III: Tradition and Renewal
Certainly nobody would claim that our age is suffering from an overemphasis on tradition. Since the struggle against the ancien régime particularly since the French Revolution the western world has undergone a process of dissolution of tradition. The one example of England however proves that it is not merely the inertia of the forces then released which accounts for the continuation of this process. England too had its revolution but after its successful accomplishment the life of this island people re-established continuity with the previous tradition and never lost it in the following centuries. Within the rest of the western world there were always forces acting in an anti-traditional sense after the removal of the ancien régime.
The main force was rationalism. Continental Europe and the United States have experienced the effect of enlightenment much more deeply than Great Britain. Rationalism the principle of enlightenment is anti-traditional for tradition does not belong to those “clear and perspicuous ideas” in which since Descartes the enlightened individual believes. The main argument of tradition—it was so therefore it shall remain so—is offensive to modern man. What he cannot justify here and now in the light of reason does not put him under any obligation. The motive force of equality also works in the opposite sense from that of tradition. We people of to-day are equal to those who were before us. Therefore we have as much right to decide for ourselves what shall be and what shall not be as they had in their time. By cheir reason men are essentially equal and alike. That which is unlike is unessential and should not be considered as essential. So tradition has no precedence over what seems to us better to-day. Tradition is essentially an aristocratic and not a democratic principle. In a world in which democracy in the sense of equality has become a kind of religion tradition can neither be kept nor be formed. This is one of the main causes of the instability of western society during the last two centuries.
For tradition rightly understood plays the rôle of a firm scaffolding amongst the forces which create and carry the cultural life. Tradition means continuity the element of duration and of persistence. The Latin word tradere means “to pass on”; those of the older generation pass on to the younger what they have received themselves. Tradition is inheritance first in the very banal economic sense. Where there is no passing on of material values from father to son and grandson there tradition in a spiritual sense will hardly persist. Culture presupposes continuity within its material foundation. Where the State by death duties and other taxation destroys this material continuity it will also in the long run destroy the sense of spiritual tradition.
Tradition is so to speak cultural memory the living preservation of the past in the present. Therefore tradition and the historical sense are closely connected. Where there is no love for the past living tradition becomes impossible. The two merge imperceptibly: the passing on of historical memory and the passing on of values from the past generation to the coming generations. In order to pass on what has been one must know it. Behind both historical interest in the past and the passing on of values from the past there is the same conception of the unity of the generations across the change of time the solidarity between the present and the past. Only where the past is considered as ours—as something which belongs to us just as much as that which shall be to-morrow—can these two elements coexist: reverence for what past generations have done and the consciousness of guilt. To acknowledge guilt means to consider the past as a living presence. Where tradition and historical interest become weak the consciousness of guilt also becomes weak.
With these reflections we have already touched the Christian view of tradition. The principle of tradition is deeply rooted in the Christian conception of life. The connection with those who were before us is guaranteed by the idea that all mankind is bound together with solidarity in creation and in sin. All of us are one in “Adam”. We cannot forget that “Adam's” creation and destiny are ours. We cannot disconnect ourselves from “Adam's” guilt. All mankind has a common inheritance of creation and of sin. In the Christian message history is of capital importance. It is not surprising then that tradition is the very essence of the Christian Church. Paradosis is one of the key words of the Bible. To pass on what God has done and given to the previous generations is one of the most sacred duties of the Old Testament community. The Roman Catholic Church is right in affirming the capital importance of tradition. It is not on this point that the Reformation broke away from it; the break took place on the question whether or not the New Testament should be the norm of this tradition. But in any case the Christian Church lives by the passing on of historical revelation. The Church is a living continuity of past revelation across the change of time.
Because the Church in her very essence is holy tradition she also is the legitimate guardian of all natural and cultural tradition. This function she exerted though imperfectly in that epoch of tremendous break-down when the Graeco-Roman cultural tradition was about to be lost. She performed the same function of guardianship throughout the Middle Ages in the Greek Orthodox Churches and in the Churches of the Reformation passing on the cultural inheritance at a time when respect for the past was already vanishing. Certainly Christianity shares the credit for this with the Renaissance Humanism which in a more direct manner restored the continuity with antique culture. It is customary to attribute to Renaissance Humanism rather than to the Christian Church the chief merit of having given classical antiquity its legitimate share of modern European civilisation. Upon closer inspection however we shall see two things: first that Renaissance Humanism showed its strength not outside but inside the Christian stream of life; second that this Humanism fell a prey to rationalism and finally decayed in proportion to its alienation from the Christian tradition. Humanism kept its cultural vigour only where it remained in contact with Christianity for the decisive element of tradition i.e. loyalty to the heritage of the past does not lie within the principle of Humanism as such but in the Christian view of history.
This apparent paradox may be illustrated by a fact of language. During the whole of the Middle Ages until the end of the 17 th century the Latin language was the universal means of communication between European nations. Whoever had a claim to education spoke Latin. In our present era of Babel-like confusion of language we look back upon this time with envy. Why is it that this living connection with antiquity was broken? There may be many answers to this question but there is one which seems to have more truth than others namely that the Humanists with the Ciceronian Latin of the scholars killed the medieval Latin which the Church had made the universal means of communication. Had we kept it we might be capable now of breaking the national linguistic barriers as Was the case when Englishmen Frenchmen Italians and Spaniards followed the Latin lectures of the German Albertus Magnus at the Sorbonne.
Tradition is not merely keeping alive the spiritual heritage of the past. Even more important because more closely connected with the personal and social character of man is the continuity of social values such as custom law civil institutions family tradition public spirit and virtue. We understand best the tremendous importance of social rootedness and stability if we start from its opposite as it is represented in a large modern industrial city. Already the outward picture of such a modern mushroom growth compared with a city of old cultural tradition is characteristic. One cannot refrain from expressing the contrast in terms of “mechanism” and “organism”. There is nothing more ugly soulless and inhuman on the face of this earth than a gigantic mushroom-city built up by the accidental conflux of large masses at a place of industrial opportunity. It is like a giant city of brick barracks entirely dominated by the principle of bare utility of mere “lodging” without any form without the will to express togetherness and community without any attempt to express outwardly an inward conviction. You can “make” such a city of barracks but you cannot “make” a city of culture; it must grow and grow slowly. What such a city of a million lodgings tells you is this: here are masses of men whirled together by the blast of economic opportunity each one a detached individual without any connection with the others without anything but the bare necessity of making a living to hold them together. There is no chance for the growth of a real community life because there is nothing in common. The inhabitants are all alien and indifferent to each other. There is no common history there are no common memories no common heritage no common origin. Next year you may just as well live in any other similar city. Such a city has no character whatever no individuality; it cannot rouse any feeling of loyalty. How could you love this city? Why should you feel tied to it? Why should you feel that you belong to it and that you all belong together? Nobody would say with pride: “I am of this city. It is my city. I am its citizen”.
Such a city then is the expression of a life without tradition. Tradition is social rootedness living togetherness on the basis of common history of family acquaintance through many generations. Tradition is for men in general what the house of the parents is for the child. As a child cannot develop normally without family life so men cannot become truly human without tradition without growing into the life of past generations. Certainly man is created to be an individual personality. This is the law of the Creator. But just because it is so difficult to become a person he needs the support of the community and that means rootedness in and contact with generations preceding us and sharing with us their mature experience. You do not place a new-born child in the street telling him now to look after himself. In a way man always remains a child. He never becomes independent in an absolute sense. He always lives from that which others have learned thought experienced and created before him.
Uprootedness does not mean independence. On the contrary the uprooted man can never become independent. He is predestined to become a mass-man a particle of a collectivist mechanism an object of the totalitarian state. The decay of tradition during the last few generations is one of the most important presuppositions of totalitarian collectivism. It has created the mass-man just as the deforestation of the Mississippi Valley has created the sandy soil of the “dust bowl” which the storms blow into heaps and then disperse. It is not the huge size of city populations which creates the mass-man it is the lack of a common tradition.
It is not modern technics which is the main cause of social deracination but a conception of life which has ceased to value tradition that rationalism which has no relation to the past but sees life merely as a series of independent presences. Paradoxically man who has no past has no future either. Man to whom tradition is sacred plants trees and creates benefits for the next generations; because he has part in the past he looks prudently into the future. The uprooted mass-man cares for neither past nor future. He lives—as we say in German—in den Tag hinein; he does not save but spends what he has. He does not bother what becomes of his work he does not love durable things he loves change and duration seems to him tedious. It is only reverence for the past which makes you love things which last. That is why our age is so incredibly unstable. The sense of stability has been destroyed. The value of duration is discredited by a philosophy of incessant change. How should one who has been taught that only the new is good and who has never been taught the value of old things love that which endures?
For the Christian the valuation of tradition is primarily based upon the belief in God's order of creation and preservation. Was unser Gott erschaffen hat das will Er auch erhalten
The created order of the family as an expression of divine will is the foundation of all tradition. The family is based upon fidelity and loyalty between successive generations. The divine commandment “Thou shalt honour thy father and mother” is the Magna Carta of all true tradition. This commandment on the other hand presupposes that the older generation takes the responsibility for the coming one. The chain holding together the generations and so forming tradition is woven of respectful gratitude and far-sighted responsibility. The fifth commandment is however only part of the divine law. This law standing above the change of time guarantees stability against change. The same law which has bound the old binds the young. That is why it is written on stone tables. It is meant to last for ever. Where the sense of the divine law as the basic order of life is alive you need not be concerned about the power of tradition. Even within those nations to whom the divine law and order of creation were only imperfectly known but who were loyal to what they knew the continuity of tradition was solid and the chain linking the generations proved to be unbreakable. The divine order of creation and the divine law formulating it are the basis of natural tradition.
But now tradition fundamental as it is is not solely a positive value in the life of mankind. Es erben sich Gesetz und Rechte wie eine ew'ge Krankheit fort
The stable element can dominate in such a way that it kills. Life is renewal and human life in particular is creation of the new. Man is distinguished from animals just by the fact that he creates new things; that he does not repeat the same melody throughout the centuries but invents new songs; that he does not reproduce the same pattern like the bee and the beaver. The element of creativity is inseparable from spirit and culture; it is new knowledge new invention the creation of something which has never been before. In order to create the new one has to be independent of the old. One needs courage love of adventure to sail into the unknown dangers of the open sea. Here is the field for the pioneer who is not afraid to stand alone to swim against the stream and to take a course hateful to the mass of those who are bound by tradition.
Nay is not living tradition in itself renewal? Was Du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast erwirb es um es zu besitzen
Living tradition is not merely transmission but a receiving and giving which on both sides is creative. Every live teacher is somehow an artist who by teaching releases the sleeping powers of the pupil while a live pupil does not merely receive but by appropriating forms something new. When tradition becomes mechanical reproduction it is neither alive nor human. Genuine tradition is creative appropriation which in itself is progressive transformation. Live individuality cannot appropriate without giving stamping with its own stamp. Appropriation means reception into the organic whole which in itself is unique.
The creation of new things is necessary because what has been reached up to now is only a step on the long road to a distant end. The capacity to transcend himself which is the very essence of man is founded in the idea of perfection and absoluteness with regard to which every achievement appears as a mere approximation which cannot ultimately satisfy. The restless reaching out after the new is not grounded merely in a desire for change but in this striving for the perfect and absolute which dwells in the human mind. The more inexorably each achievement is measured by the norm of perfection and absoluteness the more alive is the spirit. The spirit is thus living in the unrest of a “not yet”. This is the dynamic of the idea of progress. It might appear then that the intensity with which the idea of progress has moved the modern mind is a sign of the spiritual vitality of our age.
This would really be so if that “not yet” were the true expression of our relation to the perfect and absolute. This superficial evaluation of our human situation is however exactly that false optimism which was the reproach of the past century. To see our reality from the view-point of “not yet” is an optical illusion. Not only is our life not yet good not yet human but rather no more good and no more human. It is not merely incomplete with regard to the perfect but it contradicts it.
This statement does not apply to all spheres in the same way. There are things which are imperfect or incomplete. The category of contradiction—or opposition—is meaningless say in the sphere of technical problems. The first locomotives were really imperfect compared with the present ones. In this sphere there is unambiguous progress. The same is true although not in the same measure of scientific knowledge. Science proceeds from the imperfect to a more and more perfect condition of knowledge. However the category of “not yet” becomes most problematic in the moral sphere and it becomes entirely wrong where the moral condition is viewed in connection with our God-relation. Our relation to God cannot be said to be “not yet” good. From the point of view of faith it is clearly “no more” good that is it is placed in the category of opposition or contradiction. Sin is not mere imperfection but deviation opposition to the will of God even destruction of the God-given status. The more man's understanding of himself becomes personal the more the category of “not yet” becomes irrelevant. The fact of “opposition” is central and progress is an unsuitable category in the Christian understanding of man's relation to God. Where man's true being is understood as communion with God the judgment on our actual being is this: loss of communion separation from God by sin and guilt. The only possible solution of the human problem is the restoration of the destroyed communion by forgiveness and salvation.
With the message of redemption in Christ and of ultimate salvation a completely new element enters human life which also entirely reshapes the relation of tradition and renewal. The restoration of God-communion is perfected in Christ. We look back upon it as something past. “It is finished” once and for all. The knowledge of this divine achievement is entrusted to the Church that she may pass it on from generation to generation. This passing on—this traditio—is her very essence and life. Church is tradition. On the other hand what the Church passes on is something perfectly new the unheard of novelty of divine forgiveness gratuitous love and the promise of final salvation and perfection. The content of the Christian message and tradition are those things which “eye saw not and ear heard not—prepared for them that love Him”. Jesus Christ is the “novissimum” of all history which cannot be derived from anything preceding but which also remains the “novissimum” throughout all history. He is the end of all history its transcendent goal; to believe in Him means also to believe in a new heaven and a new earth. “Behold I make all things new” says He who is the alpha and the omega the beginning and the end.
That is why Christian faith wherever it is genuine is not merely a power for progress but a revolutionary force in history. Faith in Christ in the One who started a new history is at the same time renewal of human existence here and now. Christian faith is inseparable from new birth from being a new creature. “Wherefore if any man is in Christ he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold they are become new.” This newness bursts asunder all continuity of tradition. Such novelty is not merely an improvement but a perfect revolution a revolution of thought and will. In the New Testament the patterns of continuity are rejected in sharpest antithesis. The new man is opposed to the old man in blunt contradiction. In a radical right-about-turn man must break with the old and turn completely towards the new. Christian existence is radically revolutionary being the expectation of the perfectly new world.
But what then of the necessity for tradition and conservation? We have to distinguish between centre and periphery. The New Testament faith is radically revolutionary in the centre that is in its relation to God and to men but it is not at all revolutionary in the periphery. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles attack the state or the social order with the intention of replacing them by another order. Not even such an immoral institution as slavery is directly questioned. The revolution takes place at first in the personal centre only. This emphatic distinction between centre and periphery is such a marked feature of the new life in Christ that at first sight the community of early Christians might appear to be utterly conservative in the political social and cultural spheres. If we recall however that little jewel of the New Testament St. Paul's letter to Philemon we see that this conservatism is merely apparent. This letter was addressed to a member of the Christian Church in Colossæ recommending its bearer a fugitive slave to his master. Whilst St. Paul takes the institution of slavery for granted he transforms it from within into a relation of brotherhood. A silent revolution takes place in the personal centre and from there transforms the social relationship.
We cannot understand such a relation between centre and periphery unless we bear in mind that the renewal through Christ is at the same time the restoration of the primeval good creation of God. Through Jesus Christ the image of God in man which has been destroyed by sin is restored. By the silent revolution the creatureliness of man is not ascetically negated but completed or fulfilled. Nowhere is this more clearly to be seen than in the element which is so decisive for tradition: marriage and the family. Marriage is not denied but fulfilled through Christ by being made a symbol of the unity between Christ and His body. In a similar way the institution of the family is not dissolved but transformed from within by being made a symbol of the paternal filial relation between God and man.
This is to say that the radical revolution within the invisible centre creates a silent revolution in the visible periphery not by changing laws institutions and orders as such but by inwardly transforming them and giving them a new meaning. That is why the most revolutionary force of world history manifests itself under the disguise of a conservative attitude. It is exactly by being so radically revolutionary that it takes a conservative appearance. The Christian knows that all changes which begin from without are no real changes. For after all it is always man who makes the conditions and not the conditions that make men. Outward revolutions are therefore at bottom fictitious much ado about nothing. Of course the world does not believe this. For the superficial mind which fails to understand the real relation between centre and periphery the silent revolutions always are too slow and not radical enough. It is only by becoming a Christian that a true valuation of the really revolutionary forces is gained; the secularised mind will always overestimate outward appearance and underestimate radical inward change.
The true revolution even within the social political and cultural spheres is always that which takes place within and seems to be conservative without. Certainly there is a danger lest the principle of inwardness become a mere disguise of unreality. This danger is however inseparable from the life of faith. Faith in the grace of God is always liable to be taken as a pretext for moral sloth and inertia. This however is not the fault of faith but of its being misunderstood. Misunderstood faith can use the principle of inwardness as a disguise for a false conservatism which preserves the present order not because of its element of divine creation but merely for reasons of personal privilege. All these misunderstandings cannot undo the truth that genuine faith with its silent revolution is an incomparably more radical transforming power than outward reformation and revolution.
This primacy of the “silent revolution” which is implied in the genuinely Christian distinction of centre and periphery does not of course exclude drastic action with a view to changing outward conditions and social structure. But two things will always distinguish the Christian from a secular revolutionary. First structural changes will never be given first place because of their ambiguity and ambivalence. Though the motive behind them may be truly Christian they may work out in a very different direction. The best of laws may create the worst of results if handled by men of evil spirit. Second the Christian will not be in favour of outward changes before the situation is “ripe” for them. Otherwise such changes may produce more confusion than good and if they are not prepared from within they will not last or will last only by tyrannical enforcement. That is why those social changes which are the result of Christian motives are more of an organic than of a violent nature. Radical as is the break between the old and the new in the centre the change in the periphery—in outward conditions and structure—takes on rather the character of slow growth. Great Christians were never “revolutionary” in the ordinary sense of the word. The “revolutionary principle” in this sense is much more the product of equalitarian rationalism than of Christian faith. It is radically opposed to tradition whilst in the Christian view of things a high valuation of tradition is paradoxically united with an incessant push to renewal.
Modern man who has emancipated himself from God's order and usurped the rights of God has also made for himself the claim: “Behold I make all things new”. Having somehow become omnipotent in his dominion over nature he thinks himself able to throw overboard all tradition and to create a perfectly new order according to his own design. This new order however always carries the stamp of technical rationality. As he overlays nature with his man-made artificial second nature by technical civilisation so he also substitutes for already slowly developed culture an artificial planned civilisation which is as ugly and inhuman and destructive of real creativity as those mushroom cities of the late 19th century.
Christian faith alone is capable of combining “tradition and renewal because it is based upon the unity of God the Creator and God the Redeemer. Tradition alone leads to petrifaction; renewal alone leads to dissolution artificial planning and tyrannical centralisation. The Christian faith affords the possibility and necessity of both: of reverent preservation and continuity and of radical change and indefinite growth. Both are equally necessary for a truly human civilisation.
One last thing must be said. Whilst it is true that the Christian faith lives by paradosis
by handing over the Gospel truth to every new generation it is equally true that this handing over creates real living faith only where this tradition is capable of renewal itself. The Gospel truth is the same throughout all centuries. But the human interpretation of this truth must be new in every new epoch and the forms in which this tradition takes place must be different according to the times and circumstances. Mere traditionalism is the death of the Church just as mere revivalism is its dissolution. So it is in the Church itself—in its functioning as the means of veritable tradition and renewal—that this duality of conservation and reformation has to take place. As a matter of fact it is not two things but one thing. The Church has to give the world the living Word of the living God. It is by His living Word that God preserves the world and it is by His living Word that He renews the world. Where this Word is alive and preached as a living Word and where it is received in real faith it cannot but do both: preserve what God wants to have preserved and renew what God wants to have renewed.
It is this mysterious unity of tradition and renewal which is the only hope in a world in which false conservatism and false revolutionism have brought about a tension which spells disaster. To enter into that mysterious unity of tradition and renewal is the meaning of the old and much abused word conversion. And it is there where the mere exposition of thought has to stop and the decision of the individual has to come in.