Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Traditional Temple

You may remember from the Inaugural Post that an analogy was drawn between this blog and the forum of an ancient Roman town. It was always the case that in this forum stood a Temple (usually to Jupiter) which cooperated with the other important buildings present in the forum in cultivating the good of the community. To complete the analogy, then, we must erect our own source of ethos and duty. I suggest that this be an ongoing deference to Tradition.

Temple of Vesta - Taken by the Mrs.
Tradition is something of a naughty word, isn't it? Our post-Modern ears are trained to burn at the mere mention of it. Now, it is altogether mistaken to be of the opinion that simply because a thing or idea is old it is necessarily better. Many things that are old are good, like farming. Many things that are old are bad, for example, the oldest profession on earth. Likewise, many new things are good, such as, air conditioning. Many new things are bad. That being said, even though it has taken somewhat of a beating lately, we are the inheritors of a great and wondrous Tradition, the product of millenia of intelligent men and women—a Tradition which would not have survived to this day were it of no value whatsoever. Over time old ideas were honed and perfected. Many didn't make the cut. Many may yet prove to be false. A distinction must be drawn between those elements of our Western heritage which are essential, and those which are not—those which are open to alteration, and those which are absolutely fundamental to the Occidental mode of understanding the Truth.

Tradition includes within itself the potential for continual development. Paragraph 23 of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium says “that sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress.” BUT (that was a big “but”) this development must grow naturally out of that which came before. Speaking to the ongoing development of the Liturgy, the Council wrote that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” Pope Benedict calls this the “heremeneutic of continuity;” that is, the right way to interpret the past, in light of the present, looking toward the future. This is set in opposition to a “hermeneutic of rupture,” in which the past is offhandedly discounted as the folly of ignorants.

Let’s look at a couple of concrete examples of how this hermeneutic of continuity might be put into practice. The Western world once thought that there was a vein in the human body running directly from the fourth finger to the heart. To this day we tip our caps to this old belief when we wear our wedding rings on that very finger. Over time, more study of human anatomy revealed this to be false. It was, though, really pretty arbitrary whether or not that vein existed. I suppose there might have been some clan whose tribal worship revolved around that imaginary vein, and it might have mattered quite a lot to them. But, looking at the subject objectively it really doesn’t matter that much.

There are things that our Tradition teaches us which are not so incidental. From at least the time of Aristotle onwards Western Tradtion (both Classical and Christian) has taught us that there is a God who is Being itself that caused (and continues to cause) all that is to be. This is undeniable fact, proved according to the dictates of reason itself over and over again by countless philosophers and theologians through the ages. As such, and by virtue of the subject matter itself, the question of the existence of God strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human, for that matter, to be, human or not. This is an element of our Tradition which is absolutely fundamental. At the very least, it is one which one may be by no means cast off without considerable deliberation and investigation.

Nevertheless, it is possible to be an open-minded Traditionalist. By all means, open your mind, explore new ideas and new civilizations, boldly go where no man has gone before. But, as G.K. Chesterton said, “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” St. Augustine put it slightly less brusquely: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

All of this is to say, we ought, as a minimum, to respect and revere the ideas and beliefs of our ancestors. We may doubt and question them insofar as there is room to do so, all the while understanding that to disagree with the consensus of our forebears is a risky proposition. It would frighten me to do so. In other words, if Tradition and I found ourselves butting heads, I would double-check my math before going any further.

You might have noticed this post turned out to be an excuse to discuss the nature and import of Tradition. Oops.

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