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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Two extreme alternatives

In my last post, I said that I saw two basic ways of approaching the question of tradition and truth. Actually, I don't think that either of these is tenable in their "pure" form--but I'm going to describe them in that form in order to lay out the issues clearly. I will refer to them as "rationalism" and "traditionalism," recognizing that both of these terms can be used in very different ways from the ways I'll be using them.

The first alternative, "rationalism," is to see truth as something wholly outside oneself, which one can apprehend by reason and then has the duty of following regardless of consequences. In this view, our powers of apprehending truth are essentially passive receptors of the evidence presented to us by various claimants to our allegiance. Any bias on our part, whether resulting from our personal temperament or circumstances or from the shaping of the tradition in which we were raised, is seen as an irrelevant or harmless distraction. An honest and intelligent person will try to disregard such influences, or at the very least will be thoroughly on guard against them.

The other alternative, "traditionalism," sees truth as something that is only achievable by means of the tradition in which we were formed. To step outside that formation is to abandon the only framework that we have for getting at religious truth. Truth, particularly in matters of religion, is not something that we can determine by weighing evidence, or for that matter by following the promptings of our hearts (emotionalism is, from my point of view, just another form of "rationalism"--the Mormons being an excellent example of this). The framework from which we approach a question largely determines the kinds of answers we will find, and this framework has been inescapably shaped by tradition.

Of course these are not the only two possible alternatives. One could hold with the traditionalist that the framework of the mind largely determines how one approaches truth, while holding with the rationalist that this framework is (or ought to be) essentially independent of the shaping we have received from our respective traditions. But for my purposes this is either functionally identical with rationalism (since it posits a universal framework that allows us to receive truth in essentially the same way regardless of our respective traditions), or it dissolves into a useless and despairing subjectivism (as does much postmodernism--but not the forms of postmodernism that I find at all interesting or convincing).

Ecclesiastically speaking, my dichotomy results in some surprising alignments. Conservative Protestants of nearly all stripes are thoroughgoing rationalists. Liberal Protestants were at one time largely rationalistic, but these days tend to be more or less traditionalist (although they think that we can and should question and shape our respective traditions from within, often in radical ways--cynically, one could say that they tend to be rationalists about their own traditions and traditionalists about other people's!). Liberal Catholics tend to be much more thoroughly traditionalistic, though not completely so. Conservative Catholics of the kind one tends to meet on the Internet (Catholic Answers being an excellent example) are as rationalistic as any Protestant. They view tradition as authoritative--but they think that we have to determine which tradition is authoritative in a fundamentally rationalistic manner. (Catholic Answers has an astonishing tract that purports to prove the authority of the Bible from the authority of the Church, and the authority of the Church from an empirical, un-traditioned reading of the Biblical and historical evidence.) But cradle Catholics generally tend to be traditionalists (one Catholic scholar of medieval philosophy expressed to me her great puzzlement at the whole concept of conversion--it seemed obvious to her that you stick with the religion you were born into). This may be "liberal," but it seems extremely widespread even among Catholics whose basic piety and beliefs are quite conservative. Finally (lest you think that I'm simply twisting terminology around and labelling conservatives "rationalists" and liberals "traditionalists"), the Orthodox are solidly traditionalistic, except for converts and a few others. Many Orthodox take it for granted that Westerners will be Catholics or Protestants and see this as perfectly OK, while still believing that Orthodoxy is the true religion.

From my previous post, it should be clear that I find rationalism radically unsatisfactory. I do not believe that the influence of tradition is, generally and fundamentally, something to be resisted or disregarded (in fact, I don't think we _can_ disregard it, and I think resisting it is futile and silly because we will simply react against it based on the paradigm it has given us).

So what about traditionalism? I confess that I have moods in which I'm tempted to take a completely traditionalist position. I like the fact that there are multiple religious traditions in the world. I revel in the flavor of these traditions, and I almost always find something to respect in people who are deeply rooted in them. People like me, on the other hand, who float aroundseeking for the truth (granted that my floating has been done within Christianity), seem to lack depth. A rolling stone gathers no moss. And unless one simply roots oneself unquestioningly to one's tradition of origin, it's hard for a thoughtful person in this pluralistic world to avoid becoming such a rolling stone. Furthermore, converts almost always seem to go on thinking and acting based on the paradigm from which they have converted. Cradle members of the tradition attracting the converts often complain about this (at least in more "traditionalist" traditions such as Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

But there's one obvious problem with such a position for a Christian--it is fundamentally and irredeemably pagan. (In fact, insofar as Catholics and Orthodox do tend to be traditionalists, this is the strongest piece of evidence for the claim of some Protestants that these forms of Christianity have been paganized.) In fact, many works of early Christian apologetics (the _Octavius_ of Minucius Felix, for instance) oppose a Christian "rationalism" to a pagan "traditionalism." As Robert Wilken pointed out (in _The Christians as the Romans Saw Them_), many spokesmen for late ancient paganism defended a "conservative" approach to religion in which truth is fundamentally unknowable, leaving the traditions of one's society as the only reasonable and proper way to approach the divine mystery. This is not so different from the approach of many people today. But it's obviously self-contradictory for a Christian. How can we say that it was a good thing for our ancestors to convert to Christianity, but a bad thing for us to consider the possibility of conversion (whether away from Christianity, or more likely to a different tradition within Christianity)? Furthermore, even those who want to revive paganism are still caught within the same paradox, since they must convert to this revived paganism (and largely construct it anew). Complete traditionalism is not really an option for Westerners (with the exception of Jews--though we could claim that the adoption of monotheism was a kind of conversion itself). That means, of course, that the Catholics and Orthodox whom I've defined as traditionalists are either not thinking very carefully and consistently, or are not thoroughgoing traditionalists at all. (At the very least, they would have to admit that their ancient ancestors were right to be somewhat "rationalistic.")

I am probably arguing with myself here. Most likely no reader of this blog is tempted to thoroughgoing traditionalism. But I am, so this train of thought is necessary for me.

The question before me, then, is twofold: how much of a traditionalist can/should I be, and how should I apply my views to my particular situation? (I think that the way I ended my last post was misleading, since the more dubious point for me is really the practical application rather than the decision between rationalism and traditionalism itself. But I've only figured this out by the process of planning and writing this post.)

Let me sketch a brief response to the first question, which I'll go into in more depth on a later occasion.

I believe that the default option for all of us should be the tradition in which we were raised. Most people throughout human history have lived and died without seriously questioning their traditions. They were not foolish or slothful or (in the matters that really count) ignorant. They were doing exactly what they ought to have done (or at least one can reasonably assume that many/most of them were--of course folly and sloth and ignorance are real possibilities for all of us!). This is the normal condition for human beings--it is the normal way in which we become wise and good and holy.

Conversion, then, whether individual or collective, is and ought to be a rare and abnormal event. It occurs in one of two cases: when the existing paradigm has irretrievably broken down, or when a new paradigm presents itself that breaks through our previous assumptions and calls us to a new allegiance (in other words, when divine revelation occurs, or what we are persuaded to believe is divine revelation). Even in that second case, we will be drawn to the new paradigm only insofar as it addresses already felt problems with our current paradigm. So it's better to say that these two cases are two sides of the same coin rather than two separate alternatives.

Furthermore, as traditionalists point out, one necessarily carries over the questions of one's previous tradition into one's new allegiance. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, we need to be taught what questions to ask. But I would say that to some extent this must be a pre-conversion matter (Hauerwas would most likely disagree). Unless we already have learned to ask some of the relevant questions, the new paradigm will have no hold on us. And having adopted the new paradigm, we will continue to pursue the questions we have already learned to ask, even as we learn to ask new ones.

That means that Pontificator and other Anglicans are quite right to look for a new tradition because our own is in deep trouble. It's true that there must be more than that--but an awareness of the problems of one's current paradigm is the appropriate starting point for a journey of conversion. Pontificator had no business spending his life in some kind of ecclesiastical no-man's-land dispassionately considering the merits of various traditions. He did exactly what he ought to have done--served to the best of his ability within his own tradition.

Whether I can follow him, however, is another matter. I am not at all sure that Protestantism has irretrievably broken down. As I've said in a previous post, I waver on this point in a quite alarming manner (at least to me--from the point of view of my friends it is better described as wearisome and annoying).


Anonymous said...

Hi, Edwin. I hope you won't mind my observing that your classifying of "rationalists" and "traditionalists" strikes me as, well, simplistic. :)

For instance: IMHO, you really can't extrapolate much from the example of your one Cradle Catholic acquaintance who felt one should stick with the tradition one is born into. As a Cradle Catholic myself, I know *scads* of other "cradles," many of whom would never utter such nonsense. And the more devout they are, the more they practice their faith, the likelier they are to believe that, as Catholicism is the fullness of the Faith, we should pray that more people embrace it. Why else would so many practicing Catholics in mixed marriages influence their spouses to swim the Tiber? Happens all the time; RCIA classes are full of such cases. True, many "cradles," influenced by a fasle, mushy pseudo-ecumenism, may believe that it makes no difference what one is, as long as one is it sincerely. But that is most assuredly not what the Catechism teaches--or what my Cradle Catholic friends believe.

Anyway, I think your categorizations of the different sorts of believers are open to challenge.

I like the rest of this piece; please don't get me wrong. But I think you are overly schematizing a very messy reality when you put us all into these neat little pidgeonholes. Just my 2 cents' worth; take it from whence it comes.



Contarini said...


Of course it's a simplistic contrast. That's why I said "two extreme alternatives." Apparently I failed to convey my meaning--very few people are entirely one thing or the other (especially "traditionalists," at least in modern Western society). I said that the Catholics and Orthodox I had in mind were either not thinking very carefully or were not fully "traditionalists." So I'm not sure how you managed to misunderstand me so completely. What could I have said to make myself plainer?

Anonymous said...

Hello Contarini,

I was somewhat impressed with your post, you appear to be a deep thinker, certainly smarter than me. As for Protestantism being "irretrievably broken down," what do you see that makes you think this? I am a protestant and it is a vibrant living faith in Jesus Christ. You seem to be searching for something. To quote a verse from James 1:27 "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."

All the best to you,

John Student

CPA said...

I was reading along and about to shout out "But all the early apologists attack 'custom' as pernicious!" but then I saw you were already there. Good piece.

About Diane's comment: conversion through marriage is not pure "rationalism" as Edwin is defining it. Here the existing relation is being used to leverage the change in religion. Considerations of family peace, the religion of the children, keeping the in-laws happy: these are all fundamentally "traditionalist" (in the broad sense, working out truth in the community you happen to find yourself in). So it's not a very good example.