Thursday, December 02, 2004


Readers of theosebes may recall my not infrequent references to Dr. Russell Kirk, America's greatest 20th century expositor of conservatism. I had the good pleasure of working for him for a year. Dr. Kirk was, of course, a Catholic, an allegiance that informed his conservatism. I, of course, am not a Catholic and the issue of religion and conservatism came up on a listserv in which I participate. Below is a recent post somewhat adapted for inclusion here. It is presented without full context as it was part of an ongoing discussion. Still, the comments largely stand on their own. Someday I intend to write an extended essay on it all that will be of great interest to almost no one but me.
What is the purpose of tradition? Not tradition for tradition's sake, certainly, but rather as a means for generations of men to arrive at truth, or at least place a brake on man's experimental fancies. As Edmund Burke says: "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right." Tradition is the action of the species. It is particularly valuable when it comes to political and societal concerns.

However, traditions (in this context the handed down decisions of generations of man) are not necessary to arrive at truth when we have God's revelation. God tells us what truth is, because man, regardless of how many generations, cannot ever apprehend the great mysteries that God knows unless we are told by Him, ie, revelation. In the face of revelation tradition becomes an impediment. Jesus said to the very religious, but tradition bound Pharisees "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men." (Mark 7:8) They had allowed generations of man's teachings to obscure God's revelation.

My ultimate goal is to live true to the word of God as revealed in His word. Traditional responses and understandings of that word can inform my understanding of it, but it must not dictate it. Man's ways and understandings-even if done as a species-can only obscure what God has made clear in His word.

Now Catholics claim that God has instituted authority in a pope and a church, which I deny. Catholics operate from a point of definition-the primacy of the Catholic Church-which I do not accept. I see the Catholic Church as an obscuring of God's word by man's tradition. I do not think that makes me a radical at all, other than I seek radically to hold to God's word. I understand Catholics will disagree with that. But I would submit that there is, in fact, respectable ecclesiastical scholarship that disagrees with the Catholic historical understanding. And I'm not speaking of iconoclastic scholarship of the left, but rather work done by men who have great respect for God's word.

Yes, incomplete comments, but food for future discussion.

1 comment:

susanna in alabama said...

Interesting - I like that description of "tradition". I think considering tradition to be "accumulated wisdom" is a good place to start, and a nice way to think about it when explaining to others why discarding tradition as a matter of course is on its face unwise. That's not to say tradition should be slavishly followed, but that it deserves serious consideration as the accumulated wisdom of generations.

And of course I agree with you on revelation, I haven't much to say about that.

But I was intrigued by your discussion of Phariseeism, which is of course precisely now how the Jewish religion is practiced - more wait given to the Torah than the Bible. That's very similar to the Catholic approach of using centuries of accumulated doctrine and current Popes as the primary source of practice - in both, it's man's wisdom over God's. Interesting that for either religion to practice their faith as it now stands, they have to explain why God's Word - the Bible - is so weak as to need man's wisdom as a supplement. That naturally undermines their case that God is all powerful, and hampers any discussion of why the Bible should be followed at all. If God needs man, why would man need God?

Thanks for the thoughts.