Back last night from Mecosta, and too much to get caught up on at the office today to do much blogging. Alas. But I exchanged e-mails with Maggie Gallagher, a critic of “Crunchy Cons,” this morning on an issue that came up (unbeknownst to her) over the weekend at the Kirk Center conference. The theologian Vigen Guroian, criticizing the crunchy-cons concept in Mecosta, said that there’s something phony about the idea of trying to adopt a tradition that doesn’t come down to you organically. Vigen said it’s a very modern thing to try on different traditions (e.g., converting from one religion to another), and he’s skeptical about the whole “back to tradition” aspect of the neotraditionalism advocated in “Crunchy Cons.” If I got his argument correctly, he’s simply saying that what I propose is not feasible. ~Rod Dreher
Rod gives what I consider to be a good answer to these charges, but I’d like to offer my own as well. It is similar, but I think it goes a bit further. Organic traditions are best. Ascribed identities are best. This is true. This is also of absolutely no use to people who have never been part of organic traditions worth mentioning and have always been bumbling along on the deserted highway of choice. This conservatism and traditionalism says to us, “Organicity or bust!” In which case, those of us who have not had the privilege of having received rooted, traditional identities can do nothing, because the very act of grafting ourselves onto a vine is deemed excessively individualistic and self-determined. Furthermore, it maintains the fiction that people who have received ascribed identities and inherited traditions from their ancestors are somehow free from modernity, as if there is not today with each affirmation of the old ways on everyone’s part a self-conscious decision to adhere to that tradition rather than let it go. It is true, as MacIntyre has argued, that even those who abandon or actively reject the traditions they have received are shaped by those traditions. In this sense, there is no escaping where you come from. The exile is forever shaped and haunted by his home country. But according to the rooted, exiles are not really allowed to settle anywhere else. Once in exile, always in exile.
For these refugees wandering through the virtually tradition-less lands such as myself, the arguments of Prof. Guroian and Ms. Gallagher are not only not helpful, they are something of a slap in the face. It is as if they are saying, “We’ve got ours. You’re simply out of luck. You can’t acquire a tradition not your own. You will never have what I have, so you might as well give up.” Perhaps that is not what they mean to say, but every single time they make their objections, whether to Crunchy Cons, “neotraditionalism,” simple “traditionalism” or conversion to a different church that is what it sounds like. They say things like, “Don’t talk about tradition, live it!” To which I say, “Well, obviously. Now that I am doing that, do you think you might acknowledge it?” To which they say, “But you’re still just choosing what you want.” Perhaps they would not be satisfied until the refugees adhered themselves to a tradition they positively loathed as a way of showing everyone that it was not just the fickleness of taste that motivated them but a dreadfully serious desire to belong to a tradition in spite of itself. Of course, this would correctly merit the charge of being perverse.
If I participated in the “tradition” in which I was raised, if we can even call it that, I could not be a Christian, because my parents never raised me as one and no one in my family going back three generations was a regular churchgoer when I was around. In the real world, that is where the regime of pluralism, choice and intermarriage gets you. Were it not for our family’s keen interest in genealogy, I would have had no notion that a generation or two before our family had several ministers. The extended family I grew up with had gone to church in the past, years and decades before, but not anymore. We were as happily (or unhappily) secularised as you please.
So I either go “back to tradition” by picking and choosing among the various churches of my ancestors (the wonders of pluralism strike again!), which would still not be satisfactory for the rooted, since I am picking and choosing, or I can go “back to tradition” by looking to the Orthodox Church, as I have done, as possessing the fullness of Truth and the unbroken Tradition of the Apostles, which will also not satisfy the rooted (apparently not even the “cradle” Orthodox) because I have now chosen a tradition from which I cannot even claim distant descent (unless you take things back a long, long way to ancient Orthodox England). So I may as well become a secular Republican, since that is the closest thing that I know to an ascribed identity; let my scriptures be The Wall Street Journal, let Sunday morning football be my liturgy. That is what I grew up with. That sounds like a fine improvement over Scripture and the Liturgy, doesn’t it?
When it comes to religion, when your parents do not actively hold fast to the tradition of their fathers, there is not actually anything more “natural” and less “arbitrary” about turning to the tradition that your ancestors once had (in my case, say, joining the Methodists, Presbyterians or Quakers) than there is in turning to a Christian tradition that actually prizes living, organic Church Tradition, such as Orthodoxy. Prof. Guroian, who is Orthodox as I am (though I am a convert), would seem to be suggesting that it would be preferable for me to go off to join the folks at PCUSA or the United Methodist Church because some of my ancestors were once ministers in those traditions, regardless of whether those churches even remain true to the traditions they have inherited. In this sense, we are being told that cultural tradition ought to trump what appear to be more genuine expressions of Christian tradition.
As a matter of descent, I could technically automatically be a Quaker, so perhaps I should go to their non-liturgical meetings and wait for the Spirit to inspire me to protest the war. Even though my mother doesn’t typically go to Friends meetings, because she does not remotely recognise the Quakerism of her youth, I should start going. That would be, according to this fetishisation of organicity, better and more genuine than looking for a different tradition. But even if I did that, it would still be me who was doing the choosing and the tradition-selecting. This fixation on ascribed identity becomes almost an equal and opposite absurdity in its rejection of individual choice: not only is it better not to choose, but if you ever choose something it is therefore by definition less genuine than if you received it. This is a mirror image of the individualist’s declaration that “I decide who I am.”
As I read this, this means that the person born into the tradition not only belongs to it more than you, the convert (which may be true), but in your very act of conversion you are simply replicating modern, non-traditional ways of doing things and cannot really be taken seriously. Even if you are not a “church-shopper,” but actually stop and adhere yourself to this or that church for the rest of your life you are no different from the “church-shopper” and the person who never goes to church because he chooses not to. Even in making a sound choice, opting for the rooted person’s own tradition, you are being arbitrary–no matter how many good reasons you have!
Even if you, the convert, can end up teaching the “cradle” folks about their own tradition, which you have had to learn about, admittedly somewhat superficially and intellectually on one level, and which they have taken for granted (and, I’m sorry, but they have taken it for granted, because it has been granted to them without their even asking for it), you are never really part of that tradition. In the eyes of the rooted, you will seem to be something of a parasite, living off the healthy body of an organic tradition to which you are ultimately always going to be alien. Of course, according to a truer definition of organicity you could be metaphoricallly grafted onto one of the branches of the tree, and according to a more realistic understanding of belonging you could be adopted into the clan even though you do not share their blood. But according to this static understanding of organic tradition, there are no ways in and it is never possible to truly attach yourself to it.
Besides the rather glaring problem that this poses for the idea of Orthodoxy and the vocation of the Church, to jump to whether or not this or that church represents the most genuine embodiment of the fullness of the truth is precisely the move that these rooted folks expect us to make. Even when I say, “I have come to believe that Orthodoxy represents the fullness of the True Faith,” they will say, “Aha! You have chosen to belong to Orthodoxy, you have determined it to be the best choice, which only proves our point.” In other words, there is no way for the refugee to win the argument and convince the rooted that he can become rooted, or at least to make a start of it. So rather than get into weighty discussions of why, as a matter of history and theology, it is frankly obvious to me that Orthodoxy is best and the surest road to salvation–and in saying this I am affirming what I have received from the Church and the Fathers–I will instead turn back to the fetishisation of organicity and tradition behind these critiques.
Later in Rod’s post, Maggie Gallagher says:
Its not being traditional, its choosing tradition as the best of all available consumer goods.
So we have Prof. Guroian assuring us that some people really do belong to traditions and really do inherit them, but that attempts to attach yourself to them are artificial. Then we have Ms. Gallagher telling us that nobody today has any such tradition and that we are all simply consumers. The latter claim is plainly false, as any visit to an ethnic Orthodox parish will confirm in two seconds. So in the first case we have a sort of idolatry of organicity and on the other an idolatry of tradition. In the first, organicity seems to think that there are only ever full-grown plants and never seeds. It seems to claim that you cannot graft anything to an existing vine. Not only is this contrary to what we understand about things that grow in the earth, but such organicity isn’t even fully alive if its partisans insist that those who graft themselves on are somehow less connected to the living tradition. It assumes that there is no relationship between the plant and its natural surroundings, that it can continue to exist as if encased in amber while somehow also remaining alive. In order to find fault with those who seek to return to a tradition, living tradition must be made into a caricature of itself.
For Ms. Gallagher, nothing is traditional anymore. Not even adherence to a tradition. This is a sort of parody of the conservative view of modernity, as if there was an Age of Tradition in which everyone adhered to what has handed down to him as if they were automatons (because in this fantasy, no one prior to, perhaps, 1500, had the ability to decide anything himself) and then came the Age of Choice in which no one received what was handed down to him but simply starting choosing all things, including the traditions to which he belonged. Which, of course, are apparently not traditional. Perhaps a later date would be even more appropriate, since we are really talking about the predicament of 19th and 20th century Westerners and not all moderns.
But the central difference between pre-modern and modern man, or even between modern and late modern man, is not exactly simply the relatively greater role of individual choice in the life of the latter, but comes instead in in the relationship between choice and authority. Submitting to authority is as traditional as it gets. At some point, everyone has had to submit to a teaching authority for the first time–that does not make obedience to that authority artificial in any sense. Those who want to privilege choice and make the self and the satisfaction of the self the standard by which they judge what is good and what is not are necessarily hostile to the dictates of authority. Such an authority proposes to give them a standard outside of themselves that they must either accept or reject. A traditionally-minded person embraces the claims of that authority, yields to it, denies his own will and tries instead to will what the authority calls him to will. This is as basic as the redirection of our desires away from ourselves and towards God; it is the abandonment of autonomy and the entrance into koinonia, in which ourselves are no longer ours but Christ’s. Indeed, we are called to put away ourselves, to die to ourselves, and thus become truly human and truly personal for the first time. This is the perfect example that is dimly reflected in every submission to authority: the death of the self, the embrace of authority, the vivification of the person. Those who claim that such submission is impossible, or is always artificial when it is attempted, are sentencing the refugees–or perhaps sentencing all of us–to the living death of selfhood. Not only is it irritating to those of us who are trying to make the best of the measly scraps we have been given, but I believe it is fundamentally untrue.
Arguably no one in the modern age has been traditional in the way that medieval people were traditional, because the options for the latter were perhaps fewer (though, in fact, as the proliferation of medieval heresies shows, there were always just as many haireseis available to pre-modern people as there are to us–the difference is that they did not make choosing such a privileged act), but at every step in the chain of transmission of tradition people actively reproduced and passed on what they had received. The rulers of some European nations, some of which became Christian as recently as the tenth or eleventh century, had to decide for Christianity and against the paganism of their past, just as, at one point, Romans and Greeks had to do the same. At some point, the most ancient and venerable tradition began when a multitude of people actively, consciously chose it. Not only were they traditional in submitting themselves to the authorities of that tradition–which is the true measure of acceptance of a tradition (not whether you find it self-satisfying or even “authentic,” which are beside the point)–but they were instrumental in making the tradition that later generations would be able to take for granted because men such as Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Gregory Nazianzenos, and Grand Prince Vladimir chose to make Orthodoxy their own. Was their participation in the tradition artificial or forced, or are they not in fact examples of how a living tradition adapts and embraces those that adhere to it and so becomes even more vibrant and healthy?
It is difficult to imagine St. Paul writing, “Hold fast to the traditions that I have given to you, whether in word or by epistle, unless you happen to be a convert, in which case you may as well go back to making blood sacrifices to Apollo because you lack a sufficiently organic connection to the Church of Christ.” It is difficult to imagine Moses telling the people of Israel, “Sorry, folks, we have to go back to Egypt, because I have it on good authority that if we departed from Egypt now in search of some so-called Promised Land we would just be engaged in a lot of self-conscious identity construction that doesn’t really count for very much. It is better to abide in the fine traditions of the Egyptians, who, after all, have really old traditions. The God of our fathers? Overrated, if you ask me. We don’t want to be a bunch of self-absorbed consumers seeking authenticity in a fabled land of milk and honey. No, I think we should go back and be slaves. After all, it’s what we know!” Of course neither of them would have said anything remotely like this. And both of them freely chose to embrace the calling with which they were called by the living God. But, if we are to believe the rooted folks, St. Paul and Moses were precocious moderns experimenting with some new-fangled ideas. Personally, I take my chances with trying to follow, however poorly and ineptly, their example and leave behind the fetishists of traditions to which no one (or at least no one else but them) can belong.