Saturday, March 10, 2007

Doctrinal Development IIb: The Tradition

And this is my prayer, that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

In the previous post, I noted what I think are three essential characteristics of Tradition-Constituted inquiry: tribe, telos, and taste.


A tradition involves a community of people conjoined by a sympathy. The precise nature of this community and sympathy varies. However, the sympathy at least has to be of a particular kind. I can sympathize with people I've never met; but this sympathy is not strong enough, nor even the right kind, to knit me into a community with them. One thing that is required is sympathy with them insofar as they are engaging in a project or style of life like my own. Even this is not enough, though; there needs to be some sort of personal connection: their engaging in the project feeds into my own, and vice versa, so that we are not merely engaging in like projects but in one project in our individual ways. So we can perhaps expand the first sentence of this paragraph to: A tradition involves a community of people conjoined by a sympathy sustained by personal connection.

In the first post in this series I discussed at some length Newman's discussion of Personal Influence as the way in which moral truth is propagated, particularly the truth of the Faith. Each person, says Newman, "receives and transmits the sacred flame, trimming it in rivalry of his predecessor, and fully purposed to send it on as bright as it has reached him; and thus the self-same fire, once kindled on Moriah, though seeming at intervals to fail, has at length reached us in safety, and will in like manner, as we trust, be carried forward even to the end." Thus by means of sympathy with our predecessors we coalesce into a community engaged in a project that is at once very diverse, but also very unified, in which individuals receive the flame, care for and nourish it, and transmit it again. They become, one might say, a people, a family, a tribe.

As noted there, what is received and transmitted in the Faith is Christ, or His Character, diversified a hundred thousand ways yet one. As we receive, however superficially, this Character from our predecessors, and pass it on (however superficially) to others, we are engaged (however superficially) in one historical project. There is a continuity between us and our holy predecessors that makes them our predecessors. But this historical project could not maintain its integrity through time if it weren't also a teleological project. It's end makes it possible for us to progress, in even the basic sense of extending ourselves through time from past to future as one community.

The community is not just one that happens to be engaged in a common project, however, as one might say the American people are engaged in the one project of the American experiment. Communities are united by some form or other of love. There are, however, very different forms of love. We can see the notion of love as a nested series of boxes. The outermost, and most encompassing box is the box of love in general, a sort of general good will. There are various forms of this love. Some forms, for instance, are natural and spontaneous, and not very serious. Aquinas somewhere gives the example of seeing a boxing match between two people we didn't know before and spontaneously developing good will for one of the two parties. That's a very good example. In sports we are constantly developing good-will attitudes to particular persons. These have their role to play, and they bind us into a community with others, but they don't mean much and the bonds of the community aren't usually very strong. There's a sense in which all dabblers in astronomy of whatever kind are joined into a community by their sympathetic love of the stars. It's a real love, a real sympathy, and a real community. But it's a limited sort of love, and a limited sort of community. Nothing real binds it together but personal tastes. So there is another form of love that is more a matter of choice. The scholastics called this form of love dilectio; it shares a root with election, and so conveys more clearly the notion of choice. In dilection we don't just have good will, we preferentially commit. One might think of the community of professional astronomers as having something like this -- a dilection for the stars, so to speak. The love is stronger, more committed; so the sympathy makes for a stronger bond. But stronger than dilection is friendship, in which one begins to love another as oneself. And, of course, the Christian view is that there is a yet stronger form of love, the one that really knits the Body of Christ together: charity, love of God and of all things in Him, especially whoever may happen to be our neighbor.

This relates to the teleological character of the community in that love is a form of inclination or tendency to a good, and that means that it introduces the notion of a telos or end. So it seems reasonable to move on to that aspect of tradition.


It is possible to have too wooden a notion of the sort of telos involved in a tradition. I sometimes think MacIntyre falls into this error. He often talks as if the telos were an ideal product, a perfected understanding in the sense of the system that perfectly captures that which the community is trying to understand. This cannot, I think, be right. The telos of the tradition of master masons is not the perfect cathedral; it is the perfect craft of masonry, and that is not at all the same thing. It is possible to think in terms of an ideal craft of masonry without thinking in terms of an ideal work of masonry; one may even deny that any such thing is possible. What makes a tradition is its entelechy, its ability to carry its own telos in its form or nature, and thus to continually bear fruit. Now, it would be absurd to say that the perfect work of masonry is already seminally implicit in the shared craft of master masons; there are too many things that master masons do and can do. Rather, it makes more sense to say that, in the excellence the craft has already attained, it intimates a greater excellence, even a superabundant excellence, of craft, in which the community of master masons achieves its full potential -- not reaching a static stopping point, but reaching a point of abundant, sustainable progress, moving from excellence to excellence in every situation. The heavenly fellowship of master masons, one might say, engaging in a heavenly craft of masonry, one that is posited as a practical postulate. What makes it a practical postulate is the fact that to have genuine progress you need something against which to measure the room for improvement. Measuring the room for improvement is a tricky thing; it is, as the saying goes, the biggest room in the world. It can only be done if you can recognize, at least to a vague estimation, how much space there is between the actual and the practical ideal. Note, by the way, that if the ideal is rich enough, there need not even be an assumption that it can ever, given the way we are, be perfectly attained; we might have difficulty fulfilling all aspects at once, so that one generation will excel in one aspect whereas the next falls well short in that aspect but excels in another. There are many different ways it can go; it depends on the telos and the community in question.

In the Church the telos is Christ Himself as recognized in the Image we bear, the Church's inward vision or thought of Christ, which traces back to the image borne by the Apostles themselves. Everything in the Church is devoted to this end; everything is devoted to living the life of Christ, and possessing the mind of Christ, and loving with the Spirit of Christ. I would call this the fundamental principle of doctrinal development, and the thing that is usually overlooked in discussions of it. The Church does not so much start with a set of initial principles and reason out from them; it starts with Christ, and the Character of Christ, and inquires into how everything else relates to that. Thus Christology becomes the primary key in which the Church does theology; ecclesiology is Christology itself written in a slightly different key; as is hagiology, Mariology, and all the other forms Christian thought may take. The distinctive mark of Christian teaching, whatever the particular subject matter, is that it is in light of Christ, our Logos, the one we take to be the principle of intelligibility in which all things cohere. Heresies are determined not by faulty inference, since we may infer faultily without becoming heretics, just as we may infer well but, losing sight of our whole reason for inferring in the first place, go astray into heresy. There are lots of heresies of that sort; heresies are carved out of good intentions that are not dispositions to Christ Crucified and Risen.

Recognizing the importance of this telos, I should note, resolves one of the major paradoxes of doctrinal development. It seems that to have doctrinal development we must be coming up with something new; but this new thing also has to be what we already had to begin with, preserved unchanging. However, the paradox arises from not thinking in terms of the organizing end of the Church. It is this that is our patrimony, all the truth explicit and implicit in the Way, the Truth, the Life whose Image our holy predecessors bore, and whose Image we bear, and whose Image we hope to pass on to others. It is this that is this unchanging patrimony of the faithful, the legacy we have received, the legacy we hope to transmit. As the hymn goes, the Apostles' preaching and the Fathers' doctrine established one faith for the Church; adorned with the robe of truth woven from heavenly theology, great is the Mystery of Piety that she defines and glorifies. By keeping the same End in sight that the Fathers saw, by bearing the same Image of Christ that they bore, we carry forward faithfully and unchanged the tradition of the Apostles. But as we bear this forward, the wisdom given to the Church as a gift, implicit in the Character of Christ that she bears, begins to order the things within us and without us, sometimes with our contribution and often without our contribution and sometimes even despite our contribution; thus the living Vine bears fruit in the world, ever new for each generation. These fruits are not forgotten but provide a feast for those who come after.

St. Vincent of Lerins has a nice passage in the Commonitory in which he strikes a healthy balance on this point, noting on the one hand the absurdity of denying progress to the Church, and insisting that it be progress, not alteration. The body grows; but its growth is not haphazard or monstrous, but the natural outworkings and unfoldings of what it had from the beginning. When the Church grows, it is "consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age," but remains uncorrupted. It grows and does not decay, and does not lose its distinctive properties; it is cared for, polished, smoothed, refined, clarified, cultivated. And this is exactly right. The reason it is exactly right is that the tradition of the Church is not arbitrary but governed and organized by Christ as its end; this end it bears inside itself and explicates, unfolds, for every age, striving in every generation and place to live Christ in the world.


The eighteenth century is filled with people fascinated by the question of taste, as in 'good and bad taste', and Criticism, in something like the sense that we still find in the phrases 'literary criticism', 'critique', and 'critical thought'. The two, of course, are related; taste is the personal capacity or ability that allows one to engage in Criticism. One of the reasons people are so interested in it is that the early modern period sees an expansion in what is regarded as following under the domain of taste; lacking the very generous notion the medievals had of dialectic, they needed to something in its stead, and, being interested in all sorts of 'internal senses' (e.g., the sense of humor, the sense of beauty, the sense of harmony, and so forth), maxims and standards of taste were what they pressed into service. So, for instance, it is generally recognized, by people who hold very different positions, that there is such a thing as moral taste; they just differ on how central it is to morality as such. Hume, for instance, explicitly tells us that morals is entirely a matter of (standardized) taste; Warburton denies that morals, as such, have anything to do with taste, taste simply being a feature God has given us to make it easier for us to be moral.

Now, the interesting thing about the early modern concept of taste, and which distinguishes it from the closest contemporary counterpart (critical thought), is that it is wholly social. You have to be trained into it, and sympathy is absolutely essential to it. Beattie, for instance, suggests that good taste involves five characteristics:

1. Lively and accurate imagination, or what we would perhaps call a quick understanding;
2. A power of distinct apprehension, the ability to make good distinctions and keep to them;
3. Acuteness of 'second sensation', i.e., a profound capacity to be affected by the object of taste;
4. Sympathy "or that Sensibility of heart, by which, on supposing ourselves in the condition of another, we are conscious in some degree of those very emotions, pleasant or painful, which in a more intense degree would arise within us, if we were really in that condition";
5. Good sense in comparing, classifying, and the like.

Others say similar things. We can boil down the characteristics to four:

  • Wide familiarity with the object of taste;
  • Skills relevant to making relevant distinctions and comparisons;
  • Self-critical examination of one's own biases;
  • Sympathetic understanding of the judgments of others.

I've already said that one of the things apprenticeship in a tradition does is train you to develop good taste relevant to that tradition. Thus, someone studying to be a physicist begins to learn and practice the skills that make for good judgment about physical theories, experiments, and the like. In terms that we would typically use, he develops critical thinking skills for his particular field. Being in a tradition, then, is not just participation in community events; it involves training one's mind to be able to think in terms of the tradition, drawing on its resources, making reasonable distinctions and comparisons, comparing one's own judgment sympathetically with that of others in the tradition, all on the basis of shared principles, procedures, and the like, that have been found to work for that community. This is why, incidentally, one can argue that no one is really traditionless; being social creatures, we tend to do this automatically from childhood, and the only questions are whether we do so haphazardly or systematically, deliberately or incidentally, in a powerful tradition or in a weak tradition, and with the steady assistance of others or as best we can on our own. It's almost as natural to us as breathing. Of course, unlike breathing, the cultivation of good taste is really, in its finest form, a cultivation of virtues, or, at least, of the seeds that may become virtues. But this is another reason why we can't really do without growth in some tradition or other.

The tradition carried by the faithful, as with every other tradition, involves the cultivation of a certain form of taste, which most people pick up piecemeal and only to a limited degree, but which in its fully developed form can exhibit the above characteristics to quite a high degree. In the Church the most fundamental and basic, although by no means the only, means of cultivating this taste is liturgy, in a broad sense. This is why it is not surprising that there have been so many various 'liturgy wars', and why these disputes are not themselves silly, for all that the people engaged in them often are. The cultivation of relevant good taste is essential to the adaptability and strength of any tradition; it's not surprising, then, that liturgy, as the most generally shared source of the basic elements of this good taste, is an important subject.

There is a rule, commonly called the Vincentian Canon, after St. Vincent of Lerins, that to continue sound and complete in the Faith we must observe "universality, antiquity, and consent"; this is, in effect, a maxim of taste or of critical thought for the particular field of Christian thought; it identifies a condition of broad, good taste in doctrine, which, if met, will help us avoid the junk and confusion of heresy.

Ultimately, however, one wants not just a general good taste but the mind of Christ, in which the Image we bear becomes vivid and glorious. This goes far beyond anything we can understand merely by considering the Church in terms of tradition; for, "living the truth in love," i.e., being in the tradition of Christ, "we should grow in every way into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body...brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love." And to understand that we need to consider the living Christ. I hope at some point to put up a post on this.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.