Tradition, Rootedness, and Freedom

Tradition, Rootedness, and Freedom October 26, 2011

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
Who, day and night,
must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children,
say his daily prayers?
And who has the right,
as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

From Fiddler on the Roof

A few days ago, my wife and I had conversation number 7.  We have certain conversations that we have over and over in our marriage, so we decided we should number them.  We didn’t actually number them, but we should.  This conversation was about our respective attitudes about tradition.  To my wife, tradition is grounding.  To me, tradition is restrictive.

I was recently reading a sermon given by John Trevor in 1889 and recorded in his autobiography, My Quest for God.  Writing about the idea of personal immortality, he states that preaching such doctrine is vain, because a person will either believe it or not depending on whether his or her own life gives them cause to believe in it.  He reasons that such beliefs “can only spring out of our own inner life.”

“The great interpreters of Nature, those alone who can be of any real help to us, are those who looked on life for themselves, at first hand, those who had a strong inner life of their own to guide and sustain them in their search for truth. And it is only as we share their inwardness, their independence, their personality that they can truly help us. To be of real service, they must be to us travelling companions rather than guides, comrades rather than masters, friends rather than teachers. The attitude of discipleship is fatal to us, and also does them wrong. We call such men Seers, and so they are; but we can see no vision through their eyes. They may point us where to look, and tell us what they see; but we must behold for ourselves, and can live only on what we behold. …”

Trevor’s attitude is very Emersonian.  Emerson writes that when the mind receives divine wisdom “old things pass away, — means, teachers, texts, temples fall”.  “Whence, then, this worship of the past?” he asks. “[H]istory is an impertinence and an injury, if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.”  I think my wife would agree with Trevor though.  Tradition to her is about “travelling companions rather than guides, comrades rather than masters, friends rather than teachers.”  At least she would claim this.  I wonder how true this can be in an authoritarian church like the Mormon church.

Trevor goes on to deny the validity of corporate revelation:

“Every revelation of God is personal and private; it cannot be communicated at second hand. Others may try to show us where they have found the water of life, but they cannot draw for us.”

At the heart of Mormonism is a strong affirmation of the concept of personal revelation.  Mormons teach that the time of hearing the voice of God and seeing visions is not past.  To Mormons, the doors of revelation are open.  Each individual Mormon is expected to seek out and obtain personal revelation.  What is interesting about Mormonism is that this belief in the validity of personal revelation co-exists with a hierarchical authority that dictates orthodoxy from the top down.  So, while Mormons are expected to ask God and obtain answers regarding the most important questions of life, the Mormon church dictates what the correct answers are.  In the end, there is no room for heterodox revelation.  In practice, I think this makes the Mormon belief in personal revelation fraudulent.

Trevor goes on to contrast belief based on authority with belief based in experience, especially the experience of Nature:

“I think we cannot too strongly insist that the only alternative to accepting our beliefs upon authority lies in that enjoyment of an original relation to the universe of which Emerson speaks. Our attitude must be either that of those who gaze into the vacated tomb, and return full of the joy of immortal hope; or of those who look abroad on Nature, and interpret all they see from the experiences of their own hearts, and the determinations of their own thoughts, always understanding that, no more in Religion than in Science, can man ever know all, but that he can ever be learning more.”

Trevor continues to explain how the latter choice is both a heavy burden and an incredible freedom:

“But if we accept this latter alternative, what a burden of responsibility it brings! We need no longer charge our consciences with accepting as true documents which wise men tell us are of very doubtful authenticity. We may be able to read weighty reasons for concluding that Jesus never preached the Sermon on the Mount or uttered the Lord’s Prayer, without any thought that such conclusions have any relation to our religious life. But though we no longer lie under the very heavy responsibility of taking our religion from a book, and of demanding that others shall do likewise, we lie under a burden of obligation still harder to bear, namely, that of making our own lives and consciences so true that they shall be the means of giving us an interpretation of life, not absolutely true, but on the lines of truth, and of progress towards higher knowledge.

“There are times when such a responsibility seems to me appalling, overwhelming, especially when I regard my position among you here. Do you wonder that, when I recognise how my own version of life’s meaning may be marred by my own weakness, I shrink from preaching doctrines and conclusions, and take refuge in insisting upon methods rather than beliefs, and above all upon the individual responsibility of each of us to develop his own best life?”

“This is the burden of responsibility which the enjoyment of an original relation to the universe lays upon us. But what a spur and incentive to life, too!”

“[W]hat magnificent possibilities of life such a view of Religion opens out to us! What infinite room for expansion! What a splendid continent for conquest! What reward, too, for all the struggles of life successfully passed through, that the result of each is a more abundant entrance into fellowship and communion with God!”

I have felt both the burden and the liberation that this choice implies.  “Infinite room for expansion”?  Yes, but also a terrifying void.  “A splendid continent for conquest”?  Yes, but also a terrifying dark land of unknown dangers.

Honestly, I did not leap into that void willingly.  I was forced into finally after struggling for years to remain true to my tradition.  I wasn’t forced by any person, but by my own mental and emotional misery caused by the acute cognitive dissonance of my continued participation in the Mormon church.  And I believe that, in many cases, leaving a tradition like Mormonism, does cause one to become ungrounded.  I certainly experienced it that way.  In understand the need to be rooted.  Simone Weil writes in The Need for Roots:

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

What then if you find yourself uprooted by the loss of faith in a tradition?  The goal then is to seek a new grounding, not in a tradition, but in your own experience.  I still struggle with this.  I still prefer to quote someone else rather than use my own words to describe my own experience.  But the goal of my spiritual practice now is to develop what Emerson calls “an original relation to the universe”:

“The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also.”

Both Emerson and Trevor seek this original relation to the universe in Nature.  And in that sense they are, to me, “pagan”.  It is a concept at the heart of the Neopagan experience and is perhaps the reason why Neopaganism is not and perhaps never will be a “tradition”.  Perhaps I should stop calling myself “Pagan” or “Neopagan”, with the capital letters, and starting using a lower-case “pagan”.

What role does tradition play in seeking an original relation with the universe?  Emerson seems to say “none”:

“When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the foot-prints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name;—— the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience. You take the way from man, not to man.”

But Joseph Campbell would disagree.  For him, the spiritual journey is a journey home:

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us — the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path […]. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Who is right?  Emerson of Campbell?  Is the spiritual journey one toward tradition or away from it?  Perhaps it is a journey away from tradition as a source of authority, but a journey during which tradition may still be our companion and friend, as Trevor said, if not a guide or teacher.

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