The Trouble with Adjectives

Facebook keeps sending me e-mails, usually vast amounts of “I’m really keen about that cause” and other pieces of junk, but now and again one gets a link to a blog or an article.

Fr Sutter has written Ancient Worship…Timeless Faith.

Having lived in France for many years in the highly polarised atmosphere of the few French people who still bother with church, the words traditional and traditionalist have taken on a really bad connotation. They often mean that horrible nineteenth-century anti-revolutionary poison that developed into the totalitarian extreme right-wing ideologies of the early twentieth century.

The word has been frankly hacked to death, partly by its use in commercial advertising in the 1980’s for the beer we used to love drinking as students and many other products, as a symbol of quality and a human “break” from the automation and mass production of our industrial world. Traditional can tend to mean a negative reaction against modernity or the values of the Enlightenment. Traditionalism in the nineteenth century meant an offshoot from Romanticism that speculated on the relationship between faith and reason, placing more faith in tradition than in theological science. There is also the traditionalism of men like René Guénon (1886-1951) who ended up as a Sufi Muslim. This kind of traditionalism had much in common with the occultist and esoteric thinking that underpinned the twentieth-century “third position”, distributist and far-right ideologies.

I have had a tremendous amount of sympathy with some of Guénon’s work, and have an entire bookshelf of his works and other authors like Mircea Eliade, Frithjof Schuon and other less known characters. They presented a kind of esoteric and mystical underpinning of sacramental and liturgical Christianity that would provide a refreshing alternative to the fundamentalist and literalist representation of Christianity as the “third monotheism” and “religion of the Book”. This kind of thinking pervaded some of the Modernists in the 1900’s. The origins of this “mystical” current essentially go back to the alchemists and hermeticists of the sixteenth century. Guénonian traditionalism developed in Sufism, a kind of mystical Islam practised in Egypt. On the other hand, we notice the figure of Julius Evola who sailed very close to the Fascist wind in Italy and inspired some quite unsavoury extreme right wing figures and organisations. Some of these went as far as committing terrorist acts. They are not the people we would invite to dinner!

Usually, in the Anglican and Roman Catholic worlds, traditionalism means an anti-liberal reaction and the fostering of a highly conservative vision of these respective church traditions. In Roman Catholicism it is essentially Archbishop Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X and all the offshoots from this movement, some of which found their way back into the official Church. Tradition for those people essentially means the Council of Trent, the polemics against Protestantism, but also the anti-revolutionary reaction against Liberalism, Freemasonry, Communism and Zionism or the more marginal “conspiracies”. This nostalgia for the Catholic reaction of the nineteenth century often brings traditionalist Catholics to collude to some extent with less Christian reactionary ideologies as happened in the period from the 1900’s to the end of World War II. Many traditionalists blame Vatican II for the “crisis” in the Church, but the real problem is the dualism created by the nineteenth century paranoia and the more realistic thinking of people who see no threat in the modern world in all its dimensions. It all came to a head when the “paranoid” ideology took the ultimate form of Nazism and was defeated in 1945.

Traditional Anglicanism is a much shallower current. It tends simply to refuse modernity and take refuge in older forms of liturgy and social norms. We often see “continuing” Anglican jurisdictions advertising traditional faith…traditional worship…traditional teaching. But how convincing is such a slogan, when most people in the 1950’s were bored with the old stuff and welcomed what began to come in during the 1960’s? As the modern movement became more daring, traditionalists hoped that more people would see the advantage of rejecting liturgical forms modelled on television entertainment and return to the beauty of holiness. Despite my own preference for old liturgical forms, I have to recognise that most Christians who still go to church prefer happy-clappy and entertaining services. They like the praise bands and the big screens and clapping along with a catchy rhythm. They are probably right and the future of Christianity. Was the original Gospel of Jesus a secularising message? That would be a sobering thought as we find expressed in Bonhoeffer’s writings.

Would another adjective for those attracted to liturgical Christianity be better than traditional or traditionalist? Many have been tried, ancient for example, or old. Age and oldness alone do not suffice, even for those of us who are not convinced by notions of progress and evolution.

The question is a difficult one, and I cannot pretend to have any definitive insight. One problem is that we try to replicate “legitimate” churches with the same degree of exclusivism as the Roman Catholic and Canterbury Communion Churches. If it works badly in America, it doesn’t work at all here in Europe. The episcopus vagans claiming the title of Patriarch of Wherever or Archbishop-Primate just looks like a silly bugger for most of us.

The key seems to be the question of the Christian community that treats its members and enquirers as human persons. The variations on the same theme pile up upon each other, and we have a sense that absolutely everything has been tried. Myself, I am tired of trying to find the “universal” and the Philosopher’s Stone. It just is not there.

I have been aware for a very long time that the worst enemies of Christianity are not Freemasons, or Jews, or Communists, nor are they jackbooted thugs, Muslims or secularist atheists. The worst enemies of Christianity are Christians, or those who think they are devoting their lives to defending their vision of Christianity. It is within each one of us for as long as we feed on our certitudes. There is the true enemy and the persecutor of the Church. We persecute ourselves.

* * *

There is intoxication in the waters of contemplation, whose mystery fascinated and delighted the first Cistercians and whose image found its way into the names of so many of those valley monasteries that stood in forests, on the banks of clean streams, among rocks alive with springs.

These are the waters the world does not know, because it prefers the water of bitterness and contradiction.  These are the waters of peace, of which Christ said: ‘He that shall drink of the water that I shall give him, shall not thirst for ever.  But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.

These are the Waters of Siloe, that flow in silence.

-Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe

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2 Responses to The Trouble with Adjectives

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, as is the way of things, your articles – and your blog organisation – prompt the ‘stream of consciousness’. Thus, I found myself here. I want to say this: that I think it is a profound tension we have, between the desire to persuade and the acknowledgment of our ignorance. I find myself wanting to lead you to my view but recognising I ‘know’ little. I think I know, of course, that many think they know otherwise, including that things are truly knowable , and that they know them. But this, my assertion of ‘knowing’ this, is of the same kind. I immediately suspect it. But honesty requires we put what we think: the tension will never go away, it seems and so rather than waste time drilling down into a narrow and narrower vortex, we should just get on with it and communicate!

    We humans seem to be all very, so very, fragile vessels. We are ‘human’. errare est humanum goes the familiar gerund construction (unless my memory is failing me here!) But here is what I think: there is no universal religious or liturgical truth; we are formed in and by and end up in preference and comfort, with which there is nothing wrong until we imagine it represents a dogma or universal criterion of religious truth or taste. We should therefore, as progressives, cease our railing against conservatives; we should, as traditionalists, cease railing against modernists; and so on. In fact, we should cease being or asserting our traditionalism , our progressivism , our modernism, our conservatism….etc. We should simply be, and assert….ourselves, and accept that we operate in mystery, out of self-interest, and the deep existential desire and need to be and feel ‘loved’.

    • Stephen K says:

      My previous post omitted my final paragraph:
      If we wish to argue the merits of Laud, Dearmer, Pasch, Jungmann or Bugnini…etc, we may do so, but never from a position of dogma, only the truth of personal understanding and taste. One day, when we die, we will then….and only then…..know what others should think and feel (i.e. if we know anything at all!).

      But then I imagined my dear co-reader, ed pacht, objecting that with faith one could and did know, and that the truth thus known was universal.

      I agree, in anticipation, unreservedly: with faith, one knows everything. But it is a subjective mirage: such ‘truth’ is transferable only to another with the same faith. It is thus not a universal truth, but a truth of faith.

      But perhaps we can discuss this.

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