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The Tradition Conference

Notes from an academic gathering to think about the pastness of the past -- and its presence

Good morning from New York. I’m at a two-day conference sponsored by St. John’s Law School dedicated to the discussion of Tradition. Everybody here is an academic of some sort or another, aside from Your Faithful Scribe, who, I suspect, was invited to mix the Sazeracs at cocktail hour. I will be blogging the conference today and tomorrow, putting all my comments in this space, on a running basis. The one protocol I am bound to observe is to keep everyone’s comments around the conference table anonymous. I welcome your comments here throughout the day.

We began with someone mentioning Jaroslav Pelikan’s observation that it is “a mark of an authentic and living tradition that it points us beyond itself.” Tradition, he says, is like an icon. Here’s a clip from the readings. Pelikan:


So, tradition, on Pelikan’s view, has to be rooted in transcendence. He says that the Enlightenment’s claims of universal rights grounded in Reason saw itself as not depending on Tradition at all to arrive at the truth. The problem with this, he says, is that we find that it is very difficult to hold on to these supposedly universal truths without having grounded them in the tradition that produced them. And this is something proved simply by reading the daily newspaper.

One question raised around the table: Can a tradition that’s conscious of itself do what a tradition must do? The question is closely related to Charles Taylor’s point about religion in a “secular age” — that it is impossible in our time and place for religious belief to be unconscious of itself as anything other than chosen. That’s not to say that particular religious claims (or claims for tradition) are untrue, so much that our relationship with them is unavoidably contingent, because we can’t escape awareness that we could live and believe otherwise.

UPDATE: Someone said that he doesn’t think that the problem our culture faces today is a problem of the Enlightenment and its rationality, but a return to “extremely dangerous” tribalism. A reinforcement of Enlightenment rationality would shore things up.

Another person said that tradition is the hard wall we build around our animal instincts. Most people don’t reason everything out, and cannot. Tradition tell us “we don’t do this thing” without us having to think about it. A colleague agreed, putting in this way:

“The tradition has been trying to de-animalize what is animal. It is dealing with the animal side of human nature to make it more human.”

Someone said that Tradition is challenged from two sides: “Emancipators” and “Purifiers”. St. Paul, he said, seeks to emancipate the Greeks but purify the Hebrews. He went on:

“I think multiculturalism is actually a purifying project. … I’ve come to recognize that anti-Traditionalism is only possible in the West. It is a purification challenge to Tradition, not an emancipation challenge.”

One law professor pointed to Josef Pieper’s assertion is that tradition has to start with revelation.

“Can we in contemporary America point to revelation as the ultimate authority, and if it can’t, what does that mean for the preservation of Tradition?” he said. “It seems that we can’t do that, because we don’t have a shared religion, and a common religious authority.”

Finally in this morning’s session, a professor said that when thinking about how to present Tradition in an attractive way to young people, we should talk about “sustainability,” and ways that Tradition is necessary to provide sustainability across time. (Note: is “sustainability” another way of saying “stability,” in the Benedictine sense?)

UPDATE.2: The topic moves on to Tradition in religion. One college professor said that it is so difficult to get undergraduates to openly criticize other religious traditions that he fears it results in them being unwilling to take their own traditions seriously.

Another professor said that there is a great deal of anti-religious hostility in the culture. It’s just expressed in other ways:

“Folks aren’t ‘anti-Catholic’; they’re just ‘anti-hate,'” he said. “That BYU is not allowed in a football conference, that’s the future.”

Another professor said his undergraduate history students are deeply shocked by the religiosity they encounter in their readings in American history. He said that they even find it difficult to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because of its religious content. But here’s the interesting thing:

“They don’t want to be terribly critical of Islam. They view it as a common enemy against the Christianity they oppose. They’re much less critical of Islam, even though Islam is just as conservative as Catholicism, and even more conservative sometimes.”

UPDATE.3: Noted conservative Catholic thinker: “I am more and more fascinated by the irrelevance of Catholicism to the politics of the nation.”

Noted Evangelical legal scholar disagreed, pointing to the fact that so many Supreme Court justices are Catholics. Said that “Evangelicalism has a sort of ideological void that’s being filled with Catholic ideas. Evangelicals know the important things — about the Bible, and so forth — but when it comes to thinking about society, they don’t have a clue.”

Catholic responds: “Where has that gotten us? Now we’ve got Trump. Catholicism has turned out to be ineffective.”

Evangelical shoots back: “We do not have Trump. We have Paul Ryan. And what religion is he?”

(Orthodox scribe thinks to self: “Hmm, who’s ‘we’?” Paul Ryan’s popularity recently took a massive hit among Republican voters because he is not fully on board the Trump train. Trump is not embraced by conservative and Republican elites, it’s true. But the conservative political party does have Donald Trump. At dinner last night, I was talking to a prominent anti-Trump conservative intellectual who is worried about how the #NeverTrump people will react after Trump’s defeat. He is afraid that they will harshly bash Trump Republicans, in a way that hurts conservative politics overall. There is no way to go forward unless we on the Right figure out how to do it together.)

An Eastern Orthodox academic says that most of the Catholics he comes across are essentially Mainline Protestants. He said that this is true in his own Orthodox parish, despite the fact that Orthodoxy is a very traditional form of Christianity. The real religion of Americans, no matter what their tradition, is individualism. This, as you know, is precisely what Christian Smith et al. found regarding Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

UPDATE.4: Said one scholar: “Liberalism depends on a kind of individual that it doesn’t produce.”

He explained that to succeed, liberal societies depend on other institutions to build character in its citizens. He made the Tocquevillian point that minority religions are important in this respect — minority, because their countercultural witness emerges out of their communitarianism. “You only really get that from a minority religion, a religion of people who know they have to stick together, that they can’t just send their people out into the world and expect everything to be fine,” he said.

Another professor responded: “I don’t know how much longer the wider society is going to allow those communities to flourish. … I’m not so sure this is going to be a viable strategy going forward.”

Very prominent law professor agrees, says that he doesn’t believe that Catholics and other dissenters from the Sexual Revolution will be permitted by the state to live by their convictions.

(From me: This is the stage where somebody always says, “And this is why the Benedict Option will never work. They won’t let you do it.” And then I say: “No, this is why the Benedict Option is more necessary than ever. Whatever force the state brings to bear onto us, we have to find a way to resist. Do you think it will be more difficult to hold on to our Christian traditions in post-Christian America than it was for the Polish Catholics in Nazi-occupied Poland? Or Christians in the Soviet bloc? I don’t mean to diminish the difficulties ahead, but I do think it’s unrealistic for conservatives to say that the Benedict Option is pointless because sooner or later, the state will stop whatever we try. Well, what’s the alternative? If the state went so far as to close down all dissenting churches — a worst-case scenario that nobody seriously expects, at least at this point — would Christians at that point throw up their hands and say, “Well, that’s that. Goodbye, God!” Of course not. So the question then becomes: OK, how do we hold on to our faith even under the direst conditions? )

UPDATE.5: I apologize for not keeping up here. The conversation is so rich, but also so very varied. Hard to both write and listen.

Now we’re talking about politics. One law professor is saying that just as we don’t have  real religious traditionalism in American life, we don’t have a traditionalism in American politics. Tocqueville, he said, pointed out that American religion is democratic, not hierarchical. There is an absence of hierarchy and established authority — and that’s true for our politics as well. Our constitutional order was founded on a revolution.

Another professor said that the Anthony Kennedy conception of liberty (“the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”) is the dominant one in the American imagination, which makes passing on a political tradition (or frankly, any tradition) very difficult.

Earlier, there was a brief exchange about whether or not American politics is built around symbols, or principles? Or is this a false distinction? One law professor said that symbols matter a great deal to Americans, which is why we have a culture war over our history, and what history means. Whoever controls the past controls the present, as the saying goes. Another person at the table said that you can see this in the popularity of books about the Founders.

I pushed back a bit on that. It’s true today, but will this be true tomorrow? The way technology is training younger generations to think about the past might make it impossible for them to receive a tradition. Here’s what I mean. My 17 year old loves music, and has extremely eclectic tastes. It’s a marvelous thing to see, because he really loves this stuff. His appreciation for popular music is far broader and deeper than my own. He has only been able to do this because technology (Spotify, primarily) has made the past come to his fingertips. Again, this is a great thing. But I don’t think he has a sense of musical tradition, and how it developed. This is probably not such a big deal, but it does make me wonder if younger generations, whose imaginations are formed by having the world mediated to them through the Internet, will come to think of our political tradition not as something received, but as something to be manipulated for our own use. Said the professor next to me, “History as bricolage.”

Yes, that’s it. Again, I’m probably overthinking this, as I do everything, but I think it’s plausible to think that the way technology construes the way we relate to the past.

UPDATE.6: A discussion about how the historical experience of slavery and racial discrimination has greatly narrowed (even poisoned) the ability to appeal to tradition, and traditions, when it comes to contemporary political issues.

Should access to marriage be constitutionally guaranteed to same-sex couples? Bommmmp! Can’t discuss it, or at least can’t discuss it meaningfully and honestly, because slavery. That is, as soon as someone analogizes the issue to slavery or segregation, the argument is effectively over.

“You can’t live in a free society if everything is an analogy to slavery,” said one man. “Ultimately, what it is to think traditionally is to allow practices to develop through the normal experience of public life. … The slavery argument against localism is not crazy. There are instances in which local majorities oppress local minorities. That really happens. But you can’t have a real discussion about politics if everything is the Civil War.”

(Note passed to me by law prof on my left: “Liberals are Civil War re-enactors (but they don’t know it)”.)



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