re-iterate its spirit. It is a sign which also marks us with a sign, inwardly and outwardly. We are its signification, or can be. It is a work, a sacramental work. We co-create its effects through opening ourselves up to its spirit. It is a path trod by others, but one which offers us our own turnings, in the spirit of truth, and the spirit of justice.

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ wrote of Congar’s understanding of tradition:

For Congar, tradition is a real, living self-communication of God. Its content is the whole Christian reality disclosed in Jesus Christ, including the implicit contents of that disclosure. The Holy Spirit is the transcendent subject of tradition; the whole Church is its bearer. Thus tradition is an essentially social and ecclesial reality; its locus is the Church as a communion. It is transmitted not only by written and spoken words but equally by prayer, sacramental worship and participation in the Church’s life. Tradition, while consisting primarily in the process of transmission, is not sheer process.

Its content is expressed to a greater or lesser degree in a variety of documents and other “monuments”, as Congar calls them. Interacting with the consciousness of those who receive it, tradition develops and is enriched in the course of centuries. Continual meditation on the inspired Scriptures on the part of those who obey the Gospel gives rise to new insights as to what was tacitly communicated in the original Revelation.

Much of the task lying before us, and it is a task philosophers such as Derrida and Gadamer took up as much as theologians like Congar, is to revive, transmit and recreate the traditions which have formed us. Continuity in and outside time is an incredibly precious thing which our ‘post modern’ age denies, at its peril. To cultivate the seeds sown and to sew the seed that will bear fruit is not a form of conservative obscurantism. If it is, it will not be a productive spirituality, but another arid and empty space. Living tradition, ethically, requires discernment but it also requires living tradition radically, and situatedly.

The second day of the Octave of Pentecost.


4 Responses to “The ethics of living a tradition, radically”

  1. Caroline said

    Hi Mark, thanks for blogging on such interesting matters.

    I think a tradition is also a way of learning. If you are in the city and you want to get out, you need to follow a path or a road to attain your goal. A tradition to my way of thinking (and I must confess I haven’t much–fakirs aside), involves treading in the tracks of those who have gone before you who you believe to have understood what they were doing–more or less, (a big call really.)

    I think many people draw on a number of traditions, but I think its the personal tradition the ‘duty to Oneself’ that is the path the ‘modern’ human can most both easily but possibly with most difficulty take.

    Interesting post with lots of points of interest . . .

    The moment of decision is incalculable and inexpressible, and not, and should not be, limited to rational calculation.

    here here I do this all the time. ‘My’ decisions seem to be made on a cellular level of which I’m not entirely cognisant. But then I’m not required to be cognisant of everything . . .

  2. msbahnisch said

    Thanks, Caroline!

  3. Mercurius said

    Mark, by coincidence I happen to be reading a collection of essays that navigates the territory you are broaching here, namely the ethics of relating to a tradition in a radical fashion, as an autonomous agent (albeit within the Jewish tradition).

    I choose to see universal and interfaith material here!

    I can do no better than to refer you to these discussions by the great reform Jewish ethicist Eugene Borowitz. Some of these are I think available online through academic databases, or through inter-library loans:

    Borowitz, E. (1984). ‘The Autonomous Jewish Self’. Modern Judaism, 4(1), February 1984.

    Borowitz, E. (1968). ‘Autonomy Versus Tradition’. CCAR Journal 15(2), April 1968.

    Borowitz, E. (1984). ‘The Autonomous Self and the Commanding Community’. Theological Studies, 45(1), March 1984.

    The above three comprise chapters 13, 14 & 16 in this volume, which is at Fisher Library in Sydney (currently out on loan! 😉 —

    Borowitz, Eugene B. Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

  4. msbahnisch said

    Many thanks, Merc! When I (shortly) have somewhat more leisure time on my hands, I’ll try to hunt those references down…

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