Funky alerted me recently to an article by Annie Gottlieb, an accomplished and interesting author and friend of Ales Rarus, who advertises what purports to be a serious opposition to traditionalism in Towards a New Revelation (or, Why I Am Not a Traditionalist) over on AmbivaBlog. Since this site is frequented by a good many traditionalists, and owned by one (tho’ occasionally I’ve my doubts about that), he thought it might be edifying to here critically examine Ms. Gottlieb’s post. As you might expect, as a traditionalist I beg to differ with her.
Traditions of Straw
Ms. Gottlieb starts off:
When you live inside a tradition, and that includes scientific secularism, you agree to view life through its window — an outlook, a way of framing reality, carefully preserved through time. That frame has a fixed form, originally designed by and for a world long gone. It can allow embellishments or simplifications, but not ideas — not even self-evident truths — so new or foreign that they would pull it apart and make it unrecognizable.
If you can see right away a simplistic caricature heading straight at you, you’re not alone. Ms. Gottlieb is quite right to include “scientific secularism” among the various entrenched traditions she is preparing to parody. She is also not far off the mark to define a tradition as a way of framing reality, and that it is by and large carefully preserved through time. But the notion that a tradition has only a fixed form, allowing only for embellishments but for no new ideas, is simply not credible. I know of no traditions that are like this. Not that I’m acquainted with all of them mind you, but it is difficult to even understand what she means here, much less believe it. Without some offer of supporting evidence or example, it seems fair to suppose such traditions might be illusory.
The tradition of the Catholic Church has incorporated ideas from outside of itself for most of its history. Arising originally from ancient Judaism, much of the thought of Plato was adopted into Church teaching from the 4th century onward. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas, revolutionized Christian thought by a serious application of Aristotle. South Pacific islanders incorporated the inexplicable arrival of Western goodies from Western ships (and later airplanes) into their tradition by the creation of cargo cults. Most religions of the world have proved perfectly capable of integrating the ideas of modern science (as distinct from the modern philosophy of scientism, to which many are diametrically opposed) into their traditions, often forced to reinterpret creation myths, without substantial upheaval. There are to be sure notable exceptions to this last example, but the fact that they are exceptions merely suggests that many if not most traditions are quite open to new ideas, contra Ms. Gottlieb’s plenary indictment.
Given the fact that traditions do change, almost all the time, adapting to new and external ideas as inputs, the suggestion that they are “designed by and for a world long gone” is therefore a nonstarter. Though I certainly would add that it is far from clear that folks today are really so much different than 5 or 100 generations ago. Yes, tradition is framework for viewing reality, but it is only a viable tradition, i.e., one lasting long enough to be called a “tradition”, that has more or less stood up to rational scrutiny thus far. It is far from clear that most (much less all) traditions are pulled apart or made unrecognizable by most ideas and “self-evident truths”. That is, unless I fail to understand what Ms. Gottlieb means by “idea” or “self-evident truths”.
Perhaps she means to say that a tradition that defines itself by proposition A, cannot simultaneously hold firmly to the proposition Not A. This is certainly true, at least for those who rank above the average mollusk in intelliegence. But then the question in this case is not whether a tradition can survive uncorrupted, but which of these mutually exclusive propositions, if either, is correct. And if it is “self-evident” that one of the propositions, say Not A, is obviously true, then the tradition defined by A withers and dies and becomes a museum piece, or a National Geographic special. Surely some traditions have died in precisely this manner, but if they’re already in the museum, why does Ms. Gottlieb complain? She doesn’t accept those traditions any more than anyone else in the world, and they therefore should be no more problematic than a Black Velvet Elvis painting. One suspects she’s taking aim at traditions with reasonably large numbers of living adherents. But since they go unnamed, we cannot know for sure. The onus, however, should be on Ms. Gottlieb to help us understand: which currently widespread traditions reject self-evident truths, as a key part of their continued survival? Again, I cannot resist the impression that such traditions are little more than imagined whipping boys.
Ms. Gottlieb, goes on to suggest:
Every tradition demands that you accept its inherited ideas, even those that violate our evolving understanding — Jesus’ mother was a virgin! the universe is blind, mindless matter! — and reject or give second-class status to ideas from other sources, even those that might better illuminate reality.
We’re back to this supposed and, as far as the article goes, merely imagined chasm between our forebearers (however ancient) and ourselves. But ironically, her examples here suggest rather the opposite point. Evolved understanding? A Virgin Birth was just as incredible to first century skeptics as it is to those of the 20th. And atheism wasn’t invented in the 18th century. Does Ms. Gottlieb think that skeptics of Virgin Birth were not abundant in the first century? Does she believe the ancients so stupid as to not have understood how babies got made (at least most of the time), or so credulous as to believe every tall tale they heard? Perhaps the number of folks in the ancient world disposed to believe in miracles was higher than today. But how much higher? Say 99% in ancient Palestine and only the 2% that are today’s mouth-breathers? No. Folks are disposed to believe variously in Virgin Births or Universes of Mindless Matter for pretty much the same reasons today as they were 2000 years ago.
Moreover, this doesn’t as much go against tradition in general as it suggests that many moderns have simply traded in an older tradition for a newer one founded on materialism and positivism, skeptical or utterly incredulous of miracles of any kind. Yet neither tradition has died off or been deformed irreparably or utterly closed itself off from further information. One tradition says miracles are possible but rare. The other says miracles are impossible. One tradition says the universe is created by an intelligent (and perhaps caring) being? One says, no way. Who is right? Whose ideas better illuminate reality? Do they illuminate each other? Well, kinda… they’re just opposite propositions. But is reality better illuminated if one, standing somehow “above” tradition, holds to some “higher” philosophy that miracles are both simultaneously possible and not possible? This seems unlikely.
“Outsiders” have all the same human needs — for community, for a conceptual operating system, for metaphysical and not just physical shelter — but they find themselves unable to deny the central fact of our time: that all the old certainties are being destroyed by two great new transforming forces, science and globalization… To defend any crumbling fortress of certainty today is to go to war not only with the defenders of other certainties, but with reality itself.
Again we find what seems a giddy fascination with so much that is supposedly changing in recent times, often at a pace so rapid we are, if such hyperbole is to be believed, torn helplessly away from all intellectual and cultural moorings. Now aside from the very dubious and ultimately self-defeating proposition, nay the “central fact of our time”, that the only certainty in today’s terribly confusing world is uncertainty (and here I thought it was death and taxes), it is not at all obvious that such “old certainties” are in fact crumbling. Which ones? The certainty that the cosmos possesses some underlying order that might be discovered by the application of reason, observation, and experiment? The certainty that love of family and country is rightly praised? The certainty that heroes rise above hardship? The certainty that war is hell? The certainty that men, if given the chance, are likely to take what is not rightly theirs? Which timeless certainties are threatened to such an extent that traditions of any sort can no longer stand? One is inclined to suspect that Ms. Gottlieb has here something specific in mind, but that to name it might very well amount to a show of cards and an exposure of the bluff.
The article goes on to praise the twin virtues of fence-sitting and lack of commitment, for when “you swear exclusive allegiance to no one tradition, their multiplicity is no longer a threat but a vast resource”. But since we haven’t established the fact, by any means other than indistinct handwaving in a vague direction, that allegiance to any particular tradition necessarily equates to seeing other traditions as a “threat”, there is no reason to suppose that traditionalists of all stripes might not share equally in this “vast resource.” Of course, proponents of one tradition can certainly disagree with proponents of another. But since when is disagreement necessarily equal to a threat? In whose dictionary?
The virtue of tolerance (and I know that sounds strange coming from my ASCII-characters but it is a virtue, rightly understood) is only operative and meaningful if and when we disagree. Tolerance doesn’t mean spending your life in self-loathing doubt of everything you’ve ever held dear, nor is it the intellectual and moral suicide of thinking all opinions are equally valid, but rather the willingness to tolerate opinions that you actually believe are wrong. If you didn’t really think that certain opinions, e.g., the ones that conflict with yours, were wrong, you couldn’t very well have anything to tolerate, would you? Instead you’d find yourself in perfect agreement with opinions in direct opposition to your own… and the need for tolerance would be the least of your worries.