Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of Tradition

"Apology" was originally derived from the Greek ἀπολογία, transliterated as the Latin apologia. The word is translated "speaking in defense," and it is from this root that we speak of "apologetics" as a discipline of argumentation and rhetoric. Nowadays, "apology" is much more often used as an expression of regret or remorse, an acknowledgement of shortcomings.

In this case, I feel both meanings are particularly apt. On the one hand, especially in a modernist society that attaches great value to individuality and originality, it sometimes seems necessary to apologize for advocating the ideas and institutions of the past. On the other hand, especially in a modernist society that has little respect for the wisdom and experiences of its predecessors, it must always be necessary to defend the ideas and institutions of the past.

A few days ago I posted G.K. Chesterton's famous defense of tradition as "the extension of the franchise" and as "the democracy of the dead." I think this approach is both necessary and effective. But the case for tradition extends far beyond mere egalitarian sentiment.

Tradition is not just democratic; it is essentially rational.

It should be obvious that every person has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. It should be equally obvious that this applies to both the whole as well as the part. Every society and culture carries certain advantages and disadvantages. This is not to say that all cultures are created equal -- I doubt anyone would volunteer to live among the Aztecs or Spartans -- but it is to say that no culture is perfectly utopian nor totally dystopian.

It also follows that every culture has its own peculiar blind spots. Certainly there is true of the early American republic, which preached freedom for all while enslaving the few. I think this principle can be safely applied for all people and for all times.

The only way to see past a blind spot is to change perspective. In order to be rational we must distrust our own reasons, and seek to view ourselves through the lens of other cultures, whether distinguished by time or by distance.. We who belong to the West ought to moderate our sometimes extreme individualism with the communal orientation of the East. Likewise, we who belong to the modern age out to recall the mores and traditions we inherit from the medieval ages.

It is wise to view our own culture through the lens of another, and that is the essence of tradition.

It often strikes us that many conventions and customs we inherit from the past seem to be quite non-rational. In the Whit Stillman film Metropolitan, the characters play a game where the loser must answer any question put to them, even if it betrays a secret. When one character, Audrey, objects, the others tease her and say they can't think of why they shouldn't place such a game. Audrey responds: "You don't have to! Other people have, and that's why it became a convention."

It is wise to abide by social customs, even when (and especially when) you cannot think of the reasons for it, and that is the essence of tradition.

On the other hand, it must be conceded that many of the ideas and institutions of the past are positively irrational, with something approaching contempt for reason. Yet this is not in itself an argument for their abolition. As a matter of history, almost all governments arose by an arbitrary concentration of power and prestige. Recorded instances of a "social contract" are vanishingly rare. Yet anarchists are few and far between. Despite the modern appetite for chaos in our art and originality in our ideas, stability is an essential good. In economic terms, it enables technological progress and capital accumulation; in personal terms, it allows us to plan for and anticipate the future.

It is wise to organize a society around the principle of stability, and that is the essence of tradition.

Finally, traditions are not limited to merely the realm of social convention. Traditions exist within intellectual disciplines and fields as well. The same principles above apply here as well, with still further benefits.

On the whole, intellectual traditions do not arise out of the input of common minds. Indeed, they do not even grow out of above-average minds. The paradigms of thought and the defining insights are almost always the product of geniuses.

We receive philosophy from the minds of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bacon and Descartes, among many many others. It is for this reason that my professional interest in economics began in the history of economic thought: by following the intellectual innovations through history, I trained myself to identify with and think like the great economists of history. I learned from the Greeks, from the Schoolman, from the Physiocrats, from the classical economists of Scotland and France, and from the modern economists of Chicago, Oxford, and Vienna.

In social circles, anyone and everyone contributes to tradition: that is its great democratic virtue. But in intellectual circles, only the brightest luminaries contribute to Reason's vast estate: that is its great aristocratic virtue. In such matters we follow tradition as the students of the medieval University would follow a teacher, eagerly seeking to learn from it, avidly scrounging for every scrap of wisdom it might dispense.

Tradition is not the sole good in the world. But I cannot deny that it is a very great good, and one that has been tragically underrated for far too long. This is my apology; here rests my defense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Reading maketh a full man"

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.

They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores ["studies transform into customs"]. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like.

So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores [hair-splitters; literally, 'cutters of cumin seeds']. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.

Francis Bacon, "Of Studies," The Essays or Counsels, Moral and Civil
Hat-tip to Julie Robison at The Corner with a View.
For other essays, check out the complete text at Authorama.

Overview: On Mary

Of all the differences between Catholics and Protestants, the teachings concerning Mary are quite possibly the most contentious. They are also quite unfamiliar to someone like me, coming from a Protestant background. Yet I recognized that, while Marian devotions are often treated as de facto idolatry, it does not follow that they are intrinsically so, nor that we must reject them out of hand as spiritually deleterious.

Thus, after my notes on the Eucharist and on the Saints, a series concerning Marian dogma seemed to me a logical next step.

Mary, Mother of God introduced the topic by reference to the Marian dogma defined by the early Church: her role as Theokotos, "God-bearer." This dogma was asserted at Ephesus to counteract the Nestorian heresy that identified Jesus Christ as separately a human person and a divine person. On the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth was a single person of two natures; thus, the woman who bore him was not merely the bearer of the human Christ (Christotokos), but was the bearer of the full person, human and divine. Mary was the Mother of God.

This initial discussion clarifies several principles at the heart of Marian dogma.
  1. Mary's role in salvation history consists entirely in relation to Him; therefore, all Marian dogma originate in the context of Christology. We seek to understand the Son through His Mother, and to understand the Mother through her Son. It is for this reason that, in traditional Catholic and Orthodox iconography, Mary is always seen pointing to her child. It is her role.
  2. Marian dogma originated in the early Church and has been in a continual process of refinement ever since. It was not a late addition enforced by the authority of Rome.
  3. Marian dogma can be largely interpolated throughout New Testament passages -- that is, they have significant Scriptural support. These passages do not entail such readings in themselves, but that is not their function.
  4. Marian dogma developed largely in response to Old Testament typologies: that is, prefigurations of Christ and the New Covenant throughout Jewish history.
Mary, Ever Virgin outlined briefly the history of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity. Its pedigree is from the earliest liturgies and writings of the Church, and by the fourth century it was so firmly grounded in Christian orthodoxy that it would not be denied until well after the Protestant Reformation. The dogma arose in response to a particular typology: the identification of Mary with the Ark of the Covenant. The old Ark contained three elements (the Decalogue, the jar of manna, and Aaron's staff) that were clear antecedents to Christ. From there it was simplicity itself to link the Ark itself (overshadowed by cherubim and bearing the figures of Christ) to Mary Theokotos.

Mary, Full of Grace speaks primarily to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma was defined late in church history (initially in the fifteenth century, officially in 1854), but was grounded in the early Church. The Immaculate Conception is grounded in the typological reading of Christ as the second Adam and Mary as the second Eve. On this basis the Church inferred that Mary must have been in a state of innocence at the Annunciation, that she would be perfectly free to choose obedience, and that she would not be bound by a prior nature to sin.

Mary, Queen of Heaven primarily treats the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The earliest marker lies in the nativity of Revelations 11:19-12:5, which speaks of Mary both as the Ark of the Covenant and as the Mother of God. But the imagery hearkens at yet another typology, from its regal imagery.  From the first verse of Matthew 1:1, Jesus Christ is identified as the Son of David and the rightful heir to the crown. Yet Solomon, who prefigured Christ, afforded great honors to his mother Bathsheba, and the Davidic line preserved the institution of Queen Mother for generations to follow. From this typology -- the relation of Mary to her royal Son -- the Church derived the dogma of her Assumption and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.

Mary, Mother of the Church primarily concerns Mary's relation to believers today. This final note briefly touches on the typological connections between Mary, Israel, and the Church as the long-suffering servants and stewards of God (from which we derive the idea of Mary as 'co-redemptrix'). Indeed, the typology connecting Mary to the Church extends far beyond the idea of ongoing redemptive suffering. But Mary is not just a typology for the Church, for she is the Mother for another typology: Christ Himself. When Christ commanded the apostle John to take Mary into his own household and treat her as his mother, He addressed this command to all the faithful, all the disciples whom Jesus loved. Thus, Mary is entrusted to us as our own Mother, and receives our love and devotion in that regard. For we are the sons of God as we are brothers in Christ, and we are the children of Mary as we are the Body of Christ.

Having overcome my objections to Marian dogma, my next series of notes would treat the teachings on the Church, and the Catholic emphasis on ecclesiology.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Tradition... is the democracy of the dead"

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German history against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. the legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that in the past men were ignorant may go and urge it... along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.

G.K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995 [1908]. Pp. 52-53. (Chapter 4: "The Ethics of Elfland").

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Property is merely the art of the democracy"

God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God must be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits. Man's pleasure, therefore, is to possess conditions, but also to be partly possessed by them; to be half-controlled by the flute he plays or by the field he digs. The excitement is to get the utmost out of given conditions; the conditions will stretch, but not indefinitely. A man can write an immortal sonnet on an old envelope, or hack a hero out of a lump of rock. But hacking a sonnet out of rock would be a laborious business, and making a hero out of an envelope is almost out of the sphere of practical politics. This fruitful strife with limitations, when it concerns some airy entertainment of the educate class, goes by the name Art. But the mass of men have neither time nor aptitude for the invention of invisible or abstract beauty. For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions--the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colours he admires; but he can pain  his own house with what colour he chooses; and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of Heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

G.K. Chesterton. What's Wrong with the World? New York: Dover Edition, 2007.  Pg. 35 (Chapter 6: "The Enemies of Property").

Friday, May 6, 2011

I think I'm turning Catholic

Huh. So I think I'm turning Catholic.

My first encounter with Catholicism was not a positive one. When I was younger, I asked a girl if she was Christian. She replied: "No, I'm not Christian! I'm Catholic." Again, not exactly a positive experience.

My second encounter with Catholicism was quite a bit better. It was at a religion and economics conference, where I finally met an adult Catholic who knew about his faith and doctrine, and could explain why. His brief clarification on the subject of the saints resolved that issue before it even became a major objection for me.

Over my college life I met a number of other Catholics. The ones who actively identified themselves that way tended to be doctrinally orthodox and intellectually active, so I respected them a good deal. I even knew one friend who 'converted' to Catholicism in his senior year of college. At the time, however, I viewed it as I might view a switch between Baptist and Lutheran, not as a particularly noteworthy event.

When I was 17 I had my big spiritual experience, and the life of my faith has been (for lack of a better word) quite lively ever since. My primary mode of worship was in theology; my primary mode of pursuing God was by reason. I don't believe it's objectively better or worse than other modes (as Scripture tells us, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength") but it worked quite well for me.

Near the end of last year, however, I discovered something that came as quite a shock. My theology was over 50% Catholic. Without quite realizing it, my faith had developed within a substantially Catholic framework. I think I can blame C.S. Lewis -- the ostensibly Anglican but universally Christian apologist whose works are acclaimed by Protestants yet informed by a thoroughgoing Catholic worldview.

At this point I was not Catholic, for there remained quite a few hold-outs of Protestant doctrine. But at that moment I realized I needed to take Catholicism and Catholic doctrines seriously.

So I began my investigation, and my objections starting tumbling, one by one. The initial realization had begun with the Eucharist, and thanks to my earlier experiences I already had a firm grasp of the Saints. Mary was a bigger stumbling-block, so I started in on the Marian doctrines next.

The next step was the Catholic teachings on Salvation. I knew of the whole "faith v. works" debate from the Reformation years, and my instincts on the matter were entirely Protestant. But when I finally understood the Catholic perspective, I found it impossible to maintain my objection to it. Ironically, the same books that led Luther to reject Catholic teachings (Romans and Galatians) for me actually paved the way to the Catholic Church in this matter.

The next step was the Catholic understanding of the Church. Predictably, as I was a Protestant, my primary objections were to Tradition and to the Magisterium. On the other hand, my theology had been rooted for some time in a kind of traditionalism (mostly thanks to C.S. Lewis), so these elements had a sort of instinctive appeal for me. Nevertheless, these doctrines took the longest to accept.

In the end, out of a few dozen objections I'd started with several months before, I was reduced to very few. The two doctrinal points were the Marian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the ecclesial doctrine of papal infallibility. The other was much broader: the insistence on non-Christological doctrine as prerequisites for participation in the Eucharist. Over the next several weeks of focused study, these objections fell as well.

I don't fully understanding Catholicism -- if I imagined I did, I should be ashamed of my conceit. Nor do I deny that there are many sins committed and many errors believed by Catholics. Moreover, I can hardly deny that the Catholic culture is anything but foreign to me. But these are not objections. I question whether full understanding is ever in our grasp, I am hardly surprised to find that people sin, and my cultural shock will no doubt be overcome in time.

It boils down to this: the doctrinal objections that would keep me away have fallen like dominoes. My acceptance of Catholicism at this point seems like a matter of intellectual honesty.

I write this note as an open invitation. I will begin the formal process of becoming Catholic next week, by starting RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes at the parish. But while I can hardly help but treat it as a foregone conclusion, I don't want to ignore potential difficulties. If you have major objections to Catholic doctrine, I would love to hear them. I will continue posting my notes on Catholicism, and will continue to explore the themes and topics discussed in this note. But I trust in others to see where I am blind and to catch where I miss.