“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

In yesterday’s post I wrote about the two approaches to Scripture at work in the current controversies within the Anglican Communion. Today I want to look at two concepts of Tradition.

The importance of Tradition is beautifully captured by the opening lines of the film Fiddler on the Roof (Jewison, 1971): “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”

Interestingly, despite opening with this affirmation of Tradition, the movie spends the rest of its time describing the kind of cultural assimilation that threatened to put an end to the unique Jewish identity made possible by these traditions. In the movie, the motivation for assimilation is romance. So in the context of a Hollywood musical, the audience is set up to root against Tradition. But in a larger historical context, we can see the loss of these Jewish traditions as a tragedy. In this way, the movie asks interesting questions about the tension between tradition and enculturation.

When he baptized Maggie two Sundays ago, Barry Taylor offered an a propos piece of advice on Tradition. (He attributed it to Pablo Picasso, but I have been unable to find the exact source.) “There are two ways of honoring your traditions,” he said. “One is to wear your father’s hat. The other is to have children.” This quote perfectly captures what, yesterday, I was calling the static vs. the dynamic conceptions of Tradition. Is Tradition, as the static theory says, a set of timeless and unchanging doctrines handed down from one generation to the next? Or is Tradition like a narrative that evolves over time as the dynamic conception says?

In his books After Virtue and Whose Justice, Which Rationality Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the static theory was invented in the 18th Century by Edmund Burke. Whether this is true as a historical claim is less interesting than MacIntyre’s distinction between living traditions and “dead” (Burkean) traditions. (Compare Imre Lakotos’s distinction between “progressive” and “ad hoc” research programs.)

One problem with dead traditions is that adherents follow them by rote, without understanding where the traditions came from or why they are important and meaningful. These lines (the very next lines after those quoted above) from Fiddler on the Roof exemplify this problem: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.”

This is the problem Evangelicals often have with any sort of Catholic Christianity (Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, etc.). They claim that Catholics only follow traditions out of meaningless habit. Now, that is certainly true some of the time. But I think this problem is actually more prevalent within Evangelical denominations themselves. Catholics may not choose to educate themselves about their traditions, but explanations of those traditions are available to them. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have an entire theology explaining why sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist don’t actually do anything for us, but then they insist, nevertheless, that we must still perform these rituals because God told us to. In other words, the official Evangelical attitude toward sacraments is: We don’t know why we do these things, but they’re traditions. And this is exactly the attitude Evangelicals object to in Catholics!

And, as I argued yesterday, another problem with the static/dead conception of Tradition, is that it is a form of fundamentalism that doesn’t take seriously the ambiguity of the world. Like Scripture, Tradition has to be interpreted. And, also like Scripture, Tradition is not actually univocal. Christianity has always had multiple traditions. Even Roman Catholicism, which solves the interpretation problem by appeal to the authority of the Magisterium, has multiple traditions: there are Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, Evangelicals, Liberals, etc.

But there is a problem with the concept of living traditions, too, and this is what is most philosophically interesting to me. Go back to the Picasso quote: if the better way to honor one’s traditions is by having children, then how do we make sure that the next generation is actually our children and not some random bastard who bears no genetic relationship to us? Consider, for example, the Eucharist. We don’t have to “wear our father’s hats” by saying exactly the same Eucharistic prayer our fathers said. We can allow the language to evolve in order to remain meaningful to new generations. So, in that sense, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the “child” of the 1928 BCP. But what if, in the 2030 BCP, there is no Eucharist at all? Suppose the Church is overtaken by Evangelicals who decide that the Eucharist is too Catholic or too old fashioned and not relevant to today’s culture or simply a waste of time, and so they replace the traditional ritual with a longer sermon and more singing? Would that be an evolution of the Anglican tradition or simply a rejection of that tradition? The problem is the one that confonts Tevye at the end of Fiddler on the Roof. After bending his traditions for the sake of his first two daughters’ happiness, his third daughter pushes too far in the direction of cultural assimilation: “If I try and bend that far,” Tevye says, “I’ll break.” But how do we know what is too far?

Here I think MacIntyre’s concept of narrative is helpful. If, as we attempt to live the next chapter of the Church’s story, we want to know if a particular scene is part of our Tradition’s narrative, we can see if it is “intelligible” as the next event in our story. It wouldn’t make sense if, half way through The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy woke up and found herself living in 1904 St. Louis and singing the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. The audience would be justified in supposing that the channel had been changed, because the film would lack a coherent narrative. In Picasso’s terms, the later scene would not be the “child” of the earlier scenes — it would have no genetic connection.

I also find Arthur Danto‘s similar Hegelian-inspired theory of art history helpful. In books such as After the End of Art, Danto argues that something can be an artwork at one time in history even though it would not have been an artwork at an earlier time in history. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (the infamous readymade urinal), could be art in 1917 though it wouldn’t have been art in 1719. The explanation for this phenomenon is the narrative shape of history: events gain their identity by how they fit with what came before and what comes after them. (On this point, see also Danto’s Narration and Knowledge.)

In other words, being part of a tradition means accepting limitations and pushing the boundaries only one step at a time. An artist can’t jump too far ahead of her place in history or no one will recognize her work as art. She may be appreciated as “ahead of her time” by later generations, but she will still not really be an integral part of the tradition. In analogy to religion, she’ll be like one of those heretics whose theology we come to appreciate centuries after they were burnt at the stake. They might have been right all along, but they were still heretics. But if our goal is to avoid heresy by remaining faithful to our traditions, then we have to push the envelope from within like the artistic avant garde. (Though I want to point out that it is a modernist prejudice to think that only the avant garde is “real” art. Remaining comfortably within the bounds of current traditions is not a bad thing unless you begin to idolize tradition by denying that the avant garde is art at all.)

Of course, these artistic metaphors don’t help if what you want is certainty. Tevye says, “because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” This is an understandable goal. But it is an impossible goal. Tradition is not the solution to our shakiness; it is the cause of our shakiness. Being faithful to Tradition is a balancing act, like trying to play the fiddle on the roof.

2 thoughts on ““Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

  1. Another way to approach these ideas is this: two ways of reasoning from within a tradition, two ways of doing Philosophy as a Christian. If you believe tradition is static, you think you can start with pre-determined ends and use philosophy to justify those ends. On this view, your tradition has already given you the conclusions, and reason just gives additional support to these conclusions and shows how to make these conclusions coherent with one another. But if you believe tradition is living, you think all it gives you is starting points, not ends. Reason can genuinely contribute to the direction of the tradition. There are never any final conclusions, but philosophy is the project of extending our understanding in new directions and tradition is what gives our discourse the context necessary to make it intelligible.

  2. Pingback: “Existential Friday: Emptiness | Dark Pines Photo

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