Human Tradition in a Modern World by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Human Tradition in a Modern World

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.  – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
excaliburThe comic genius of Monty Python often shows it face when interjecting the present into the past. The charming Arthurian legend of the transmission of Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake is demolished with the prosaic treatment of modern rationalism. It is easy to imagine what they might do in the midst of the medieval pomp of the Queen’s Address to Parliament. Of course, the Queen’s address has itself become farcical in that she reads a policy statement written by whatever party is in power. Thus the Labor party can make her sound like a raging Leftist revolutionary. It is Monty Python in reality.
But the point raised by the quote is, strangely, quite germane. Where does executive power come from? Is there nothing higher than the “mandate of the masses?” It is a question that sheds much light on the nature of our modern world and the assumptions by which we live. I am part of a hierarchical Church. The “mandate of the masses” is ritualized in a ceremonial cry of “Axios” [“He is worthy”], sung at an ordination. But executive power itself is vested in the hierarchy who serve the Tradition. In point of fact, the Tradition has executive power, and the Tradition is from God.
This contrast between the modern concept of governing and the traditional concept represents a deep division in the understanding of human life. With the rise of modernity, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the desire to “rationalize” all authority came to the forefront. “Reason” replaced tradition and was expected to yield the fruit of continual improvement. Reason allowed for standardization. Standardization allowed for greater central control. Life was transformed into an engine of prosperity and efficiency. Tradition became an obstacle to be removed.
Traditional societies are extremely messy. They do things in a manner that evolved for a great variety of reasons. An “inch,” a “foot” and a “yard” varied over a single Kingdom. A “foot” was, literally, more or less the length of a man’s foot. A traditional society was quite comfortable with measurements that were “more or less.” Efficiency and accuracy were not paramount. But just as measurements varied even within a single country, so institutions varied. Local courts and customs, even local laws might vary. The effect was a deep decentralization of life. To live in a village was quite distinctly to live in a particular village and not in a village in general. Place mattered. People mattered. History mattered.
Obviously such complete decentralization made efficiencies impossible. The great exemplar of modernity in the 18th century was the state of Prussia (in modern Germany). It was the first state to successfully make centralization and standardization a dominant feature in its life. It became the ideal of every monarch. Even in Russia, the Tsar began to envy the Germans. Various Tsars introduced rationalizations into the highly traditional Russian life. To this day, the strict regime within the Church of “awards,” consisting in various hats, crosses and liturgical items, reflects the Tsar’s rationalizing of Church affairs. Each award or rank was the equivalent of a civil servant’s rank. Everyone knew where they stood. The goal, of course, wasn’t to make the Church rational, but to make more of society serve the goal of efficiency and productivity. And those goals were directed towards war. Historically, the Tsars imported Germans to help with this project. It is how you find Russians with names like “Schmemann” and “Meyendorff.”
Of course, rationality brings tremendous benefits. Imagine how efficient it would be if the size and shape of people could be standardized. Clothes would not need to come in various sizes. The price of clothing would drop and no one would need be naked. One size fits all! But actual human beings are not “rational” in such a manner. They differ widely and dramatically; we treasure that difference. The rationality of the Prussian state produced an extremely powerful war machine. It eventually made possible the military success of Germany and Hitler. When Germany was developing a ruthlessly efficient army in preparation for the First World War, Generals in France were still insisting that their soldiers wear their traditional bright red pants. In 1913, the French Minister of War, Eugene Etienne, responding to the suggestion that the red pants should go, replied, “Abolish red trousers?! Never! Red trousers are France!”
The rationality of the modern project did not stop with armies. It gradually came into almost every area of life, including the Churches. One manifestation of this standardization was the production of catechisms. The Reformers wrote small tracts with detailed organization of doctrine, capable of memorization and rapid reproduction. They were extremely effective and efficient tools for the instruction of the population. The Catholic Church responded with its first Catechism after the Council of Trent. The Orthodox eventually developed one of their own as well. (I personally feel that the Catechisms represent a low-point in the “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy).
These developments might seem to be innocuous or even as real improvements. But they represent a shift in the center of gravity for human life. Traditional ways of thinking, living and interacting are organic rather than purely rational. Just as the standardization of human size and shape would actually diminish humanity and human experience, so the rationalization of every area of life does the same. A catechism tends to state succinctly things that should be stated at great length, or not even stated at all. They produce a form of knowledge, but not the form that is called Tradition. We do not learn Tradition; we areformed in Tradition. In the West, generations of children were drilled in their catechisms. Completion of the catechism was then greeted with the sacrament of Confirmation. The result was a rational Christian. The unintended result was a dull, moralistic, overly rational Church (sermons became dry treatises that often lasted two hours). A predictable reaction occurred. Deeply emotional revivals such as the First and Second Great Awakenings in America, the Methodist movement, and various Pietist groups on the Continent, all sought a return to something that was actually felt and not simply thought. There is no catechism that could capture or communicate the fervor of a Methodist brush arbor revival. Of course, those emotional reactions (precursors of modern Evangelicalism) were often accompanied with a decline in doctrinal instruction. Western Christianity was fractured.
Traditional forms of living are simply human forms of living. We are capable of assimilating highly rationalized life-styles and customs. But we love what is truly human. Who hasn’t quietly rejoiced when a bureaucrat at a counter bends a rule for their convenience and simply makes something work? Or who hasn’t cursed when greeted by a computer-generated list of choices and responses in a service call and simply begged for a human being at the other end of the line? These are components of our lives that indicate that, though we are capable of the rational, we transcend it and prefer to live above it.
We are several hundred years into the Modern Project. Much that was once traditional has been erased and replaced by rationalized structures. The pendulum has swung many times, with rationalization and reaction producing wave after wave of change and disruption. One result of this process is the disruption of childhood and adolescence. Human beings actually learn by tradition. There is no other way. Rationalized traditions have the inherent weakness of theory. On paper, this new math ought to be a great improvement. Of course, only a generation of children can actually prove whether it is so. And, modernity being what it is, another change will have been set in place before that generation has passed. Our rationalizations fail repeatedly, only to be corrected by new rationalizations and Johnny still can’t read.
The Church is similar. Almost no modern Christian worships in a manner similar to his grandparents (unless he is Orthodox). Does your grandmother actually like rock ‘n roll in Church? Years back, as an Anglican priest, I favored a High Church version of the Mass. We chanted and had bells, etc. One Sunday, a young Catholic couple visited, looking to explore a bit. After the service they told me that they preferred a more “traditional” service. I was dismayed, wondering what more I could do. When I questioned them more closely, they told me that they preferred a service with guitars. Post-Vatican II. Guitars are Tradition.
The presence and life of Tradition are essential to humanity. We are an adaptable species, meaning we can tolerate a tremendous amount of nonsense. But there is a reason why there is a Christianity that has remained largely unchanged, or, at most, has evolved rather than having been reformed. It is simply the continuation of a very human way of believing. I contend that this is God’s will. Human beings live best and become more fully what they are meant to be when they are actually allowed to be human. The march of modernity continues apace. It is increasingly sweeping traditions aside. Even restrooms are no longer safe from some “rational” regulation.
God deliver us from the rationalizers.