Hilary is asking some pretty deep questions about culture, restoration, and tradition over at The Devout Life. There are many topics and sub-topics involved, but the question that most interests me is that of definition. What, exactly, do we who are often called traditionalists want to preserve and restore? Why do some of us draw the line here, and not there? Is it possible – or even desireable – to have a genuine traditionalist movement with some positive definition? The conversation is perhaps above my pay grade, but since each of us must answer these questions in our own lives, I’ll attempt to explain my current approach to the problem (which is admittedly a work in progress).
The first thing, of course, is the Catholic Faith. A restoration of the Faith in all of its beauty and glory must be our lifelong project. The Faith must permeate our souls, our homes and families, and ultimately our communities and the world. This is supremely important because it is the Faith that puts culture and tradition in order. We cannot see without the Light. We cannot make right decisions about what to restore, what to preserve, or what to discard apart from the Catholic Faith.
It must be said again that a “traditionalist movement” is an aberration. Tradition is ordinarily lived, inherited, and received by communities, not chosen by individuals. Tradition is not an “alternative lifestyle” but a way of living that should be as natural as breathing. However, we live in extraordinary times, and today our Christian heritage is under constant assault and cannot be fully apprehended without a conscious effort. Many of us must literally choose tradition – even taking it by force – so that the next generation may receive and defend it.
In order to keep the notion of “picking and choosing” from infecting our personalities, it is critical to actually receive that which has already been handed down to us. This sounds obvious, but it needs to be said because some in our ranks are in the habit of rejecting their own inheritance, believing they can just replace it with something else. This foolish attitude betrays a very shallow understanding of culture. Do you think times are so bad that you have received nothing of value? Look around and think again. There is much tradition falling right into your lap: it will die with your generation unless you pick up the baton. The time may be short, but at the moment there is still a residual Christianity clinging to our rapidly decaying culture. Let’s make the most of it.
Still, we must choose. But we can’t go back to the heights of Christendom in the 13th century. We can’t even go back to the 1950s. Catholicism is about hard-core reality. We must live in the world as it is today. We are born for this time, and not for any other: let’s be clear about that. In times like ours it seems easier to “choose” what to reject. Obviously we must reject the deadly poisons that are killing our civilization and destroying souls. Secularism, relativism, egalitarianism, scientism, naturalism, socialism, democratism (democracy needs an “ism”), feminism, multiculturalism, and all the foolish ideologies of modernity must be rejected. In order to reject these things – and to fill the void with Catholic truth – radical measures must be taken. Families like ours have responded by attending the traditional Latin Mass, homeschooling, and eliminating the influence of television and modern entertainment. That, I suppose, is a good start … but is it enough?
No, there is much more. We are also on a recovery mission. Traditionalists, like the monks of old, must mine the cultural treasures of Christendom before they are lost forever. I think that’s what Hilary means when she suggests we discover what the culture of “the Before Time” was all about. If it is somewhat untraditional to adopt traditions that our grandparents practiced – traditions that were not handed down to us by our own parents – it is even less traditional to pretend we can skip several generations and pick things up from the 18th century or earlier. The former is still tradition, though hanging by a thread, whereas the latter is truly arbitrary and borders on affectation. Even though you may not have received your grandparent’s tradition of formal attire, chances are good that someone else has and this tradition is still practiced somewhere. By contrast the 18th century tradition of formal attire is practiced nowhere: the chain has been broken, and returning to a forgotten link is not traditional.
Let’s take another specific example, that of writing. The works of Chaucer and Shakespeare are unsurpassed, but it would not be traditional for a traditionalist movement to begin writing novels in the same style. Even Jane Austen’s English cannot be replicated in our time. But can traditionalists use these classic writers as guides of a sort? Yes. In theological terms, tradition might be said to have both substance and accidents. In the case of our literary giants, the accidents are their words and style of language; the substance is their worldview, their knowledge of human nature, their Christian presuppositions. In literature, as in fashion and the arts and everything else, the task of a traditionalist movement is to always preserve the substance of the Great Tradition. A preference should be given to preserving the accidents whenever possible, because we know these to be derived in part from the substance, but not at the expense of further alienation from the culture we are trying to save.
Technology is a serious obstacle to the recovery of tradition. The primary evil of modern technology is that it dissolves family and community life, which are bulwarks of tradition. From entertainment to doing the laundry, it is no longer necessary to suffer anyone else’s company, or to cooperate, or to be kind, or to be courteous and polite, or to ask for help, or to be of help to anyone. We do all things efficiently, and we do them alone. If we don’t like our neighbors, we load an automobile and move across town. If we want something to eat, we throw a frozen whatever in the microwave and let the others fend for themselves. What then are traditionalists to do? Perhaps we can smash the television, but most of us need our cars and computers and telephones. And – let us be honest – most of us value our air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and other products of the technological revolution. Some say we must accept or reject the whole Technology Package, but no, we must pick it apart. There are no other options. In order to restore those little things that once made life worth living it is essential to cut back on the use of technology. Live, if you can, in close enough proximity to work and school so as to minimize driving. Homeschooling and home-based businesses are therefore very traditional alternatives. Replace modern electronic entertainment with “homemade” entertainment from the piano, violin, board games, and the like. Because cooking and cleaning ought to be communal activities, some families even do without washing machines and microwave ovens. The point is simple: technology suffocates and stifles tradition unless very strictly controlled. Therefore, in order for tradition to flourish, technology must be kept in its place.