The Two Types of Tradition

There are two kinds of tradition which play important roles in the life of the church for the world.

First, there is (oral) “Tradition,” which, as St. Basil says, refers primarily to the handing down of ritual actions in the liturgical worship of the church. This kind of tradition is of course in theory subject to Scripture, though it is hard to imagine how it could “contradict Scripture.” On the other hand, there is a sense in which this kind of tradition is prior to Scripture in that, since time immemorial, it has conditioned the public reading of Scripture in specific, proscribed ways. The public reading of Scripture, in other words, is embedded or enfolded within this ritual action which is the church’s liturgy. (Scripture itself refers to this kind of Tradition.)

Second, a very different type of tradition is what Alisdair MacIntyre (and others) have described in the following terms (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue p 221):

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

In this latter sense tradition is an ongoing dialogue that takes place over large periods of time within particular communities.

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“Strange Ecclesiology,” Indeed

In his article about the Church of Scotland’s recent decision to “appoint” its first openly practicing homosexual minister, Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman argues that the decision of some evangelical churches to remain in the C of S but not to associate (including financially) with the denominiation or with non-orthodox parishes is “strange ecclesiology.” And I agree.

However, Truman’s own ecclesiology, it seems to me, is just as strange, in its advocacy of separating from denominations when they don’t conform to one’s own idea of “orthodoxy.”

It seems to me that this approach (inscribed into the history of Protestantism, and, in its own way, post-Tridentine Romanism) is problematic on three levels:

First, who gets to say what orthodoxy is? Some arbitrary conglomeration of individuals and congregations who band together on the basis of agreement? On the contrary, orthodoxy is the rule of faith, which is concretely embodied in the creeds of the church in her liturgy. Beyond this, we are called to engage in an ongoing, open-ended discussion of real listening and give and take. This discussion has a name: tradition.

Second, and related, the very idea of a denomination is fatally problematic. That is to say, efforts to organize the church on the basis of any doctrinal content other than what all Christians believe amounts to ideological gnosticism, and not the witness of proclamation of the Christian church. It guts the church of her primary way of imaging the God of which she is an icon: unity. (Within this unity of God and analogously of the church there is of course great diversity. Hence the presence of various interlocutors in the ongoing dialogue.)

Third, as NT scholar (and friend) Daniel Kirk points out here, denomination wars aggravate and encourage Gentile-like (and Pharisee-like) conflict before a watching world. This is the very kind of division and power-play that Jesus and Paul rail against. (Of course the church has always been full of sinners, but denominationalism raises this kind of conflict to a new level.)

What binds the church together in unity is her eucharistic liturgy, which necessarily involves Scripture, bishops, and creeds (among other things). I do believe in something called “church discipline” (as I have posted on here) but this is quite different than breaking the unity of the church at a structural level. (What I mean by “unity,” by the way, is eucharistic unity: sharing the eucharist around the same table.)

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Peter Rollins & Liturgy

I have a great deal of respect for Peter Rollins. Both of his two recent books are provocative and stimulating. What I appreciate about him is that he brings his knowledge of “postmodern” theory (Zizek, Derrida, Levinas, and others) to bear on Christian theology. Rightly so.

However, when it comes to what I regard as “the great divide” in the Church and in Christianity, Peter Rollins falls clearly on one side.

One side says that our worship is an expression of our theology and our convictions. The other side says that worship is something that we simply inherit from the past (as tradition or in Greek paradosis, ie, “handing down”) and then (yes, critically) reflect on that received tradition and ask questions like “In light of this way of worshiping, what can we realize about God and creation?”

Rollins clearly lands of the former side. Which means that he, along with, perhaps, the rest of the “emergent movement,” thinks that worship is, at the end of the day, an expression of our theology.

I disagree. I, along with the bulk of the catholic tradition in both the east and the west, think that “the law of worship is the law belief.” Lex orandi, lex credendi. Our theology flows from our worship, and not vice-versa.

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St. Thomas, “Perfection,” & “Salvation”

For default Lutherans like myself (for such are almost all modern evangelicals) “perfection” is a bad word when it comes to thinking about the Christian life.

And yet, this term is crucial to the way in which the tradition conceives of virtue and the meaning of human life.

As Alisdair McIntyre points out in After Virtue, St. Thomas followed Aristotle in seeing man (or humanity) as a “functional concept.” That is, man is like a hammer or a watch. A watch has a certain purpose or telos: to accurately keep track of time. If a watch performs this function well, we say that it is a good watch, and so also for a hammer which drives nails well.

Now, when it comes to being human, St. Thomas says something similar. Our telos is to grow into the habitual worship of God. Never fully or finally completed, perhaps, on this side of the grave, this journey is nevertheless consummated in the beatific vision, when we will behold God (historically “to see God,” as in Christ’s words in the sermon on the mount, have been understood to be a kind of intellectual beholding) “as he is,” “face to face.”

Now, I think that this perspective sheds much light on the difficult issue of “universal salvation” and many issues related to it. For it is perhaps the case that we can say many, many things about all people, all human beings, which indicate a precious and deep relatedness to God: all are created in God’s image; all are children of God; all have inherent to their personhood “the seeds of the divine logos” (to quote Justin Martyr).

All humans have all of this, but all of this is not enough. For none of this is our telos. All these things are good and wonderful starting points, and these things do in fact indicate that we all belong to God. However, what God wants for us, what God created us to grow into, is this habitual worship of God. This is our purpose; this is our fulfilment.

If a human being does this well, then there is a sense in which she is “a good person.” This is what the tradition (Aristotle, Thomas, Kenneth Kirk) call eudaimonia, “happiness,” “blessedness,” “well-being,” or “success.” This is, I want to suggest, a good way to understand the biblical idea of “salvation.” In which case those who fail to realize this telos are “not saved” in the sense that they are not reaching “perfection,” not reaching their God-given purpose.

This can help to explain how all human beings might be deeply beloved of God (and this despite the reality of the fall), etc., while still preserving the biblical (and historical) sense that not all are, finally in the end, fully “saved.”

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Ps 139, Contemplation, & Nothingness

Imagine that I am a herione addict who is also a baptized Christian. Imagine that I am hanging out with my fiancee, also a baptized Christian, at a very loud bar or club in downtown New York City.

My fiancee is bodily present with me, but I am not very aware of her, for the music is too loud, there are too many partying people shouting and moving all around us, and I have herione coursing through my veins. She is there, but I am almost totally unaware of her.

Is God there in the club with me? Yes, he is, at least as fully so as my wife is there with me. Psalm 139 assures us of this: “You hem me in, behind and before” (v5); “If I ascend into heaven, you are there, and if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (v8). (St. Paul makes a similar point with respect to Christ in I Cor 6: the Christian who unites himself to a prostitute drags Christ into that relationship with him. There is no escaping the presence of Christ, it seems.) Truly, God is there in the club with me, but I am (almost?) totally unaware of his presence.

What happens when I leave the club, and walk away from the loud, coursing music? I become a bit more aware of God and his presence in my life. When the drugs begin to wear off the next day and I sober up, I become more aware yet still.

However, let’s say that, a day or two later, my thoughts are racing with fears, anxieties, and decisions I am facing. Well, those things are just like the loud music in the club and the herione that I was using to escape from reality: they are serving as a distraction. They are distracting me from the awareness that God is with me, that God is in me, that God is the one in whom I “live and move and have [my] being” (Acts 17).

What is contemplative prayer? In his Christian Meditation James Finley articulates over and over again, in many different ways, that meditation or contemplative prayer is the discipline of peeling away these distractions, like the layers of an onion. You get rid of the herione, you get rid of the loud music, you get rid of the thoughts about the decisions which are confronting you.

You try to do this for perhaps 10 minutes a day (at first, at least), in the context of a psalm or a Scripture passage or something which draws you closer to Christ.

When a thought (or a bodily sensation, such as an itch or hunger) comes into your consciousness, you (discipline yourself through lots of failure and practice to try to) neither grasp onto the thought nor to violently reject it. Rather, simply allow it to enter your consciousness, and then to float away. Watch the thought come, and then watch it leave. Gently bring yourself back to … back to … what? Back to nothingness.

Or at least as close to nothingness as I as a creature can get. A state of openness and emptiness, where you are not thinking (or trying not to think) about anything.

Why? What is so special about this disciplined sustaining of a posture and attitude of emptiness? It is simply this: when all the layers of the onion are peeled away (the noise, the thoughts, etc.), when everything is gone, there is still one thing that remains: God in his loving presence. If, that is, Psalm 139 is true.

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Candler on Participation & Representation

In his Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, Peter Candler “defines” participation and representation (p. 34):

By ‘participation’ I refer to an ontological principle by which creatures ‘are’ by analogy to the way in which God ‘is,’ but also the notion that sacra doctrina is a kind of scientia which participates in God’s knowledge of himself, and is therefore not something superadded to God.

And again,

Representation … is a matter of immediate apprehension by virtue of an exterior sign, and is removed from the variables of time and human communities. As such, representation is the fundamental philosophical and theological strategy of modernity.

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Genealogy of Modern Thomism

I have been trying to map out the genealogy of modern Thomist movements (using Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians as well as The Cambridge Companion to Christian Thought), and here is what I found:

1. Leo XIII decided to “revive scholastic philosophy and theology which had fallen largely out of use,” and issues Aeterni Patris (1879), to “advocate the return of the church to ‘the wisdom of St. Thomas.’” (“Thomism [1], modern, Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, 703).

2. Desire Mercier, at the Higher Institute of Philosophy (which he himself established in Louvain in 1889) was able to bring (the study of) Thomism and scholasticism into dialogue with the contemporary scene, largely due to the fact that he was working in the vernacular (French), as opposed to many of his contemporaries at monastic schools, etc., who were required to write in Latin.

3. Thus the study of Thomism and scholasticism begins to gain currency in the late 19 century. Enter Maurice Blondel and Henri Bergson, who (were perceived to have) resonated with many aspects of Thomism. Many Catholic thinkers begin to be attracted to them.

4. But due to the non-Catholic aspects of some of their thought, they also cause something of a scare, and this prompts  a reaction (including Pius VII’s Humani Generis in 1950). Garrigou-Langrange and Gardiel, both 20th century Thomists who were reacting against (the catholic attraction to) Blondel and Bergson, both ground the mind’s immediate grasp of reality in the stable concept of being abstracted from the object of sense experience, thus securing a longed for stability. This sounds like representation to me. Garrigou constructed “a Thomistic metaphysics and philosophy of God grounded upon the three degrees of abstraction he had inherited from Cajetan, the 16th-century Dominican commentator on Thomas.” (“Thomism (1), modern” 704) Maritain (like Garrigou, a Dominican) was deeply influenced by Garrigou (especially his Cajetan view of the three degrees of abstraction), but also by Bergson (an influence he never superceded). Maritain is a “systematic neo-Thomist.”

5. Etiene Gilson. Gilson, the hallmark of whose work is a close textual attentiveness to the medievals (Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, and Duns Scotus) opposed Maritain’s proclivity toward abstraction as a basis for knowledge, and claimed that this kind of neo-sholasticism is not Thomistic. Gilson limited his work, however, by and large, to historical study of Thomas’ text.

6. Balthassar, de Lubac, Congar are more properly thought of as humanist Thomists, following Gilson, and are critical of Thomist scholasticism, including its Baroque and Twentieth Century retrievals.

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