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. Read the rest of this entry »