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 »


My friend and flatmate Michael Carden has written another blog post on the St Mary’s in Exile community, reflecting on a recent homily by Terry Fitzpatrick at the TLC building.

Michael discusses Terry’s equation of himself with those on the margins, and questions how that equation can be effectively articulated without a reflection on Terry’s own privilege.

Michael zeroes in on the rather odd ‘Buddhist’ references in the homily. I think it’s absolutely right to query how Terry has gone about composing the margins of his own discourse. I have no objection to, and rich praise for, those who find points of articulation with Buddhist traditions and their own cultural background exploring those – and many do so from a place of absolute respect. Sociologically, we live in a post-traditionalist society where one can’t simply say that because of ethnicity or heritage that ‘we’ are Christian.

While we – in this place and at this time – no doubt remain within a broader culture that’s been formed by Christianity – there are many for whom their own life and formation is not in any real sense Christian, and some for whom ‘other’ faiths and mysteries provide a point of articulation in their own spiritual practice. I, myself, am becoming increasingly interested in (or perhaps reinteresting myself in) some connections that can be made between Taoist motifs and a certain sense of time and the articulation of events to each other that could be named Jewish. It’s a work of thought, and a practice, that I think is bearing immense fruit for me.

But we do need to question our own place in regard to margins, and whether, why, where and how we inscribe them.

Read the rest of this entry »