The Paradox of Abstract Traditionalism

January 31, 2007 § 1 Comment

Lydia McGrew makes the following observation:

The thing is that not many paleocons I’ve known have been willing to come right out and say that they don’t really mean to laud tradition qua tradition but rather one particular tradition, and that all bets are off (e.g. on whether people should defer to their own tradition, accept their “traditionally given identity,” etc.) when we’re talking about a non-Western context.

There is more preceding and subsequent to the comment, and it is worthwhile reading the whole discussion.

In the Marvel comic universe there is a vengeful hero named the Punisher who kills bad guys in cold blood. After a particularly vicious act of slaughtering bad guys he is asked “What makes you any different from them?”

The Punisher answers “I’m right and they’re dead.”

Now, any regular reader knows that I am no fan of the Punisher’s morality or methods. He is a broken figure, evil because of his brokenness, and needs to reform. But the episode brings into relief the fact that any one concrete situation is fundamentally different, at the level of incarnate reality, from another. The odd mix of narcissism with know-nothing fundamentalism that constitutes much of Islam’s tradition is not the tradition of Western Catholic Christendom.

Now one thing that I believe to be true is that for homo sapiens, meaning literally isn’t possible without tradition. We exist in a concrete reality which we cannot make completely explicit, and that concrete reality provides us with (among other things) pre-verbal meaning without which the things that we do make explicit are meaningless. But that doesn’t mean that what we incorporate as meaningful from that reality into our lives is necessarily true simply in virtue of being a tradition. So tradition cannot be banished, discounted, ignored, or asserted to be irrelevant in the face of that which has been made explicit: to do so is to deny the possibility of meaning entirely. But on the other hand, there isn’t anything about some arbitrary tradition -qua- tradition which makes it necessarily true, any more than some arbitrary sentence on a piece of paper is necessarily true.

So the upshot of it all is that tradition – and here I mean small-t pre-verbal tradition, not tradition that has been transformed into some explicit principles which we label Tradition with a capital T – has and must have epistemic authority coequal to that which is explicit. And yet, as with the things we’ve made explicit, there is no guarantee that a given pre-verbal incarnate tradition corresponds to incarnate truth. What guarantees correspondence to incarnate truth is connectedness to God Incarnate. What guarantees correspondence to incarnate truth is the Eucharist, Christ crucified and risen.

So the next time some modernist wag asks what the difference is between authentic Western Christian traditionalism and Islamic (or some other) traditionalism, you have a pithy answer: Christ is right, and those not with Christ are dead.

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