Traditionalism seems to be one of the most polyvalent words I have ever come across, meaning so many different concepts. People of so many different and opposing ideas often call themselves traditionalists. I have just spent seven years as a priest in the Traditional Anglican Communion, by definition a traditionalist church, but according to very different ideas from those of Roman Catholic traditionalists of different positions.
This term also means a different reaction from modernity, defined by some as a school of traditional metaphysics, of esoterism and “comparative” religion under the influence of René Guénon and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and continued mostly by Frithjof Schuon. Some other names figure in this movement, especially Julius Evola who was an Italian thinker often associated with Mussolini’s fascism, but actually wasn’t a Fascist or a member of the Party. Christian esoterism is a theme to which I sometimes return, though with great reservations, because it is often associated with occultism and crankiness.
The kind of esoterism that would attract me is not the new age kind of stuff produced for popular consumption, but the hidden and spiritual content of a revealed religion such as Christianity is. Exoteric Christian provides the discipline and framework to prevent the believer from falling into occultism and the corruption of orthodox and healthy spirituality. It is really the contemplative aspect of Christianity as is exemplified in monasteries and mystical schools. It is the kind of vision one finds in Berdyaev and, in twentieth-century Roman Catholicism, Dom Odo Casel and Hans Urs von Balthasar in particular. Christian esoterism prevents our faith from being reduced to mere moralism, legalism, formalism and institutionalism. It is an approach to God similar to that of Eastern Orthodox, by way of negation of all the God is not. The sense of the sacred is an intuition of a transcendent reality that goes beyond our thought, our senses and even our imagination.
René Guénon, who died in 1951, was an interesting figure who tried to stand out from the morass of theosophism in the early twentieth century. In his youth, he looked out just about every occult group and secret society there was in the period before World War I, and was disillusioned by them all by the 1920’s. He turned his attention to more serious manifestations of traditional revealed religions, including some aspects of Islamic Sufism. For a time, he remained a practicing Catholic and knew Jacques Maritain. Eventually, he despaired of finding the basis of a metaphysical revival in Christianity, was initiated into Sufism, embraced Islam, and emigrated to Egypt. He wrote many books, of which the most well-known are La Crise du Monde Moderne and Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes du Temps. I have known several persons here in France who followed his thought, whilst remaining Christians. I also find in Guénon a certain collusion with Vladimir Soloviev. Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) was another adept of Sufi Islam and who studied the spirituality of the Native American tribal societies. He supplemented the work of Guénon with ideas drawn from the world’s great spiritual masters.
Julius Evola (1898-1974) also attracts attention by his harsh criticism of Christianity and his proximity to extreme right-wing politics between the wars. He was influenced to some extent by Nietzsche, and the dictators hoped to get their hooks into another philosopher. But, Evola never joined either the Fascists or the Nazis. His thought remains quite dark, but is profound – and haunting.
A characteristic of this Traditionalist movement is a belief that Christianity had lost its esoteric dimension, and even attempts to revive Gnosticism and purify Freemasonry were to no avail. I would take this as a criticism to which Christians should respond rather than reject as un-Christian. Nevertheless, the traditionalists saw the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation and the Eucharist is true initiations – as they were known by the Fathers of the Church and contemporary theology.
Here, we find a clear distinction between traditionalism and conservatism. We sometimes encounter the term integral traditionalist, which is really confusing, because there was and is a tendency in twentieth century Catholicism to embrace a right-wing political ideology known as integrismo in Spanish or intégrisme in French. This second tendency colours the reaction of Archbishop Lefebvre against the liberalism and “spirit” of Vatican II, essentially in the questions of ecumenism and religious freedom, a political reaction against liberalism and the separation of powers between the Church and the State. The former were actually influenced by Modernist ideas, and it is a state of mind with which I can sympathise. The former tendency seeks the traditional and spiritual core of the religion, whist the latter seeks to emphasise the authoritarian political dimension. The first tendency would notice that both conservatives and liberals equally erode the spiritual core of a religion. We will find this dynamic in Islam and in many of the other world religions. There is a New Right movement in Europe which appeals to Guénon and attracts a certain number of traditionalist Catholic clergy and people from the extreme right-wing milieu. I know little about it and I have never had anything to do with it. The term integral traditionalism, in the first tendency, seems to refer to a notion of integral spirituality.
Both traditionalism and conservatism oppose modernism and modernity, but one does so for a spiritual reason and the other for an essentially political reason. Unlike most of the optimistic and evolutionary theories with which most of us are familiar, traditionalism has a deeply pessimistic view of modern civilisation as a rapidly-dissolving and decaying product of Christendom. This has been said when discussing Julius Evola’s disappointment with Christianity.
Catholicism today is in great decline. Not least because it is always forced to compromise with the prevailing ideologies among which it finds itself. Liberalism is gradually eroding the last vestiges of Catholic tradition in the same way that it is eating away at the edifice of Tradition in general. The likes of the Protestant Reformation and Vatican II have taken their toll, and we now see modernist popes tolerating bastardised currents like Liberation Theology, supporting the burgeoning New World Order and kneeling before the might of International Zionism. Evola tells us that “the decline of the modern Church is undeniable because she gives to social and moral concerns a greater weight that what pertains to the supernatural life, to asceticism, and to contemplation, which are essential reference points of religiosity.” It is certainly not fulfilling any kind of meaningful role, either: “For all practical purposes, the main concerns of Catholicism today seem to turn it into a petty bourgeois moralism that shuns sexuality and upholds virtue, or an inadequate paternalistic welfare system. In these times of crisis and emerging brutal forces, the Christian faith should devote itself to very different tasks.” In the medieval period the Church possessed a more traditional character, but only due to the fact that it had appropriated so many Classical elements and, by way of Aristotle, lashed them firmly to the theological mast being constructed by Thomas Aquinas during the thirteenth century. Catholicism, however, will never reconcile itself with the problem of how to deal with politics and the State because it relies upon separation and dualism. Tradition, on the other hand, is integralist and unitary.
Evola notes that certain individuals and groups have sought to incorporate the more traditional aspects of Catholicism within the broader and far more encompassing sphere of Tradition itself. Evola’s French philosophical counterpart, Rene Guenon, for example. Catholics, however, are far too dogmatic and would merely seek to make Tradition “conform” to their own spiritual weltanschauung. This, says Evola, is “placing the universal at the service of the particular.” Furthermore, of course, the anti-modernists who are organised in groups such as The Society of St. Pius X and the Sedavacantist fraternity do not speak with the full weight and authority of the Church. They are, therefore, powerless because “the direction of the Church is a descending and anti-traditional one, consisting of modernisation and coming to terms with the modern world, democracy, socialism, progressivism, and everything else. Therefore, these individuals are not authorised to speak in the name of Catholicism, which ignores them, and should not try to attribute to Catholicism a dignity the latter spurns.” Evola suggests that because the Church is so inadequate, it should be abandoned and left to its ultimate doom. He concludes by reiterating the fact that a State which does not have a spiritual dimension is not a State at all. The only way forward, he argues, is to “begin from a pure idea, without the basis of a proximate historical reference” and await the actualisation of the Traditional current.
The indictment is damning, and my first reaction is to say that it is our own fault. I’m no Evola fan, but I admire him for his frankness. At times, Christianity just seems to be running on empty fuel tanks and fumes. But like Saint Peter, I ask the question To whom else do we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. We cannot return to social forms of the past, as the world has moved on and has largely rejected Christianity or Christian politics. The appeal is to a spiritual regeneration of Christianity, without which the only way to go is to embrace another religion or a totalitarian ideology of some kind. It is the call of Christ and the great spiritual masters and Church Fathers. What is most being rejected is not modernity per se (I use a modern machine, the computer, to write and publish) but the World as a system of collective egotism based on the mass denial of God.
Where traditionalism diverges from conservatism is the doctrine of the transcendent unity of religions, which is not a synonym of syncretism – mixing all religions together to produce a new man-made religion with bits and pieces from all. It is an acknowledgement that all religions come from a common revelation, but they do not converge in this world. Unity can only exist in the transcendent world, and this gives a different slant on Christian ecumenism. Traditionalism acknowledges a part of truth in all religions, seeing the uncanny collusion of many aspects between the sacred scriptures of most world religions including the Bible and the Hindu holy books. We do better to continue to be faithful to our own religion and find the transcendent God through it.
On the other hand, how do we make a serious commitment to a religion if we don’t see that religion as the Truth itself? Perhaps, it is when God, who is not owned by anyone, becomes the object of our faith, and not our particular religious path. I find great appeal in the idea of being a faithful Christian and following the traditions of my religion, but seeking the transcendent unity of all faiths in the one God, whether we call that God. We learn to tolerate others and follow our own destiny. And that is possible through a genuine spiritual life.