I’ve been thinking about the writing of Caleb Stegall in the past day, as we talk about preserving our religion, and the forms, and institutions, required to do that. In this 2009 reflection on dispossession, Stegall addresses a point Jody Bottum had made critical of localism, namely, that it usually requires some out-group towards whom it turns its back. Stegall said the deeper problem is dispossession: people feel something beloved was taken from them. Acknowledging Bottum’s point that people only seem to get in touch with their localist feelings when it’s too late to do anything about it, Stegall says that when the localist impulse becomes “over-articulated,” it can turn against itself. He goes on:
I do not have a high degree of hope for any version of movement conservatism, towards which I remain skeptical. I put much more stock in what amounts to monasticism, in the broadest sense, which includes all of the crunchy virtues Rod discusses and more, though in a very natural and inarticulate way. This would include the many lay movements in the Church, local economic coalitions, and various traditional cultures that do much more doing than speaking and theorizing. One does not need to theorize how to view and engage secular modernity if one daily concentrates on self-sacrifice, prayer, and simply doing the work of God and disciplining the body and mind to order themselves according to their place and heritage.
There’s a Benedict Option for you. Stegall goes on to say that, to use the title of Wendell Berry’s Jefferson lecture, it all turns on affection:
Repossession requires love above all—I have said this before—and no amount of anger or stumbling about trying to recover a lost identity will forge a lasting “localism” if it has not love. At best, such efforts will lead to a “lifestyle” choice that capitulates to the same forces of consumption which lead to dispossession (the danger of “crunchy cons”) and at worst they will lead to bitter, diseased ghettos of pathetic victims with delusions of vengeance. But many many localist movements, most I would venture, love. Love is their existential engine, after all. Most difficult is the preservation of this love across the divide as localist reactions to dispossession break out into political and social movements.
Before I talk about how this relates to religion, let me quote a passage from Berry’s Jefferson Lecture:
The argument of Howards End has its beginning in a manifesto against materialism:
It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?
“The light within,” I think, means affection, affection as motive and guide. Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.
The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.” But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.
Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book: “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”
In a speech delivered in 2006, “Revitalizing Rural Communities,” Frederick Kirschenmann quoted his friend Constance Falk, an economist: “There is a new vision emerging demonstrating how we can solve problems and at the same time create a better world, and it all depends on collaboration, love, respect, beauty, and fairness.”
Those two women, almost a century apart, speak for human wholeness against fragmentation, disorder, and heartbreak. The English philosopher and geometer, Keith Critchlow, brings his own light to the same point: “The human mind takes apart with its analytic habits of reasoning but the human heart puts things together because it loves them . . .”
Now, it seems to me that both Stegall and Berry offer us insights into the problem of how to hold on to faith traditions in a fast-changing world.
The first question to answer is, “Why should we care?” If a tradition is no longer useful to us, why shouldn’t we discard it? This is a characteristically American way of thinking, instrumentalizing the world. We come to a tradition seeking to bend it to our will, rarely thinking that there may be wisdom within it that we need, and should be bent by, so to speak. The problem is that we do not feel naturally bound by anything from the past; that is what it means to be modern. If we are going to affirm a tradition, it cannot help but be by choice, because as Charles Taylor has said, we cannot un-know the fact that we do not have to choose it. Yet the fact that it is inescapably a choice means that a tradition has far less power to bind us and our descendants.
Tradition ought to matter more to us than it does. I was talking the other night with some Southern Baptist friends, and asking why it is that so many Southern Baptist congregations no longer call themselves “Baptist,” even though they are. My friends said that it’s because “Baptist” is a tarnished brand in this culture, for whatever reason, and because so much church growth among Evangelicals has occurred in non-denominational “Bible churches,” who have benefited from the decline in Southern Baptist numbers. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, obviously, but it still made me a little sad to think of this, because it means something to be a Southern Baptist. Is it that people don’t want to be pinned down to a denominational identity?
What’s so troubling about this is the sense that American Christians don’t believe it is important to articulate certain theological distinctives as authoritative, and hold to them across the generations. How do you guarantee that your grandchildren will believe the same core truths about God and the Bible that you do? Surely this must be important to anyone who takes their faith seriously. It cannot be a matter of indifference, and if it does become a matter of indifference, then your grandchildren will likely end up in another church, or no church at all.
A key, maybe the key, to holding on to tradition is, as Stegall says, love. That is, we have to teach ourselves and our children to love our traditions, not just to affirm them intellectually. In America, we are conditioned to think of the past as a foreign country to which nobody goes, except maybe as a sometime tourist. We do not love the past; we love the future. Does anybody in your congregation cherish the liturgy, or order of service in your church? Does anybody cherish your church’s traditions? Do you and your children view them not as machinery you use to induce or express religious feeling, but as something organic, like a venerable oak, or a beloved grandfather?
People who view religious traditions and the knowledge they convey as machinery for living religiously will discard the machine as soon as it quits working for them. People who view them as a beloved grandfather will love them even when they break down, and will try to nurture them back to life. You cannot browbeat someone into loving a tradition. You have to show them what it means to love it, and to care for it.
Stegall has a rewarding essay about the decline of the a cappella psalmody among Scottish Covenanter emigrants to the United States. As a Reformation people, and hardcore iconoclasts, the Covenanters in Scotland developed their own new rituals to bind themselves to each other and across the generations. A central one was singing the Psalms a cappella, which, for reasons Stegall explains, articulated and embodied the identity of Covenanters as a persecuted rural people. But then:
During the 18th Century, as Covenanters began to emigrate in large numbers to America and the New World, their historic identity began to be tested and strained in new ways. In short, the Covenanters—like many traditional European groups—ran headlong into the ethos and pathos of America, what one commentator has called a desire for endless fresh starts. America was the Protestant principle writ large, and whether Old World Protestant communities could survive in the New World they had begat was very much in question.
The point of the problem was that much sharper in the Covenanter context because their symbols and social markers were so perfectly attuned to and representative of their Old World experience. During the slow transition which occurred between, say, 1800 and the 1940s, as the Covenanters went from a poor, rural, agrarian, politically and socially outcast people to increasingly mercantile, middle class, (sub)urban, and politically and socially connected people, the symbols of Covenanter identity began to “leak.” That is to say, the symbolic significance of Covenanter psalmody and indeed its entire function as a symbol illuminating the community’s corporate identity became opaque over time. Like a darkening pane of glass, the meaning of and beyond Covenanter psalmody grew harder and harder to see as each passing generation became further removed from the original experiences that had engendered the ritual—both its meaning and authority—in the first place.
For example, communal worship through a cappella spirituals loses its capacity as a compact carrier of social identity when its context shifts from the fields to the factory, or, even worse, the office. Key to understanding the “bleeding out” of Covenanter identity is understanding that this is not mere nostalgia for a bygone era. It is no coincidence that the fallout from this transition over the last seventy-five years has been a decline in the Covenanter church: fewer congregations, fewer members, fewer missionaries, and most dramatically, fewer Covenanter adults who were once Covenanter children. This is because as vitally important social symbols such as a cappella psalmody leak truth, they likewise leak authority. In other words, they lose their stickiness; their ability to bind the allegiance of successive generations to the truth, identity, and memory they carry. This is the way peoples die.
So, in Stegall’s account, Covenanter psalmody died (and with it the Covenanter tradition) because a central ritual no longer spoke to the experience of its people. Psalmody ceased to be a sign saying “this is who we are.” Stegall indicates that the reasons that Psalmody became foreign to Covenanters is because it emerged out of a specific historical and social context that passed away. Did the Psalmody die out because the Covenanters were losing a sense of themselves as a theologically and socially distinct community in America? Might there have been a way to have preserved the Psalmody? Or is it the case that once one becomes aware of a tradition as tradition in need of preserving, it is already too late to preserve it?
Was there a way for the last generation of Covenanters to convey love for their tradition to the young, but they did not follow it? Or is it more the case that their thinking was conditioned by being American, and they didn’t expect their children to hold on to this relic of the past?
Modernity is the universal solvent. If there is to be any resistance, it cannot be based in fear, but rather in love. If we are to turn away from something, we have to turn toward something we love more. In any case, all turns — away from tradition or toward it — turn on affection.
UPDATE: The Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman, on tradition and modernity. Excerpt:
The rationality of the modern project did not stop with armies. It gradually came into almost every area of life, including the Churches. One manifestation of this standardization was the production of catechisms. The Reformers wrote small tracts with detailed organization of doctrine, capable of memorization and rapid reproduction. They were extremely effective and efficient tools for the instruction of the population. The Catholic Church responded with its first Catechism after the Council of Trent. The Orthodox eventually developed one of their own as well. (I personally feel that the Catechisms represent a low-point in the “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy).
These developments might seem to be innocuous or even as real improvements. But they represent a shift in the center of gravity for human life. Traditional ways of thinking, living and interacting are organic rather than purely rational. Just as the standardization of human size and shape would actually diminish humanity and human experience, so the rationalization of every area of life does the same. A catechism tends to state succinctly things that should be stated at great length, or not even stated at all. They produce a form of knowledge, but not the form that is called Tradition. We do not learn Tradition; we areformed in Tradition. In the West, generations of children were drilled in their catechisms. Completion of the catechism was then greeted with the sacrament of Confirmation. The result was a rational Christian. The unintended result was a dull, moralistic, overly rational Church (sermons became dry treatises that often lasted two hours). A predictable reaction occurred. Deeply emotional revivals such as the First and Second Great Awakenings in America, the Methodist movement, and various Pietist groups on the Continent, all sought a return to something that was actually felt and not simply thought. There is no catechism that could capture or communicate the fervor of a Methodist brush arbor revival. Of course, those emotional reactions (precursors of modern Evangelicalism) were often accompanied with a decline in doctrinal instruction. Western Christianity was fractured.
Traditional forms of living are simply human forms of living. We are capable of assimilating highly rationalized life-styles and customs. But we love what is truly human. Who hasn’t quietly rejoiced when a bureaucrat at a counter bends a rule for their convenience and simply makes something work? Or who hasn’t cursed when greeted by a computer-generated list of choices and responses in a service call and simply begged for a human being at the other end of the line? These are components of our lives that indicate that, though we are capable of the rational, we transcend it and prefer to live above it.