Thursday, July 24, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tradition

Even Rod Dreher has his moments of clarity, and today was one of them.  What, he asked, is really meant by the phrase "traditional Christianity"?  He often uses it himself, but he realized he's not all that clear on how to define it:
I use the phrase too, interchangeably with “small-o orthodox Christianity,” or just “orthodox Christianity.” What I mean is Christians of whatever tradition who adhere to, um, tradition. You see the problem.

When I push further, I say, in a Kierkegaardian vein, “Well, it means Christians who think that religion deals in objective truths, subjectively appropriated. Christians who believe that truth is something that exists outside of ourselves, as opposed to being something we can bend to suit our time-bound desires.”
But this still doesn’t get us very far. I consider a faithful Southern Baptist, a conservative Anglican, an orthodox Roman Catholic, and an Orthodox Christian all to be “traditional Christians.” Still … whose tradition? What sense does it make to say that Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics are on the same side as “traditional”? From a Catholic perspective, the Baptists are so far gone theologically from tradition that it makes no sense to think of them as “traditional Christians.” And from a Baptist point of view, the Catholics may be “traditional,” but they lost their way when they began adding man-made things to the pure Gospel, like the early church had.
(By the way, the notion of "adding man-made things to the pure Gospel, like the early church had" is laughably unhistorical.  If there is a "pure Gospel," no one knows what it is, or was.  The New Testament is a man-made thing, as are the creeds, and all the other paraphernalia of primitive Christianity.  You can tell even by reading the New Testament that the earliest Christians disagreed on core teachings and basics.  Paul may have exaggerated for polemic effect, but it seems that not all of the founders of Christianity agreed that Christ Crucified was the essence of the Gospel, for example, as Paul claimed it was.  I think I learned from James Barr's writings that even iconoclastic Protestants like Baptists adhere to much of the doctrine of patristic Catholicism, but thanks to their general historical ignorance they do so unawares.  This belief in a pure original Gospel is part of the myth of Christian beginnings that Robert Wilken analyzed in his book of that title.)

Often, Dreher concedes, "'traditional Christian' is political code for 'Christians who adhere to traditional teaching about sex and sexuality.'"   Even that can be questioned, for what is "traditional teaching about sex and sexuality"?  It hasn't been as consistent as Dreher would like to think.  He raises an interesting question, though, because even non-believers like me throw around this kind of terminology too freely at times.

In the end, Dreher quotes himself and wanders off into another minefield.  He cites the sociologist Philip Rieff, who
was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.
It's not enough to clarify what is meant by "traditional"; one must also clarify what is meant by "religion." It appears to me that Dreher's running in a circle here, by assuming that "what [a culture] forbids" equals its "religion," "a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework."   Which is okay, because definitions usually are circular.  But it occurs to me that although human cultures may have different metaphysical frameworks, they seem to agree on much of what they forbid.  Sexual behavior is always regulated, most cultures appear to regulate gender expression, hierarchies are common if not universal, violence and other use of force is regulated and justified.  The details vary -- may I marry a first cousin or not? -- and the rationales for the moral demands differ, but murder is still proscribed while killing enemies in war is rationalized and celebrated.  Consider too the status of polygamy in Christianity: neither the Tanakh nor the New Testament objects to it, but Christians abandoned polygamy as the cult became Romanized, because Roman culture forbade multiple wives.  Does this mean that Christianity adopted the Roman cosmology?

I'd say that the moral demands are prior to the cosmology, that the cosmology rationalizes the demands after the fact rather than vice versa.  From one perspective, studying the relation between the cosmology and the moral code is surely interesting and worthwhile, but from another perspective it misses the point, because the moral code doesn't follow from the cosmology.  In one sense the evolutionary psychologists have the right idea in trying to trace morality to human biology, but their understanding of both biology and morality is too impoverished to get them very far.  Still, if Dreher (not to mention Rieff) thinks that the "sense of sacred order" determines the moral code, he has a lot of explaining to do.

The situation isn't helped by popular confusion about the content of the moral code.  One commenter on Dreher's post wrote, "Many Christians chose the teachings about sex in Paul and the Old Testament over the teachings of Jesus. They reap their own whirlwind."  As far as I can see, Paul and Jesus are much closer to each other on sexual matters than either is to the “Old Testament.” Both thought total sexual abstinence preferable to marriage, for example. The Jesus of the gospels is anything but a liberal on sex, though as in most areas he was often vague about what he actually meant. What, for example, does it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the Kingdom? I presume he didn’t mean it literally, but what did he mean figuratively? How did he want people to live this teaching? I have no idea.  But this is an area where both "traditionalists" and, erm, well, let's call them "revisionists" even though as I already indicated, the history of Christianity is the history of its revision -- anyway, both traditionalists and revisionists are sure they know what Jesus meant, though the rationales for their interpretations fall apart under scrutiny.  I see this sort of view as further evidence that the values held are prior to their metaphysical framework.

Dreher pointed to changes in American sexual morality as shown by political choices, as shown by a correlation between the opinions of voters on sexual morality during the 1996 presidential campaign.  I think it would be instructive to look at the opinions of voters in 1980, when the divorced and remarried Ronald Reagan was embraced by conservative Christians as the candidate of family values, despite his flouting of Jesus' teaching on marriage.  They might have justified this by treating him as the lesser evil compared to the once-married Jimmy Carter, but I found that conservative Christians I talked to were mostly completely unaware of any conflict.  Quite a few of them were divorced and remarried themselves.  This indicates that the idea that American voters vote for morality over their pocketbooks is a bit more complicated than Dreher recognizes.