Theory & Tradition

3 October 2014

Many of our current cultural fault lines, whether in the Church or in society at large, are best regarded, I believe, as lying between tradition and theory. Put simply, there are those who go along doing the things the way they have always been done, and those who have a new idea about how things should be done. I understand tradition here as inherited practice, and theory as any abstract body of thought, not based on inherited practice, but directed towards future practice.

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Present discussion about “politically correct” language may be taken to illustrate the conflict between tradition and theory. Certain inherited conventions in our speech, some of them hoary with age, are currently defined on purely ideological grounds. Theory challenges tradition. The use of the word “man” to designate a member of the human race may serve as an example. Whatever its use in tradition, argues the theorist, “man” is a masculine designation and as such cannot be inclusive of human beings indiscriminately. This argument is entirelya priori; it can summon to its support no empirical evidence from linguistic history. It is the bold defiance of a tradition by a theory.

The proponent of tradition, for his part, will respond that the English word “man” is only one of a good number of masculine words used to designate a member of the human race. He will appeal to empirical evidence, drawing attention to the Hebrew adam, the Greek anthropos, the Latin homo, and two dozen other examples of masculine nouns that refer to human beings as such but may also, in context, refer to the male of the species. The traditional does not invoke a theory but only the testimony of inherited practice.

The traditionalist is generally a practical, plain sort of person, the kind disposed to “leave well enough alone.” Sheer temperament often will prompt him to make Proverbs 22:28 his favorite biblical verse: “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” The theorist, on the other hand, the person who is arguing for the change and hoping to get the landmark moved, is more often an academic or some sort of reformer, at least in the sense of having an idea that he wants to share. He is necessarily an elitist of sorts. He believes that he is in possession of an insight which, though it has never been attempted before, may yet fulfill the Psalmist’s hope of crowning the year with goodness and causing our paths to drop fatness, or is at least worth the try.

Now the idea is widespread that practice should be carefully thought through ahead of time; that is, theory should precede practice. This idea serves the cause of the theorist, of course, but it is itself highly theoretical.

Democratic & Elitist

The theorist and the traditionalist differ, not only in their styles of argument, but also in their respectively political assumptions. Tradition tends to be democratic in the etymological sense of representing the demos, the population at large. Theory, by contrast, tends to be oligarchical; it is the enlightened few endeavoring to reach the benighted many. The traditionalist, in his struggle to prevail in society (if, indeed, he bothers to struggle at all), enjoys the considerable leverage arising from the majority’s reluctance to change the established patterns and habits with which they are comfortable. The theorist, not having that edge, must resort to political pressures brought strategically to bear at certain advantageous points.

The academic world, the domain of books and laboratories that sometimes seems to exist solely for the cultivation of experiment and theory, most often is such a point. Make no mistake. The theorist really does have the theories. That is to say, he is an idea-man and is at home on the campus and at the publishing house. He does his homework. He has thought the thing through and worked it out. The bugle then summons him forth from the library. His well-marshaled arguments bristle in their serried ranks; his eager footnotes snort and paw the ground.

It is always the privilege of the theorist, moreover, to choose the field and procedure of the engagement. So he will have both the ideological and tactical jump on the traditionalist, whom he normally catches off-guard. Hilaire Belloc observed that “it always takes some time for the old established thing on its defense to wake up. An answer to attack upon tradition can always be found; but the traditional thing, being general, popular and having become based upon routine turned to a kind of instinct, having long lost the habit of analysis, takes some time in finding the answer. [1]

In the present struggle about “politically correct” language, to stick with our example, the theorist has already, in the main, seized control of the campus and publishing industry. So, if the traditionalist, emulating those stale precedents established by Shakespeare, Johnson, and just about everybody else who spoke English prior to 1983 or so, wants to say “man” and thereby mean “human being,” he may do so down at the barber shop or the bar. He will be in some trouble, however, if he tries it in his sociology class or his forthcoming article in a scholarly journal, or heaven help us, the next meeting of the liturgical commission. That real estate is already occupied by the theorist. And nobody, not Abraham Lincoln, could deliver or publish a speech today that said anything even remotely resembling “our fathers brought forth” without risking the charge of gross insensitivity, if not sexual harassment.

Such is the success of theory at the expense of tradition. In the matter of language, we are not dealing with the normal linguistic evolution that causes words slowly to change their meanings from one generation to the next. The latter phenomenon is brought about by the dynamics of tradition itself. I am describing, rather, an alteration that is relatively abrupt because it is politically forced. I learned this truth a few years ago while serving on the faculty of a seminary that was seeking accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). The attempt (by those sent to interview us) to impose ideological control on the language patterns of our faculty’s lectures was not even slightly subtle nor free from threat. Only our equally unsubtle invoking of “academic freedom” prompted them to back off. It was instructive that the theorists from the ATS could respond sympathetically only to another elitist theory; appeals to common democratic decency were of no avail.

Taking the Measure

Losing so badly the battle for the integrity of his mother tongue (a hopelessly biased expression coined by those who recall that their mothers, those shameless lovers of tradition, first taught them to speak), the traditionalist can find consolation in trying to remember his last recorded victory over the theorist. It was America’s decision, several years ago, not to adopt the metric system. That decision should signify to the traditionalist that his cause may yet be redeemed.  That victory of tradition over theory, an outcome apparently unforeseen by either side, argues for the presence of some vestigial decency in the America character that yet may save the day. Virtually alone in the world, ordinary American people arose and refused to permit the experts to foist one more elitist theory on them.

The metric system, it may be noted, is theory in an almost pure form. It is the fabrication of professionals who breathe the rare atmosphere of libraries and laboratories. None of its calibrations refer to anything inherited, concrete or ordinary. Not one of its gauges is taken from either human biology or human history. The metric system represents the raw imposition of abstraction on reality. The academic and political impulse to adopt it was the attempt of an oligarchy to enforce its own measure on a final remnant of common people, and its triumph would have been yet one more example of the ascendancy of elitist abstraction over popular experience and tradition.

Even mathematics, after all, that most abstract of abstractions and theoretical of theories, must commence with the common. Tradition means “handing over,” and in this matter of mathematics we all begin with those wondrous extensions at the ends of our hands. Anyone can see that we count by tens because we count on our fingers. Such is the solemn democracy of the digit. The very elements of quantification are based, not in theory, but in human biology. That is to say, we look to our hands in order to use our heads. We arrive at a decimal system of calculation because we employ a digital system of convenience.

All our traditional ways of taking measure, the ones we Americans learned in childhood and the experts hoped to make us forget, tend to come immediately from the democratic and domestic institutions of human life. They are rooted in the kitchen, and the farmyard. Often enough, as in the case of fingers, they are fixed in the human body itself, and I suspect that this may be why babies adopt, among their first serious enterprises, a careful examination of their extremities. All babies do this; it is enough to drive the aristocrat crazy.

While the meter is only an idea lodged in somebody’s head, the foot is an actual object, discovered at length (by those who search it out with diligence and robust application) at the bottom of a leg. Similarly, a kilometer is but a fantasy day-dreamed at somebody’s desk; it bears no relationship to any non-cerebral experience. A mile, however, is determined by the very act of walking (Latin mille passus = a thousand paces). The thinker must actually get out of the faculty lounge and go for a stroll. Feet and miles enjoy that blessing of being human realities before being units of rule. They testify to the sane sovereignty of life over thought, the sensible priority of practice to theory.

Likewise, a liter exists first in the cranium of some ideologue (feasibly to gauge the fluid on his brain). It is a theory, not a real thing. In contrast, our inherited unit of liquid measurement is the cup, of which the pint and gallon are only augments. Now the cup is a genuine, honest-to-goodness object enjoying a concrete and rather useful existence prior to its employment as a measure. It is practical and also supremely traditional, in the strict etymological sense of something “handed over” to us. Our first cup was carried from her kitchen to the family table by the lady who taught us our mother tongue. Doubtless, too, it was a wife and mother whose fingers formed the original cup and, across some family table, handed it over to all the world.

Thou Hast Prepared a Table

But beyond all merely human measure, the cup is likewise that mystic vessel that runneth over, the calyx inebrians et praeclarus approached with holy terror, and of which the aspirant is queried by the Lord: “Can you drink of the cup that I drink of?” So solemn and precious was the moment of the “handing over” of that mystery that one observes a distinct reluctance on the part of the Church to turn her eyes away from the hands of Christ in the eucharistic action. At that moment she lingers lovingly in contemplative wonder at “his holy and venerable hands” (Roman Liturgy), “his pure and blameless hands” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

Jesus, affirming the precedence of practice to theory, directed the Church, not to sit down and figure it out, but to “do this in memory of me.” He handed over to us, that is, not a theological theory, not a body of religious thought, but a specific action to be done,a defining rite to be handed down forever in the Church, whose very identity is thereby rooted in a practical memory. Thus the immensity of our redemption is now measured out in the cup that lends its own shape and contour to his blood.2  Paramount bearer of tradition, the chalice stands on the alter as the world’s final and defining standard, the eloquent witness that God, not man, will at the last take the measure of human beings and human history.

The metric system, on the other hand, was born of the Rationalism associated with the French Revolution, the event that may serve as the metaphor of what the traditionalist means and fears. It really was a revolution in the sense of an overthrow, a tossing out of the living traditions of real people whose inherited standards and principles were henceforth, with firm political force, to be replaced by the academic theories and abstractions of an elite class of experts. That revolution represented a trampling on the Church and the home and the family, those ancient and pulsing realities inseparable from the tradition that hands them on and which provide sustenance, sense and structure for the real life of common people.

Truly human measurement, says the traditionalist, cannot be just quantitative. It must be a matter of quality. Not simply “how much” (quantum) but “of what sort” (qualis); not just a gauge but a true standard, an ideal, an archetype. A merely quantitative measurement is a roaming, rootless abstraction, having no being outside its own concept. Basing himself on the experience of the Sacraments, the traditionalist will insist that properly human measurement must be semantic, not merely symmetric and syntactical; it must refer to reality outside of itself and not start as a closed conceptual system; it must flow from, be “handed over” by, human life and history. The traditionalist will further argue that all human identity is the proper retention of memory, and that memory is the very stuff of tradition.

A Rowdy Toast to Frivolity

Then, to the great surprise of the traditionalist himself, the common American people won that seemingly hopeless battle against the metric system. But where, I ask, was the rejoicing? Really now, I do not see that the traditionalist has yet celebrated his victory as he ought. With full-throated song, I mean, and the raised goblet, with boisterous acclaim and the taking of booty—that sort of thing. I say it’s about time for the traditionalist to loosen up a bit. So let him, a brief hour, be frivolous and free. He really does need the fun, I suspect. After all, I had always said of those wily metric people: “Just give them an inch, and they’ll take 1,609.3 meters.” Like Shylock, they were trying to extract their 453.59 grams of flesh. But the traditionalist stopped them in their tracks, because, as everyone knows, 28.3495 grams of prevention is worth 4.359 hectograms of cure.

Think for a moment. Suppose the theorist had won. What a tragedy. Picture all those Texans walking around in 37.853 liter hats and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons stumbling along as 14,514.88 kilograms. Truly may we have trembled for the race, because the very possibility of romance would be in stark peril if “I love you 44.0479 liters” replaced “I love you a bushel and a peck.” How would the love-smitten young fellow sing properly the praises of his sweetheart if “five-foot-two, eyes of blue” had to be phrased to include the politically correct 157.48 centimeters? Poetry would die that very day, as poor Shakespeare’s “full fathoms five thy father lies” fell to 9.144 meters. In a society where pints and quarts are replaced by liters, you see, a fellow must look out for his l’s instead of minding his p’s and q’s. Anyway, the good guys took that round, and the traditionalist is very happy about it. Indeed, his 2,366 milliliters runneth over.


1.How the Reformation Happened, London: Jonathan Cape, 1928, pp. 220f.

2. Cf. Patrick Henry Reardon, “The Cross, Sacraments and Martyrdon: An Investigation of Mark 10:35-45, in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 35/1&2 (1992), 103-115.