Tradition is something we think about more clearly when it’s slipping through our fingers. In the play Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the Dairyman becomes ever more vociferous (and anxious) about the preservation of tradition even as the customs of his beloved Jewish village in Ukraine are being remade and undone before his very eyes. For many of us, the family, friends, and social conditions that made those big Thanksgiving dinners or block parties so special come to be understood more completely only after they have become an old memory. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” sang Joni Mitchell in 1970.
We tend to think of tradition in retrospect, through stories and lineages. The etymology of the word is suggestive: It comes from the Latin tradere, which means to hand down or surrender. The practice of keeping traditions consists, in part, of tracing the sequences of what has been delivered from one generation to another. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation,” Abraham Lincoln said at the turning point of a war to preserve and reimagine a political community. But an alternative etymology of tradere is also suggestive: It can mean to betray someone or to give up—and it is the ancient source for the modern word treason. Tradition is stalked by the uncertain possibility of either faithfulness or infidelity, handing down or handing over.
But the betrayal of a tradition is not always decisive, its faithful preservation not always obvious—and that is particularly (perhaps uniquely?) true in the case of religious traditions. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” wrote the eminent historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition. But how can you tell one from the other?
That’s a question theologian David Bentley Hart takes up in Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief. “What is required,” Hart writes, “is a concept that can account both for everything in Christian belief that has not changed over time as well as for everything that has.” It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read practically anything by him that Hart believes that every Christian thinker has got the concept of tradition wrong. He also exaggerates the extent to which his argument ought to scandalize (and unfortunately, some heresy-hunting reviewers absolutely adore being scandalized). But such salesmanship on Hart’s part might be forgiven in light of the insights and provocations he brings to the table.
Hart finds both an inspiration and a bête noire in John Henry Newman, the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement Anglo-Catholic who left the Church of England for Roman Catholicism in midlife and eventually (in 2019, to be precise) ended up a Catholic saint. Hart credits Newman with raising the question of tradition in modern intellectual life: He was, on one hand, unlike protoliberal Protestant scholars who were on the cutting edge of critical scholarship on biblical texts and church history and who were poised to challenge the credibility of a unified Christian tradition. Yet he was also unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, who were, at the time, generally insulated from such revisionist scholarship and enjoyed the privilege of an authoritative magisterium that settled such thorny interpretive problems. The milieu of Victorian England, which saw new and ambitious projects to retrieve ancient and medieval Christian writings, was caught somewhere in between.
Newman was enough of a historian to see that the church had to come to terms with the problem of development. Controversial teachings about purgatory, Mary, and the saints, as well as more fundamental trinitarian dogmas (uncontested by Christians, whether Eastern, Western, Catholic, or Protestant) could not be traced back entirely or simply to the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christian communities. In his 1845 book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (the writing of which precipitated his conversion), Newman provided an innovative defense of tradition: Even though such teachings could not be found fully formed in the earliest possible sources, their logical seed could be. But how could one be confident that something was a genuine development and not a corruption? Newman presented a series of historical tests that supposedly could be used to establish whether a particular development of doctrine was an organic growth and an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, Newman’s tests are a bit of a letdown: “Preservation of a type” (the first one) makes a certain sense, but as he writes at length about “assimilation,” “preservative additions,” and something called “chronic continuance,” both the objectivity and the persuasiveness of his case lose their potency.
Hart credits Newman with raising the problem of development but faults him for failing to find a credible solution. “Any historian can find early intimations of later developments in the record of any continuous historical phenomenon,” he writes, “as he or she can find any number of thwarted tendencies that came to nothing.” In this, Hart simply conveys a basic principle of modern historiography: For almost all historical developments, causality is extremely difficult to prove, and the presence or absence of some transhistorical guiding providence or logic is not something historical evidence can establish. In short, trying to prove that a tradition has been properly handed down solely by means of historical scholarship is a kind of category mistake. Hart likewise finds much to commend in the French Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel’s attempt at a synthesis in his 1904 book Histoire et Dogme. Both Blondel and Newman, Hart argues, were “trying to justify the past by the past.” What his discussion of Blondel’s conception of a “living tradition” reveals is that far from reconciling dogmatic commitments with modern historical scholarship, Blondel finally appealed to the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church—which he said was established by the historical record, thus completing the tautological circle.
Must the circle be unbroken? Hart devotes thirty or so pages to revisiting the development of theological reflection on the relations of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ in the early centuries of the Christian era, principally in Clement, Origen, and the Cappadocians, with special attention to the First Nicene Council (AD 325). Hart’s conclusion—that what became the orthodox view of the doctrine of God and the metaphysics of the Incarnation was not a foregone conclusion or a historical necessity and that, in fact, the prevailing Athanasian party was significantly innovative in its approach to those questions—is hardly controversial these days. In the main, Hart’s view reflects a scholarly consensus that has developed over the past several decades: that the council at Nicaea was a fairly brutal affair driven by political factions; that Arius (whose position that God the Son was created by God the Father, and therefore was not coequal with the Father, would cause him to be regarded as the arch-heretic of church history) was actually quite conventional and conservative in some ways; and that the widespread adoption of the Nicene Creed was due in no small part to the vagueness of its terminology. The most precious dogmas of Christianity, then, became the focus of intense, persistent conflict. Can one admit these historical facts to be true and that the decisions of those ancient councils could have turned out otherwise—can one affirm the reality of historical contingency, in other words—and still believe that the orthodox Christian tradition developed faithfully?
I find myself sympathetic—and perhaps Hart would be as well—to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s view that the quest for a stable, conflict-free form of a tradition (which he identifies with Edmund Burke and his followers) is misbegotten. “When a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead,” wrote MacIntyre in After Virtue. Perhaps we might even say that the vitality and health of a tradition is to be evaluated on the basis of whether it is capable of producing further reconsiderations, retrievals, debates, and elaboration. On this point, it is worth nodding to another kind of tradition: leftist political movements that continue to tell and retell their own histories, formulating new projects of emancipation, and getting into bitter arguments. Not that the point of tradition is conflict. Far from it. (Though some comrades would undoubtedly disagree with me on that point.)
I kept waiting for Hart to consider more contemporary and secular theorists and sociologists, such as Edward Shils, whose 1981 book Tradition offered a helpful taxonomy of the “handing-down” process in cultural, social, and religious communities. In her discussion of Shils’s work in Religion as a Chain of Memory (first published in translation in 2000), French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger proposed that “tradition describes the body of representations, images, theoretical and practical intelligence, behavior, attitudes, and so on that a group or society accepts in the name of the necessary continuity between the past and the present.”
That definition, however, does not get the job done—at least not on what I take to be Hart’s terms. It seems too functionalist, resting the logic and fidelity of tradition too firmly in the needs of the community. And perhaps this is where religious traditions—in this case, those associated with the Christian religion—constitute a special case, different from the traditions that make up families and societies. At their best, Christian religious communities are not seeking primarily to preserve themselves or their own authority. They draw their life from revelation, the sacraments, and the eschatological promise of judgment. Religious doctrine and the tradition that hands it down, in short, purport to achieve something more than mere continued existence.
Hart has his own solution. And it comes after some lengthy pages of self-defense and score settling related to another of his controversial books, That All Shall Be Saved, in which he made a case for universal salvation and condemned any form of Christianity that maintains otherwise. He rightly argues that a backward-looking traditionalism tends to become a suffocating, joyless, and sometimes dangerous form of fundamentalism or confessionalism, neglecting weightier matters of faith, hope, and love in exchange for a Scrooge-like historical bookkeeping, which in the end, ironically, dispenses with history altogether and embraces ideology.
By contrast, Hart insists, the living faith of the dead is always working out the logical and spiritual meaning of that which was handed down: “Apocalyptic expectation…and not dogmatic purity was the very essence of faithfulness to the gospel.” Reactionary attempts to live inside an arid past might only finally be escaped by looking to the future Kingdom of God, to the final telos, which is a form of expectation that cultivates a “constant creative recollection of a promise whose fulfillment and ultimate meaning are yet to be unveiled.” Far from a tragic declension narrative, tradition under these conditions is comedic.
The question that looms over Hart’s essay is how to preserve authority in his cosmic, comic ideal of tradition. It seems rather obvious that any recognizable form of religious tradition must retain an element of authority—whether it be institutional or dogmatic. Hart has little to say about that, and nothing that is positive. This strikes me as a significant omission—and suggests a regrettable blind spot. As a rule, we don’t get very far without the presence of authority. The disappointment is that Hart is not only unconcerned with this question but derides any facet of tradition that relies for its viability on the power of authority. Perhaps this is reflective of his own view of himself as a “thinker of a freely and proudly syncretistic bent,” little concerned with “terms like ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heterodoxy.’” And perhaps that is well and good for Hart the intellectual, the social type whose vocation historian Christopher Lasch said was classically to be a “critic of society” and whose value is measured by his “detachment from the current scene.” But detachment and freethinking have limited value when it comes to tradition. And perhaps the intellectual may not be the best guide when it feels as though tradition is slipping through our fingers.