I suspect that most in modern America have a vague distrust of tradition. Upon hearing it, words like “stagnant”, “entrenched”, and “mindless” flash through my mind along with images of old, judgmental people who can’t accept the new order.
In short, it seems that I’ve thoroughly bought into the tradition of modernism.
Though it is only fair to distrust the zeitgeist of unfounded enthusiasm for doing something new equally as much as I distrust blind assent to the old, I find that my suspicion of the latter is not wholly unfounded. After all, I’ve been told that tradition is a great revealer of truth, that something can be accepted as valid precisely because it is tradition. This has always struck me as a dangerous way of thinking, that would justify any act, no matter how cruel, simply because there is precedent for it in tradition.
By such a reaction, however, I kept myself blithely ignorant to the actual validity of tradition. It is not, I believe, that there is some intrinsic property of “what’s always been” that makes a thing true. Rather, respect for tradition is, in its best form, a respect for the intelligence of those who have come before us. Our era is particularly susceptible to historical prejudice, judging past generations as ignorant on all issues simply because they lacked the scientific knowledge we enjoy today. Not only does that put us in a rather hopeless position with regard to both future generations and current scientists, it is completely irrational.
There is much wisdom to be found in old books, and to wave it away – to refuse to give it proper attention and study – simply because it constitutes a tradition is at least as unfounded as accepting a thing simply because it is tradition. The paucity of logic, study, reflection, and (therefore) truth in much of our common personal “philosophies” is largely due to our disregard for the thoughts of the past.
Surely, it is as possible to be thoughtless by blindly accepting what one is taught as by glibly rejecting it (or, as is more common, not bothering to read it in the first place). Still, knowing something of the long history of deep philosophical and theological thinking at least allows for the possibility of reflection on these issues. In its place, many of us have adopted a willy-nilly acceptance of any idea which strikes one as correct.
I have a long history with a blind acceptance of modernism (which is, to a large extent, futurism), and have come to see it as running deeper than a simple intellectual position. Rather, it is the fable we tell ourselves, in part, to justify our break with the past. For most of human history, all cultures have achieved something of a sense of eternity by identification with those who had come before. The prevalence of ancestor worship in ancient cultures is, in my mind, very strong evidence of this.
The rise of modern technology and politics seems, on the surface, to have closed that door to us. Life has changed so drastically that we find ourselves unable to make this connection as our forefathers did. As such, we look to the future, to creating lasting change in order to get a sense that we are touching something eternal. Of course, none of us have any real assurance that what we accomplish will last far beyond our own lifetimes. And, from a purely materialistic perspective, nothing of any value will last forever.
If I find this depressing, it is because the future is where I put my hopes. I think it a deeply terrible thing that we spend our lives dreaming about accomplishing some undefined and indefinable something that is not to be had in the things of this world. The only person who can have anything like the certainty in the future required to face death is the complete fool.
Nor can we simply return to the ancient way. Or, rather, we cannot return to the shallower of the ancient ways. The world is too much changed to take solace in one’s ancestors. We are too aware that we are not them.
But there is a third way. The ancients, like ourselves, knew that the eternal is neither the future nor the past. It is not a point in time, or even an infinite stretch of time, reaching forward or backward. It is the divine being. The foundation of all time, and everything else, is itself (or, rather, himself) eternal. It is this thought, which looks neither forward nor back, but to the unchanging absolute nature of he who holds all existence together, which leaves us with the truest sense that our lives matter. They have always mattered, and will always matter, not because of what was or will be, but because of what absolutely, completely, unthinkably, and eternally, is.