Why Tradition Matters
“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
- G.K. Chesterton
Nearly one hundred years ago, a war began. And it would change just about everything. With a single shot of gunfire and a fallen Austrian Archduke, a chain reaction would begin that would usher in horrors previously considered unimaginable. In the aftermath of four years of unparalleled bloodshed (up to that time), World War I provided a violent end to the Victorian and Progressive eras, left the unshakeable Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires in tatters, gave rise to the American and Bolshevik enterprises, and sowed the seeds of Hatred and Holocaust in the desolate soil of a bowed, but unbroken Germany. In short, the entire face of Western Civilization was transformed by the conflagration known as “The Great War”. And yet, in many respects, many American high school and college students are blissfully ignorant of these facts. What is unfortunate is that these young American students, finishing their formative years of education, are profoundly unaware of not only the facts surrounding World War I, but the dramatically more consequential repercussions “the War” had on subsequent history, politics, and economics. Yes, it is embarrassing that the majority of students couldn’t even name the American president at the time (Woodrow Wilson) and a large minority couldn’t even name the fifty year span in which the war was fought (1900-1950, in case you weren’t sure). But it is downright tragic, that in not having a passing familiarity and fluency with the facts of World War I, these students lacked any insight on what the war meant.
Now this isn’t an elitist rant about the inadequacies of history education in America, or the stark lack of a nominal curiosity for the causes and effects of history that each citizen should possess. Rather, it is to give an example illustrating a larger point. Not surprisingly, the mind-numbing teaching technique portraying history as a series of facts to be binged and purged for academic success is a proven failed enterprise. History is important because it has meaning and purpose. The facts of history provide foundation and context to this meaning and purpose. If one thought that World War I occurred in 1814 (one hundred years too early) and was centered in South America (in remote countries from its true European setting), one would also miss the larger point on the impact of World War I on the milieu that would bring forth World War II. Facts provide foundation and context. Context explains meaning. Meaning explains purpose. Purpose explains ramifications to you and me. So those seemingly irrelevant, poorly taught facts matter… it is simply our part to remember them, and our instructors do their part to contextualize and articulate the greater meaning behind them.
This brings me to my larger point. If history is valuable because its facts, context, meaning, and purpose can provide us with insight to better understand our world and to better live our lives, how much more valuable is our faith? And if there are millions of facts and intricacies over thousands of years pertaining to history, how many more is involved in our religion? When we recognize that we have inadequacies in our historical understanding (no matter how intelligent or motivated we may be to learn), we find ourselves relying on reasonable sources to provide wisdom and guidance. It is the same circumstance with our faith. And yet, while we defer to the aged and considered wisdom of the scholars of the historical tradition, somehow we are
supposed to be skeptical, even discounting, of the sages of the religious tradition – specifically, the Tradition of the Catholic Church. Why is this?
Let me begin with a conflict. I converted to Catholicism in 2009 (and had likely arrived to the Faith even earlier than that). On my path to conversion, I engaged in ardent intellectual and spiritual wrestling matches with my wife (a life-long Catholic) as I tried to win her over to Lutheranism. One particular misgiving of mine involved the notion of the Lutheran endorsement of “Scripture Alone (aka ‘Sola Scriptura’)” as opposed to the Catholic endorsement of “Scripture and Tradition”. How, I wondered, could the Catholic Church be so self-assured (and perhaps, self-righteous) to assign itself the ability to pronounce on and propagate teachings that could rival Scripture alone in authority. I was distressed at a worldview which seemed to border on hubris and risked becoming blasphemous. This issue would be a smoldering point of contention for years as my wife and I alternated attendance at Lutheran services and Catholic Masses. However, after innumerable Masses, frequent prayer, and serious intellectual exploration of the Catholic Faith Tradition, I learned a thing or two.
The Tradition that I found most incomprehensible (and at times, reprehensible) in the Catholic Church was, upon further deep (and at times, grudging) consideration, quite extraordinary. It wasn’t arbitrary. It wasn’t self-aggrandizing. It wasn’t intellectually anemic. Rather, it was robust but humble, strong but measured, firm but charitable. Tradition is centered on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and further informed by the thoughtful, Spirit-filled considerations of Christ’s apostles on earth.
The pinnacle of the Catholic Church is Christ. Not Mary, not the Saints, not the Pope, or the Archbishop. It is Christ. And this will be freely acknowledged by every member of the Church. The Scripture are the anticipation of Christ (the Old Testament), the life and teachings of Christ (the Gospels), and the reflection on the life and teachings of Christ during the budding of the new Church (the Acts, letters, and Revelation). Christ is central to Catholicism. But as Christ ascended to heaven, and the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ’s chosen Apostles at Pentecost, the Church’s history began. And with that history, came a Tradition – a Tradition guided by the Holy Spirit, and enacted by men who lived, ate, learned, wept, and celebrated with Christ. These men (and women) were charged with “going forth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).
This immediate Tradition came before the writing and distribution of the Gospels themselves, but was lived among the elect chosen by Christ. A community (or Church) was formed based on Spirit-led customs, norms, and mores that Christ’s band of followers deemed were most faithful to the teachings of their Master. These guiding principles would then be passed to the next generation which would pass them to the next generation, and so on. This Tradition involved establishing and refining a community of norms and standards, clarifying uncertainties, and resolving disputes. It was far from uncontroversial, but was Spirit-led and ultimately Scripture-led. This logical, thoughtful, and Spiritual propagation and safeguarding of the Creed and its practice, really seemed to make sense. As such, it seemed to me that Tradition deserved a second consideration. And so I would give it one. And over the course of years, the letters of Peter and Paul, the writings of the Church Fathers (Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, Clement, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Gregory the Great), the works of the Doctors of the Faith (Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena), and the writings of the Popes (Leo XIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI) have left me humbled and speechless. I found the sources of Tradition thoughtful, wise, and earnest – consistently and unequivocally pointing to Christ. Tradition seemed to represent man’s earnest attempt on earth to live out Christ’s teaching. And yet, since fallible man still had a hand in it, it would at times be stumbling and imperfect. Nonetheless, Christ Himself would vouch for it, forgiving his closest wayward betraying disciple, Peter, and charging him to be the Rock upon which the Church would be built.
So why does Tradition matter? This is the fundamental question that brings us back to World War I and the American students’ unfortunate ignorance about it. The words and deeds of Christ are enduring until the end of time. But we, unfortunately, could do a better job at reading, considering, and understanding what these words and deeds are and what they mean. The Church and its Tradition helps us with that. For nearly two thousand years, the Church has wrestled with the questions that intersect the life of Christ with the reality of our every day life. The Church and its Tradition, like an excellent history professor, teaches the facts well, provides context, meaning, and purpose so that we can translate this knowledge into action in our personal lives. As G.K Chesterton, a writer, wit, and Catholic convert once said:
“There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution [other than the Catholic Church] that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.”
“Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves.”
Like history, when explored, Tradition is robust and rich with Councils, Letters, Encyclicals, Declarations, and Apostolic Exhortations. Simply read the Catholic Catechism and look at the footnotes for a sampling that will boggle the mind. But what does Tradition mean? Chesterton explains:
“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
But is Tradition truly relevant in the Modern World? Chesterton quipped:
“Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked… It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”
What are the consequences of a disregarded Tradition? Chesterton warned:
“People do not know what they are doing because they do not know what they are undoing.”
- G.K. Chesterton
Tradition matters. It is the product of the Spirit, but also centuries of deep discussions, debates, quarrels, and arguments. Tradition is hard-earned because it deals with the most important thing in the world – our faith in Christ and how we are to best practice that faith. If being ill-informed or ill-engaged in learning history – in learning the facts, context, meaning, and purpose behind the major events of our day – can lead to grave consequences for our lives, how much more will being ill-informed or ill-engaged in our Faith Tradition lead to grave consequences for our souls? Tradition matters. Let us not forget this.