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Conversing with the Dead: On the Connection Between Tradition & Change

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

G.K. Chesterton once called tradition “the democracy of the dead.”  Another Christian intellectual, C.S. Lewis, encouraged his readers to avoid “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that our age is better simply because it is after a previous age.

What does it look to acknowledge that traditions develop and change without simply turning into a blind iconoclast?  We find some help in a wonderful little book by the late Yale historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan, fittingly titled The Vindication of Tradition.  He suggests avoiding both “relativism” and “constructionism” in viewing the development of a given tradition:

There is a kind of historical relativism that will emphasize only the variety of opinions and the irresistibility of change over the years, but will ignore the continuity. There is also a kind of strict constructionism that proceeds as though development were not real and were only the application of an unchanging and unchangeable authority to outward change. The American republic, the Jewish community, and the Christian church have all had advocates of both these interpretations, and they still do. But their accumulated wisdom has taught them to recognize – and the critical-historical study of their traditions has compelled them to acknowledge – that development is real but that it goes on within the limits of identity, which the tradition defines and continues to redefine.  Like any growth, development may be healthy or it may be malignant; discerning the difference between those two kinds of growth requires constant research  into the pathology of traditions. But it is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the museum. (59-60)

To those who think that tradition and development are opposites, and completely unrelated, note Pelikan’s observation:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight – in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology – has not come through progressively soughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work they way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. (81)

In other words, development occurs best within a tradition, in conversation with those who’ve gone before.  This epistemological humility is akin to Sir Isaac Newton’s insight that if we can see a little further than those who have come before, it is only because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

There is a great deal of theologizing that falls into the above categories – a complete sloughing off of tradition (which is a bit like cutting one’s anchor in a violent storm), or an ossifying of tradition (as if we should use ether instead of modern anesthesia because ‘that’s how grandma did it’).  These are both dead ends.  Instead, healthy development happens in traditions that keep distinctive identities and include the dead in the conversation even while seeking new expressions and avenues.  As Pelikan put it elsewhere, tradition is “the living faith of the dead” while traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living.”

Where do you see the vibrant use of Christian today? How do we discern healthy development from unhealthy?  When does tradition become traditionalism? Leave a comment below!

 

 

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William Sloane Coffin on Atheism’s God

wsc coverImagine a movement to abolish film based only on the work of Adam Sandler, or to abolish the radio because of Justin Bieber.  What if I began a series of blogs arguing for the closing of all art museums because of the laughable efforts of my 5th grade neighbor that aren’t even worthy of a refrigerator magnet?

Most atheists, in rejecting God, are not rejecting a God I recognize.  Having read much of the atheist literature, including some of the prominent voices of the virulent strain of anti-theistic writing called the ‘New Atheism,’ I am often left underwhelmed with the depth of analysis.  William Sloane Coffin, near the end of his life, wrote a great little book called Letters to a Young Doubter.  In it, he imagines a dialogue with a freshman college student and friend named Tom, who is navigating faith and family and studies and doubt as he begins his undergraduate career.  He warn Tom,

“It may, however, be worthwhile to tell you about what I have found to be a common phenomenon in American universities today. Professors judge poetry, novels, art, and music by their very best works. Why then do so many judge religion by the worst examples of it? I used to ask professors, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ I know that 99 chances out of 100 I wouldn’t believe in their kind of God either.”

As Coffin hints at, the New Atheists and their fandom constantly argue against religion by highlighting its worst possible exemplars.  Critical readers will recognize this tactic as arguing against a straw man – a fallacy that is unfortunately as common as it is effective.

Give me Nietzsche any day: an atheist with the intellectual virtue to actually know that which he rejected.  He despised Christianity on its own terms: the life and witness of Jesus was to him disgusting, as it led to the “slave morality” he despised.

At least Nietzsche cared enough to read the source material at its best.  If only today’s atheists would do the same.  Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it thus, with his characteristically sharp quill:

“The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).”

In proving the undesirability of “gods” that no one, perchance for a few extremists,  actually worships, contemporary atheists are not so much making arguments as they are reinforcing the boogeymen of their own imaginations.  And, of course, book sales.  Hysteria always sells, after all.

Sadly, in rejecting out-of-hand what they do not understand and have not critically engaged, the New Atheists and their ilk are mirroring the behavior of those they most despise: religious fundamentalists.  Thus, they become two sides of the same coin.  As we’ve said before, beware what you loathe, because you will become it.

(For more of David Bentley Hart tearing down New Atheist straw men, see video below.)

Source: William Slone Coffin, Letters to a Young Doubter Louisville: WKJ 2005), 17-18.

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Muslim who threatened ‘South Park’ creators gets 25

Another shoutout to one of the best animated shows around; this times, it seems that their fight for first amendment rights has been fruitful.  The founder of the ‘Revolution Muslim’ website had most recently become infamous for implying death for Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park who dared to show Muhammad in an episode of the show (alongside Jesus, Moses, Krisha, and several other religious icons).  This was offensive to Muslims, for whom it is verboten to depict the prophet in any manner.  Parker and Stone, quasi-liberterians who are major advocates of free speech, balked at network restrictions and decided to show Muhammad inside a U-Haul van and a bear costume to poke fun at the double standard applied to Islamic sensibilities.  Death threats and controversy continued, but it seems the Federales were paying attention too. The 21-year-old Chesser apparently helped out a terrorist organization, in addition to other charges.  Via the Hollywood Reporter:

“Zachary Chesser will spend 25 years in prison for advocating the murder of U.S. citizens for engaging in free speech about his religion,” U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said Thursday. “His actions caused people throughout the country to fear speaking out — even in jest — to avoid being labeled as enemies who deserved to be killed.”

Full story over at Ain’t it Cool.  In many ways, this is a continuation of the Danish Cartoon controversy and the discussion over the ‘right’ not to be offended.  As a Christian, of course, I realized long ago my own beliefs are fair game and, moreover, that I need to laugh at myself.  One of the things I most respect about South Park, for instance, is their insistence on making fun of everyone.  We should all be able to laugh at ourselves; there is no reason this cannot coexist alongside a serious faith commitment.  Kudos to prosecutors for insuring that the bullies don’t get their way.

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LOST: Dan Brown’s Symbol, and my interest in JJ Abram’s series

My special MS Paint rendering...

This week I finished Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, and I am struggling to finish season 5 of Lost.  In the case of both, I like the earlier work better than the later work.

Granted all of their theological and historical flaws, I really enjoyed both Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.  I read them as fiction, didn’t take them too seriously, and truly enjoyed them both.  Also, I read them both in a week or two max.  My experience with The Lost Symbol has been vastly different.  I’ve read it off and on over several months – eventually, I was no longer really interested in the story, other than to see how it all wrapped up.  You might say that this means the novel did its job – it got me to read it.  That would be true, except that this experience means I will not be chomping at the bit for Brown’s next work.

Why the different experience? I think it was ultimately the subject matter, and its treatment.  I like the main character, Robert Langdon, the skeptical Harvard symbologist with an encyclopedic memory.  But both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons deal with explicitly Christian themes – in one, the Catholic Church and the “battle” with science, and in the other, the “real” history of Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene.  Both were rather simplistic philosophically, but the plots were interesting and the little tidbits of actual history kept me going.  I read Angels and Demons around the time that Pope John Paul II died, so it was especially interesting.

But The Lost Symbol is all about Masonic lore.  Snoooooooooooze.  Who cares?  The plot revolves around an arcane treasure called “The Ancient Mysteries,” which is presumably a font of knowledge condensed from and hidden in all the great traditions of world history, preserved by the Masons.  A bad man wants to get the Ancient Mysteries, ostensibly for some nefarious purpose, and Langdon must help the Masons and/or the CIA get to it before him.  Are you asleep yet?

Most annoying of all, it traffics in that most common of modern views – all the more ignorant because it is taken for granted: the notion that all religions are essentially the same, pointing to the same goal, and thus possess a common “core.”  This has the compliment of being tolerant to all religions and finding value in them; but it is a back-handed compliment at best because ultimately none of them is anymore “true” than the other.

Here is a particularly grating example:

Robert, you and I both know that the ancients would be horrified if they saw how their teachings have been perverted…we’ve lost the Word, and yets its true meaning is still within reach, right before our eyes.  It exists in all the enduring texts, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita to the Koran and beyond.  All of these texts are revered upon the altars of Freemasonry because Masons understand what the world seems to have forgotten…that each of these texts, in its own way, is quietly whispering the exact same message.

Ugh. The very notion that the world “forgot” this universal ‘faith’ is stupid, because it suggests that somehow all of these religions that developed at different times and in different places were, in the beginning, self-consciously identical projects to all the other faiths.  This obvious fallacy results from reading an insidiously pluralistic, modern, and secular philosophy of religion into the whole of world civilization.  Ask a Muslim if he is trying to achieve the same thing as a Buddhist, or a Sikh.  Ask the Hindu if the hopes and goals for their life is the same as that of an Orthodox Jew.  Only a vile, secular, hyper-modern Westerner could possibly assume they would all say “yes.”  This is an intellectually adolescent flaw that infects the entirety Dan Brown’s novel, and after a while, I just got tired of it.  That, and the fact that the plot and its characters weren’t nearly as compelling as Brown’s two most famous works.  So, if you want me two cents – skip it.

As for Lost: Well, I’m in the same situation I was in with The Lost Symbol.  I’m no longer that emotionally invested in the plot, but I want to know how it all wraps up.  But I don’t really care about any characters, save perhaps John Locke.  And I’m not sure why, at that.  At first, thanks to Netflix, I blew through Lost.  I ate it up.  But then I stalled.  Midway through season 5, I got stuck in an episode.  Too much time travel, back-and-forth, and interconnected plot points.  I think JJ Abrams is awesome, but I just got lost (pun intended).  I finally got up the nerve to start back (thanks to all the season 6 hype), and now I’m working towards the end of season 5.

Still, it feels like a chore.  Like homework, really.  But hey, who’s the idiot here?  I’m still watching.  Since the demise of The Shield, and the interim period before new seasons of Rescue Me and Sons of Anarchy, I have to take what I can get.

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