Can Tradition withstand the onslaught of abstract reasoning?

The Future of Tradition
[font=Garamond, Times]Can it withstand the onslaught of abstract reasoning?

Friday, July 22, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

America has been in the midst of a culture war for some time and will probably remain so for some time longer. But culture war is not peculiar to this country. Indeed, there have been at least three great culture wars fought in the course of Western history, including one contemporaneous with the rise of the Sophists in ancient Greece, the epoch identified with the French Enlightenment and the German Aufklärung, and our own current battle. The first two ended in disaster for the societies in which they occurred–and the outcome of the third is still pending.

Each of these wars has its own particular antagonists, each its own weapons of combat, each its own battlefield. But the essential nature of a culture war is invariant: A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values. This is precisely what one would expect from those who excel in dispute and argumentation.

In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

Indeed, there could be no better example of this disdainful attitude toward inherited tradition than that displayed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in discussing her court’s legalization of gay marriage, clearly expressed by her summary dismissal of any opposition to the high court’s decision as arising from nothing more than “residual personal prejudice.” Against such opposition, it is no wonder that many conservatives–including many of those who call themselves neoconservatives–have attempted to combat the opponents of tradition with their opponents’ own weapon of enlightened rationality.

But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason–can we rationally justify keeping it? Suppose we have been raised in the belief that we must wash our hands before every meal in order to appease a local deity in our pantheon, say, the god of the harvest; and suppose again that we have come to learn of the hygienic benefits of washing our hands before every meal. Must we keep the absurd tradition once we have grasped its scientific rationale? In either case, whether tradition and reason conflict, or tradition is revealed to be reason disguised, reason wins and tradition loses. Where reason shines forth, then, tradition is no longer necessary. Hence the question before us: In a world that is being more and more rationalized, does tradition have a future? Or will we one day look upon it as we now look upon the myths of the ancient world–quaint and amusing, but of no real relevance to our lives?


My own view is that the Church and her tradition have nothing to fear from science, abstract reason, and the so-called enlightenment. Nolite timere!

The heart of Thomism - still central to the Catholic faith - is a fundamental belief that reason and revelation cannot contradict. There are no scientific facts to fear. We welcome a thorough understanding of what is true, good and beautiful.

We should be all for eliminating superstition. Where I disagree with the author is that he seems to view religious faith as a species of superstition. This simply doesn’t square with the facts of anthropology, reason, or true salvation history.

The respected historian Christopher Dawson has described how in primitive societies there was always a firm distinction between the myths, rituals, superstitions on one hand, and the universal phenomenon of spiritual leaders within communities who claimed and described direct knowledge of a wholly-other Being on whose providence our own existence came into being.

He noted that very often, members of tribes were fully aware that their superstitions, such as their fertility cults, were just rituals, and there really were no fertility goddesses in the sky. Nor were the Roman gods taken as literal gods. (Note that Lucretius begins The Nature of Things by asking the goddess Venus for help as he undertakes his diatribe against religion and superstition!)

Yet ancient tribes - importantly including the Jews - took their holy-men and mystics very seriously, and literally.

There is a world of difference between believing in a fortune-cookie, or some crack-pot New Age aphorism, and assenting to the Catholic Creed which is based on a millenia-long, dramatic and inherently meaningful salvation history in which Yahweh made himself known to us as the Creater of the Universe, who brought us into being, on whom we depend completely.

Some of my Catholic friends have the sense of dread - which seems to be expressed in this article - that our spirituality is being peeled away and discarded century by century, by reason and science, like some sort of painful torture. I have learned over the years that some of the “enlightenment” bullies want you to believe that, but it is most certainly not the case.

Nolite timere!

A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values.

“Superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas”?? Give me a break! The Catholic Church has always been the last bastion for the practice of reason. What passes for reason among secularists is often anti-intellectual and incoherent.

It is more than a bit odd that in listing the “great culture wars in the course of Western history” that he failed to include Christianity and the culture war against paganism. I think this omission weakens his essay (which has a number of other defects), especially in light of the current culture war he mentions which is in large measure a war against Christian culture.

I must admit that I didn’t care much for the implication that “abstract reasoning” is on the “other side” and somehow a danger for tradition.


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