In reaction to the communist attack on American values, including some within the evangelical mainstream, some Christians have sought to anchor their societal and religious identity in something older than the now. This is not a new trend, by any means. The struggle between the old and the new existed for first century Jewish Christians, and it was a constant balancing act among the heathens of the Roman empire. The traditionalist Romans, which for many centuries were the majority, sought to preserve the oldness of the empire—their religion, their ritual, their military strength, their code of ethics, and their philosophical underpinnings, etc.
The New Testament church, as it began to spill over the boundaries of Judea, was quickly recognized as something new and unfamiliar. The two universal Roman persecutions under Decian and then Diocletian were not so much interested in squelching Christianity for personal reasons, but for the sake of preserving the empire and its traditional ways. Older was better; anything new must be extinguished or exiled.
The principle convictions of the Roman empire was not at all wrong. There was nothing wrong with wanting to preserve what they loved, or what made Rome Rome. In fact, every empire has done this, to one extent or another, through world history. Every empire has to do it if it wants to survive. What made it wrong was, perhaps, their approach and their reasoning. They were, after all, rejecting the true God in favor of idols. And in doing so, they went to war with the very kingdom of God.
Why do I recount the church’s early history?
People in many areas of the country are tired of newness. Newness, ironically, is getting old. And the reason it is getting old is because it’s not newness itself that is wrong, but the nature of the newness. This newness has brought us all sorts of garbage—from abortion, to pornography, to a rejection of basic reality through foolish, relativistic sophistry. It has gutted academia of all honorable clout, and it is actively pursuing the hearts and minds of our youth. Entitlement is the anthem, the “noble” cause, newness has brought us in these recent years. The concept of Critical Race Theory and the outflowing social justice and reparations has been the latest vehicle by which the new communists have tried to actually affect, you guessed it, communism.
We’re tired of it. Christians are tired of it. Husbands are tired of it. Fathers are tired of it. Wives and mothers are sick of it. The Patriarchy is bending the shackles placed upon it by the K-12 indoctrination system, and reaching back in time to recover its ancestors’ ways.
This is a very good thing.
Yet, There’s a Twist
As desirable as it is to recover the doctrine of the past, we have to make sure we do so circumspectly and intelligently. There is a right and a wrong way to utilize history. Sometimes, the beauty of history, with all its warts, tempts us to adopt all of its ways regardless of reasons. We often try to appropriate history in our own lives for no other reason aside from, “It’s history!”
Tradition is history put to the test. It is history experimentally tried in contemporary life. For example, Christian doctrine is referred to as tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Traditions can be beliefs, rituals, or other kinds of customs. But they are traditions, not because they were recently invented, but because these beliefs, rituals, and customs have been passed down. They are historical inasmuch as they come from the past.
It should be no mystery that at least some traditions are bad traditions. The Scripture makes this plain when it says, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Col. 2:8).” The tapestry of history is woven together with light and dark threads and gives way to images of glory and nightmares of terror. Tradition is covering yourself, as for warmth, with one piece of that tapestry or another. Which historical doctrine or practice will you apply to your life? Sometimes, the question comes to us in this form: Which historical doctrine or practice will you keep and maintain? The second question assumes a very important fact, that we are all born into a traditional context. We’re already pre-covered with one part or other of the tapestry of history, good or bad, either warts or porcelain skin.
Tradition, therefore, isn’t some smorgasbord of truth, exclusively considered. It is a buffet of good and bad foods. And the individual, in concert with other individuals, either within the church or within a civil society, i.e. nation, must discern which traditions are healthy and which are rotten. Adults, especially Christians, often choose to adopt traditions they come into contact with through theological literature, videos, or personal relationships at school or church. They receive traditions, or should receive them, after some process of analysis, the end of which is to discern good from evil, falsehood from truth.
Unfortunately, when Christians receive new traditions, it’s often because they are attracted to them for reasons which may or may not justify their beliefs. For example, if a Protestant jumps to Roman Catholicism because they like the smell of the incense and cathedrals, they’ve not justified their move because, in addition to smells and bells, they’ve also adopted an entirely new (to them) theological system.
There is also the issue of those who are generally unable to discern right traditions from wrong ones. Young children do not reason through, nor do they empirically verify everything their parents teach them. But this is because children are under the tutelage of their parents for a reason, i.e. to train them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6). And though it may not fall on the child to discern tradition at that particular stage of life, it most certainly is up to his or her father. If a father educates his family in bad tradition, not only will he not train the child up in the way it should go, but he will actively lead them astray—a scenario to which we might apply Mark 9:42, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.”
There are, thus, good and bad traditions concerning which we are responsible for discerning according to objective ethical and aesthetical truth.
The New Nationalism & the Rejection of Conscience
Because of the above, I’m dumbfounded there are some who do not believe tradition, family or otherwise, should be subject to personal or individual inquiry. A set of particular traditions just are good. And, naturally, the traditions of which we speak are usually thought of in terms of nation or country of origin. Traditions are good, the nation in which they were formed is good. There is no reason, per se, as to why these things are good. But in order for such and such nation to survive and thrive, and in order for the people who practice such traditions to continue on, these traditions must be engaged and protected. Note here we are not talking about tradition as a good, universal idea or form. We are talking about specific traditions developed over time along certain ethnic or national lines. I will touch on the goodness of tradition as a general concept or universal below.
This view of inherently good particular or national traditions has led to what some might call extreme nationalism. Nationalism is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, there is a kind of nationalism necessary for all people to espouse. What extreme nationalism does, however, is it divorces reason from the ethics of national and familial tradition. Particular, man-made tradition just is good. To question it is wrong. Why would it be wrong to question a given national or familial tradition? Because of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you (Ex. 20:12).” But how does this blanket application of the fifth commandment square with what Scripture says elsewhere? In Luke 11:48, Jesus chides the religious elite (traditionalists) for approving of and even following in bad traditions passed down from their ancestors: “In fact, you bear witness that you approve the deeds of your fathers; for they indeed killed them, and you build their tombs.”
Extreme nationalism neuters human reason and dashes to pieces the judgment of conscience, the very faculties responsible for distinguishing man from beast, and instead demands that he accept tradition apart from discerning its truth or goodness. All of this leads to irrationalism. For example, when asked whether or not he is Christian or pagan (because of mixed signals on his website), the author of an extreme nationalist blog and meme gallery, Europa Invicta, responds—
Neither one nor the other, and both at the same time! I received a Christian education, yet I don’t believe in God as Christians imagine him to be, though I am not a heathen either. However, I have a lot of affection for both traditions because there is so much cultural heritage in Europe thanks to previous generations of Christians as well as the vision that neo-Pagans have for the world and human relations. Let us say that here, too, I try to celebrate our respective legacies to transcend them in a positive common vision.
Interestingly, while he readily accepts pluralism with regard to religion (which consequently spawns and shapes tradition and culture), this is not the case with skin color, ethnicity, or nationality. The site features several memes depicting white people, with different colored hair, which read, “We have all the diversity we need.” But what more can be expected when traditions are chosen, not for any objective moral reason, but in terms of preference, and then made arbitrarily exclusive of other people?
This doesn’t mean, of course, that it is wrong to have a kind of hereditary and cultural pride. But when those things are seen as substantial identifiers of human persons, national identity becomes more preferable, desirable, and indeed more obligatory than truth itself. In the case of Europa Invicta, the intellectual tradition of Christianity specifically is rejected in favor of pluralism (Christ is not God in a pantheon of other gods). But, according to the traditionalist who assumes the finality of tradition, this is perfectly acceptable because, again, traditions are the finibus (ends) of mankind, not truth. And if these traditions are identified with truth itself, then they must displace their contraries, among which would be Jesus Christ, who repeatedly chides the traditions of men in favor of the superior will of His Father.
An Overreaction to Tradition
Some, having more favor for the nuovo modo (new way) than the paths of old, banish tradition, almost indiscriminately, to the dark, cobby halls of antiquity. There is a tug-o-war between the old and the new. But this actually need not happen if we are to understand tradition and innovation as two distinct genera, both of which are inherently good. Bad traditions or innovations would degrade from the goodness of either. So, for example, aspirin may be a good innovation, but methamphetamines intended for human consumption are not.
Aristotle helpfully innovated on Plato in some very important ways. But nominalism and subjectivism threaten to undo both. Innovation (progress) is good, but there are those things which actually threaten and diminish true innovation, or perversions of it, which are not truly innovative at all but evils under the guise of progress, e.g. the leftist notion of “progress” isn’t progress at all.
Tradition is also inherently good, but there are bad habits and false religions, often called traditions, which erode the truth and goodness of true tradition. For example, religion is a good expressed through tradition, but what if the religion is pagan idolatry? To the extent it fails to be a good and true religion, it is evil. And to the extent it is evil, it fails to be a good tradition. This privation in the goodness of tradition, which too often plagues society, is often referred to in a positive way as “bad tradition.” But ontologically, bad tradition is nothing more than a privation of the good. And good tradition is but the application of goodness and truth in human belief and practice.
Furthermore, those who favor innovation to the detriment of tradition fail to observe that without tradition there can be no favorable or good innovation, or at least we cannot know whether or not an innovation is good without tradition. This is because the principle of innovation always lives in the past. An innovation either seeks to improve upon some pre-existent thing. Or, it operates upon the foundation of some pre-existent thing. The past is the reference point for innovation. For example, Da Vinci dabbled in the dream of flight. But flight was only significant to Da Vinci because of some pre-existent thing, i.e. human travel. Flight would have been an improvement on human travel and indeed has been, but it also would have operated upon principles discovered and applied far beforehand, making tradition necessary to Da Vinci’s innovative aspirations.
So, to respond to bad tradition by favoring innovation over tradition altogether is to misunderstand the metaphysics of either. They are really two sides of the same coin when both are understood as mutual goods, either of which may be perverted through sin.
Tradition and innovation are good things with bad imposters. We cannot ignore the reality of corrupt or perverse traditions, of which we must be discerning. Neither, however, can we cast tradition (sic et simpliciter) aside in favor of innovation, for two reasons—(1) because that’s impossible, as shown above, to do so; and (2) it would be to forego the good, beautiful, and true, which tradition is inasmuch as it exists. Likewise, neither can we dispose of the innovative in favor of tradition. For traditions are not immutable, nor do they transcend development. They themselves are developments or innovations in terms of their particularity and originality, of our knowledge of them, and of our eruditeness in skillfully applying them.