History and Tradition

Over at Commonweal, Luke Timothy Johnson offers a very interesting personal reflection on Vatican II and his own life as a monk during the time of the Council (it is an excerpts from a larger memoir). Among the interesting things he says is the following:

At St. Meinrad, a deep rift developed between the older monks (largely conservative) and the younger monks (largely liberal). The liberals advocated for change on the basis of history, arguing, for example, that patristic-era Eucharistic formulae clearly antedated and were superior to the Tridentine version, while the conservatives stood on the basis of tradition.

This made me think of how I typically use “history and tradition” together, almost as a pleonasm, as a way of talking about our relation to the past. But Johnson’s use of these terms to name a divide among people regarding reform of the liturgy (and monastic life in general) caused me to reflect on the fact that we actually mean quite different things by them.

“History” names a scholarly endeavor: a reconstruction of the past based on documentary evidence and the historian’s own sense of what is or is not plausible (thus the exclusion by most historians of miracles). It was at least in part on the basis of “history” that the so-called Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus was reconstructed as an exemplar of liturgy in the city of Rome in the third century, and it was this historical reconstruction that affected in various ways the reforms after the Second Vatican Council, from the Second Eucharistic Prayer to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

“Tradition,” on the other hand, names a way of living with the past possessed by a community, a sense of “how we have always done things.” Whereas history involves scholarly reconstruction based on documents and a sense of plausibility, tradition is the communal process by which documents are identified as important and authoritative (i.e. canonical) to a community and which shapes the sense of what is and is not plausible. It is, to use a term coined by Peter Berger (whom Johnson mentions in his essay), a “plausibility structure.”

My sense is that history and tradition need each other. They need each other because “tradition” can simply mean “what I am familiar with,” whether or not this is in fact how we have always done things. I have heard young people speak of “Be Not Afraid” and “Eagle’s Wings” as “traditional Catholic music,” because these are what they heard when they were small, these are the means by which they learned scripture, these are things that sound utterly unlike the other music they listen to and which make them “feel” Catholic. Or some older Catholics will speak of the praying of the St. Michael prayer at the end of Mass as “traditional,” because this is what they remember from their youth. Of course a quick Google search (or simply consulting your [grand]parents) will reveal that “Be Not Afraid” et al. are of recent vintage and were considered quite a rupture with tradition when they first appeared, or that the Prayer to St. Michael began to be said at the end of Mass only in 1886. These things in some sense are “traditional,” inasmuch as they are artifacts of the past that genuinely form part of the plausibility structure within which some Catholics live out their faith, but they are not particularly “historical” in terms of the broad sweep of the Church’s journey through time.

Likewise, “history,” meaning “how things were done in the past,” can carry the implication that this is how we should be doing them now, even if it means overturning the way we have been doing things, if not always, at least for a while. This can be a problem 1) because history really only gives us an educated guess as to how things were done in the past and 2) because the way things were done at some point in the past does not always mean they should be done that way in the present. The shifting evaluations of the Apostolic Tradition — now seen as probably largely 4th-century and later, and almost certainly not from Rome, and definitely not written by Hippolytus — shows the tentativeness with which historians must operate. And even when they are fairly certain how things were done in, say, the 4th century, this in itself is not an argument for changing the way people have come to pray in the intervening centuries. The sense of lived tradition should temper our appeals to past precedent as an argument for change (which is always selective: one rarely hears arguments based on 4th-century precedent for segregating worshippers by sex).

I think a healthy sense of tradition involves judicious appeal to our knowledge of history and a healthy employment of history in reforms involves a respect for lived tradition. So in a sense it is probably right to speak of “history and tradition,” not as synonyms but as two different ways of living with the past that need each other as the Church journeys into the future.






5 responses to “History and Tradition”

  1. Jonathan Day Avatar
    Jonathan Day

    Thanks, Fritz, for an insightful essay.

    I want briefly to expand on your point that most historians exclude miracles and the supernatural from their explanations of why certain events occurred. It’s sometimes claimed that this is because of idiosyncratic or perverse “presuppositions” on the part of the historians. But history, as a scholarly endeavor, is a social endeavor. The evidence and warrants that historians use is shared and developed between them, and challenged in a social setting. Admitting the supernatural necessarily leads to a multiplication of hypotheses and shuts down the discussion, even between believers.

    Van Harvey made this point at length in his The Historian and the Believer; a claim, for example, that an angel dictated the Ninety-five Theses to Martin Luther simply brings the conversation to an end.

    I think it’s for this reason that almost everywhere in the world, including in explicitly religious states, law courts refuse to accept “spectral evidence” or claims of supernatural causation. My house burning to the ground could have happened because witches living next door cast an evil spell. But once the supernatural is admitted, hundreds of plausible explanations become possible. It is therefore unreasonable to prosecute my neighbors, even if they were seen wearing pointed hats and dancing around a cauldron.

    This isn’t to say that historians or lawyers have a privileged or infallible access to truth, any more than scientists do. Critical, academic history has certainly suffered from biases and fads. But it plays an important part in the search for truth, as does tradition.

  2. William Fredrick deHaas Avatar
    William Fredrick deHaas

    Deacon – interesting insights. Given the topic, have always thought of this quote:
    “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

    ― Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities



    Of course, the difficult nut is that historians bring interpretation to the table – done rightly, you get both tradition and history; done wrongly, you get ideology, bias, revisionism.

    1. Devin Rice Avatar
      Devin Rice

      That is a great quote from Jaroslav Pelikan. Though Jaroslav Pelikan, a Lutheran Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy who held St. John Paul II in great esteem, would be probably be viewed by many contributors and commenters on the Praytell Blog as being in the realm of traditionalism.

  3. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    Here’s T.S. Eliot on tradition:

    “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was first published in 1919 and soon after included in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920). ..Eliot’s idea of tradition is complex and unusual, involving something he describes as “the historical sense” which is a perception of “the pastness of the past” but also of its “presence.” For Eliot, past works of art form an order or “tradition”; however, that order is always being altered by a new work which modifies the “tradition” to make room for itself. This view, in which “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past,”…

    For me, the important point is that the living present inevitably alters “the pastness of the past”. In other words, different aspects of past traditions come forward and become meaningful according to the needs of our present historical circumstances. This is the only way tradition can be fresh and alive. In short, and counter intuitively, tradition isn’t a fixed, settled, known and unalterable data point. Rather it grows and becomes revealed in a new way in a new environment. Tradition must surprise us. Otherwise there’s the risk of any given tradition becoming a hot house plant.

    We are changed by tradition even as our present concerns change the significance of tradition.

  4. Devin Rice Avatar
    Devin Rice

    How I think of things:
    Tradition (capital T): The witness of scripture and the memory of their historical context, the ecumenical councils, local synods, and the Church Fathers all bears witness to God’s revelation and action in the world:

    Christian Praxis: The rituals, art, music, language, literature, ethics, and customs that incarnate Tradition into the lives of the community.

    Small “t” traditions within a community are those elements of Christian Praxis that survive at least one generation. The more generations, the stronger the traditional association.

    History: The study of the Tradition and Christian Praxis to make sense of all of their contours and to help apply Tradition into the lives of contemporary believers.

    Giving an actual example, the Apostolic Tradition is a witness to the “T”tradition even if our current historical evaluation of the text has changed since the Council. Those in charge of implementing the liturgical reforms of V2 used the Eucharistic text from the Apostolic Tradition to form the preface which is assigned for EPII and is also designated as the first common preface.

    This newly created preface based on a historic text has entered into Christian Praxis (on rare occasions). If this text become used more frequently and across generations it will be come a tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: