The paradox of chosen tradition

  1. Luther, Calvin, and the “secular outlook”
  2. But what else is there?
  3. Winsome don’t feed Limos
  4. The Presidency
  5. Anonymous leaks

1

Mr. Ryrie is most successful when he describes the explicitly religious qualities of Protestantism—how believers thought about faith, set up churches and evangelized native peoples. The weakness of his narrative lies in the large claim made in his subtitle. Mr. Ryrie does show that the modern West was in some sense the culmination of Europe’s response to the fallout of the Reformation. Less clear is the degree to which we can say that the specific teachings of Luther or Calvin have anything in common with the secular outlook—now taken to be the hallmark of the modern world—that has taken hold across broad swaths of society.

(D.G. Hart, reviewing Alec Ryrie’s The Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World)

As one whose Christian tradition antedates even the abuses that led to the Reformation, I neverthless suspect that Luther and Calvin at least opened Pandora’s box to secularity.

Hart’s insistence on tying it to “the specific teachings of Luther or Calvin” seems like a non-denial denial, or a Bart Simpson defense. I think Brad S. Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is sufficient, though I’m aware that some think they’ve refuted it.

Back in the day, I read Loraine Boettner‘s self-published “Roman Catholicism,” a hard-bound book by a Calvinist critic of Catholicism who managed to make himself sound authoritative (or so I thought, but then I was young and foolish). One of the criticisms that struck a sufficiently sour note that I remember it still was that Roman Catholicism was “a poor defense against Communism.” I’m pretty sure that’s word-for-word accurate.

I was unimpressed, so I suppose I should be likewise unimpressed if Protestantism is a poor defense against secularism. But if it planted the seed, that’s a different matter. Maybe Hart’s right that Ryrie claims that with thin elaboration.

2

Mark Movesian interviews Rod Dreher for the Tradition Project. This paradox is notable but too little noticed:

Movsesian: I wonder if we could talk about tradition, which runs like a red thread through your book. You argue that it’s necessary for Christians to return to tradition in order to resist “liquid modernity,” which denies the value of all attachments and identities except those individuals freely choose for themselves. In liquid modernity, the only thing that has meaning is momentary individual choice. This is quite destabilizing for individuals and for society; that’s where tradition can be helpful.

As co-director of the Tradition Project, I have sympathy for your view! But I think there’s a paradox about tradition in a pluralist society like ours. In such a society, tradition is itself a matter of individual choice; there’s no avoiding it. Tradition is just one available option among many for an individual to choose; in the end, each of us is free to choose tradition or to reject it; to choose it and then reject it; or to choose some aspects of it and not others. This is true even of people brought up in a tradition—like the kids attending classical Christian schools today. What do you make of this paradox?

Dreher: There’s no escaping it. I am quite aware of the near-absurdity of my own personal case: a 50-year-old man raised a nominal Methodist, a convert to Catholicism in my mid-20s, converting to Orthodox Christianity at 39, and having moved around the country a great deal for my career, writing a book in praise of tradition. Yet … what else is there? Charles Taylor says that we all live in a secular age, which he defines as the awareness of the possibility that we don’t have to live the way that we do. We cannot escape choice.

This is why our St. Benedict, if we are to have one, must be new and very different, as MacIntyre said. The first Benedict emerged in a West that was still new to Christianity. Now we have been through the Christian era, and can’t un-see what we have seen. And the consciousness of an ordinary person living in the 21st century can hardly be compared to the way a 6th century layman saw the world conceptually and imaginatively. This point hardly needs elaboration, but it conditions any approach to tradition we make today ….

Yes, “chosen tradition” is oxymoronic, but it’s inescapable today (and choosing a deep tradition is a sign of restoration of spiritual health) unless one is willing to be entirely rootless.

3

You can be as winsome as you want, but as long as you hold to Christian orthodoxy on issues like abortion, euthanasia, and sexuality, you’re going to be hated as bigots.

(Rod Dreher) [Oh: Limos.]

4

The presidency is not just another office. It has become, for good reasons and bad ones, a seat of semi-monarchical political power, a fixed place on which unimaginable pressures are daily brought to bear, and the final stopping point for decisions that can lead very swiftly to life or death for people the world over.

One does not need to be a Marvel superhero or Nietzschean Übermensch to rise to this responsibility. But one needs some basic attributes: a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. And if a president is deficient in one or more of them, you can be sure it will be exposed.

(Ross Douthat) I’m tired of writing about it. I can’t stop thinking it’s important, though. Read Douthat if you want the rest of the story as he sees it.

5

Many Trump defenders are making the point that anonymous sources are being cited in apparent opposition to a duly-elected President. That is a fair, but obvious and inevitable, point: unpleasant truths about the hidden activities of the most powerful people in the world seldom come in signed affidavits from first-hand sources, do they?

I would be highly skeptical of anonymous leaks that Mike Pence was acting like a drunken frat boy because there’s no reason from his public personae to believe such a thing. But the thing about the stories about Trump from the anonymous sources is that they are utterly plausible and consistent with the impetuous, ignorant, unintelligible and emotionally unstable manchild who has been on public display from the beginning of primaries through today.

And then we get backhanded corroboration from The Mad Twitter King himself, summarized by the guy who won the internet on Tuesday:

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.