Tradition Is an Elusive Term

As strange as it may seem, “tradition” is an elusive term. Perhaps we are so deeply formed by the plurality of traditions we embody in the twenty-first century that we take their meanings for granted. Or maybe when we consider what tradition means we discover it is a concept too rich in meaning to have any at all. The evasive nature and pervasive presence of tradition in human experience creates the unique challenge of articulating its meaning with precision. For those interested in Roman Catholicism the task is complicated by virtue of the distinct theological significance it accords to tradition.

While all Christian denominations proclaim Scripture to be the divinely revealed Word of God, Roman Catholicism distinguishes itself by teaching that Scripture and tradition constitute, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, a “single sacred deposit of the Word of God,” (Dei verbum §10), and even more theologically remarkable, that tradition is a “mirror, in which the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth, contemplates God (Dei verbum §7). There is a breadth and depth to the claim being made in the teaching that escapes attention until one considers its implications: God's presence is communicated, mediated, and encountered beyond the divinely inspired words of Scripture precisely through tradition.

That is, through the many doctrines, teachings, liturgical customs, practices, actions, persons, writings, events, places, and happenings which make up what the twentieth-century historical theologian Yves Congar refers to as “monuments of tradition.” Yet, tradition is a reality more profound, much deeper, and always greater than a collection of ancient customs or a conservative force in human history safeguarding against change. It is a living reality active in the Church’s faith, witness, and practice.

Images (“monuments” and “mirror”) serve as metaphorical windows through which our minds momentarily catch sight of the idea of tradition as a living reality. I am partial to the image of “fire” as a metaphor for tradition, because it has a distinguished history of use within both sacred and secular literature as an analogue for the revelation and presence of the Divine. The first line of the traditional prayer to the Holy Spirit is a petition to “enkindle in [the faithful] the fire of your love.” In Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptist forewarns the Sadducees and Pharisees that one more powerful than him will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11).

In the Hebrew Bible, God leads Moses and the Israelites from Egypt as a “pillar of fire by night, to give them light” (Exod 13:21) and later descends Mount Sinai in smoke and fire (Exod 19:18). The call of the prophet Isaiah involves a vision in which a seraph touches his lips with fire (a hot coal) burning away his iniquities in ritual purification and preparation for his divine commission (Isa 6: 6-7). And in the final prophecy of the book of Isaiah the Lord will come in fire, rebuking his enemies, and executing judgment in “flames of fire” (Isaiah 66:15-16).

I could go on listing theophanies of fire in Scripture. To my mind, however, one of the most moving and mystical uses of the image of fire in secular literature is found in “Little Gidding” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The image is reminiscent of the “Fire Sermon” section in The Waste Land in which fire suggests both suffering and salvation. But in “Little Gidding” the tension between suffering and salvation seems to have a different shade of meaning for Eliot, who wrote it during the bombing of London in World War II and after he had worked his way through the ruins of Modernism and into a more hopeful Anglo-Catholicism: “Who then devised the torment? Love. / Love is the unfamiliar Name / behind the hands that wove / the intolerable shirt of flame / which human power cannot remove. / We only live, only suspire / consumed by either fire or fire.”

I have discovered that the prose of American novelist Cormac McCarthy contains some of the most speculatively provocative non-scriptural uses of the image of fire as a metaphor for tradition—McCarthy’s work, by the way, is littered with scriptural allusions. At the end No Country for Old Men the retired sheriff dreams his deceased father is “carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do . . . I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.” In the bleak, ashen landscape of the novel The Road, where nights are “dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before,” fire provides light and heat essential for the father’s and the boy’s basic existence.

McCarthy deepens the image of fire in the novel by refracting it through the relationship between the father and the boy. Their brief exchanges amid the cultural decay, social disintegration, and practicalities of day-to-day survival are ablaze with a primordial intimacy that transcends biological instinct; and the father’s occasional pensive self-reflections throughout the novel emanate a sacrosanct tenderness toward the boy, too: “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.” Toward the end of the novel one encounters the full force of the image of fire when the boy must leave his dying father and continue walking the road. The father tells the boy he must “carry the fire” to which the terrified, disconsolate boy responds: “Is it real? The fire? Yes it is. Where is it? I don’t know where it is. Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”

The image evokes the interior light the boy needs to illuminate his way through the cosmological darkness into which he has been born and through which he now must travel alone. What I find intriguing about McCarthy’s use of the image, though, and what I think makes it rich for reflection upon the phenomenon of tradition, is that it points past the existential significance it symbolically represents for the boy and toward the metaphysical and epistemological depths of tradition that are alight within the boy’s soul. I would like to suggest the image discloses the irreducible non-textual element in tradition that escapes when we formulate tradition in writing, and yet makes it possible for some part of truth, beauty, and goodness to pass from the level of what is “implicitly lived” in human experience to the level of “explicitly known.” What is the irreducible non-textual element in tradition? And how does it make it possible for some part of truth, beauty, and goodness to pass from what is implicitly lived to the level of explicitly known?

There is precedent to answer these questions within the Western theological and philosophical traditions. For example, in the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas discusses the relationship between the implicit and explicit in a way that lends itself to historical development and genuine progress in human understanding of divine revelation.[1]

The relationship between the implicit and explicit structures John Henry Newman’s idea of doctrinal development in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In his fascinating book on the right (implicitness) and left (explicitness) hemispheres of the human brain and their role in formation of Western civilization, Iain McGilchrist claims that the:

Biggest problem of explicitness . . . is that it returns us to what we already know. It reduces a unique experience, person or thing to a bunch of abstracted, therefore central, concepts that we could have found already anywhere else—and indeed had already. Knowing, in the sense of seeing clearly, is always seeing “as” a something already known, and therefore not present but re-presented . . . The resulting illusion is of clarity, the ability to know something “just as it is,” as though everything about it were revealed through clear vision.[2]

Since the Enlightenment Western thought has placed a preponderance of value on the left hemisphere, and, according to McGilchrist, is in desperate need of retrieving the role of the right hemisphere to overcome modernity’s impoverished view of the world.

The distinction between the implicit and explicit belongs to the primary epistemological distinction between real (implicit) and notional (explicit) knowledge. Aquinas expresses the distinction in terms of reason (notional), the power of discursive thinking, and intellect (real), intuition of what is actually present.[3] Intuition is the perfect form of knowledge, Josef Pieper notes in his little book on contemplation’s relation to happiness in Aquinas, because it is “knowledge of what us actually present . . . thinking, on the other hand, is knowledge of what is absent.”[4] In turn, this means that the “person who knows by intuition has already found what the thinker is seeking; what he knows is present ‘before his eyes.’”[5] Newman was well aware of the distinction and used it to great effect as part of the dialectical process the human mind employs in distinguishing different forms of assent the intellect makes in the Grammar of Assent. The distinction between real and notional knowledge even shows up in contemporary verse. In the poem Words, poet Dana Gioia writes:

The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being . . .

. . . Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metaphoric quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.[6]

One of the most interesting thinkers to consider the relation between real (implicit) and notional (explicit) knowledge and its significance for grasping the phenomenon of tradition is twentieth-century French Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861-1949). In Blondel’s account, real knowledge (implicitly lived) is the intuitive encounter with reality and the intrinsic life of being (existence) unmediated by our notions, concepts, and representations of objects in the world. Real knowledge—not to be confused with the philosophical school of thought called “realism”—is an encounter that gives rise to metaphysical wonder and consciousness of a higher order of being in a world that contains it only in a finite way. It is conscious awareness of the presence of the Divine.

Whereas in notional knowledge (explicitly known) we exercise abstraction and employ concepts, images, and linguistic expressions to represent the objects we apprehend in our concrete experience of the real. Notional knowledge is necessary to create the distinction between the knowing subject and the object known and make explicit thought possible. Notional knowledge is the remarkable (albeit limited) speculative tool by which the human mind analyzes, organizes, remembers, and understands the inexhaustible reality of lived experience.

The difference between notional and real knowledge comes into sharper focus when we understand the simple difference between the photo album containing pictures of our vacation, which prompts our memories of the vacation, and the real (lived) experience of the vacation, which cannot be replaced by the photo album. Our photo album, as glossy, fun and enjoyable as it might be to look at, and as useful as it might be in calling to mind our memories of the vacation, is incapable of replacing the real (lived) experience of the vacation. In real knowledge, then, we encounter reality in a way our linguistic and conceptual representations created through notional knowledge fail to. The point of distinguishing real and notional knowledge in the act of understanding is not to denigrate or usurp notional knowledge.

Instead, it prevents us from the gnostic temptation to rationalize human life or to reduce rationality to ideology, both of which impede the gift of divine wisdom from coming to expression in its fullest form within the whole process of human understanding. It is also the occasion by which we become aware of our finitude and recognize notional knowledge does not exhaust reality, but rather enters into a synthetic unity with real knowledge that opens human rationality to all that is real. The synthetic unity of real and notional knowledge is living thought receptive and open to the being of all things, including the Divine within the individual being of all things.

When we translate this philosophical distinction into a theological idiom and apply it to the role tradition plays in the Christian’s life, the relationships, practices, and actions of a Christian’s life are a form of real knowledge, the implicitly lived, that is united in distinction to the explicitly known (dogmatic knowledge/notional knowledge). The living reality of tradition makes what is implicit in the Christian’s relationships, actions, and practices explicit. Tradition's role in the movement from the implicit (real) to the explicit (notional) is one that does more than simply conserve the primitive deposit of revelation.

Tradition conserves, but as a living reality it also makes explicit what is implicit, and functions as an interpretative principle, displaying, deepening, explicating, clarifying, and rediscovering the initial gift of divine revelation. In Roman Catholicism, then, the truth of tradition is vested in the teaching authority of the Church (magisterium) and fixed to the expressions of Christian dogma and teaching. But the truth of tradition is also found in tradition's living reality, in the movement from the implicitly lived to the explicitly known, and the two are inseparably united without confusion or conflation in such a way that each cannot exist without the other.  

How might this short excursus on the relation between the implicit (real knowledge) and the explicit (notional knowledge) and the role tradition plays in Christian self-understanding elicit a deeper meaning from McCarthy’s image of fire in The Road? It is unlikely McCarthy is familiar with Catholicism’s high theological view of tradition, but he understands well (perhaps implicitly/intuitively?) one of the essential features of tradition in Catholicism, which is that real living relationships, practices, and actions vivify Christ’s sacramental presence by drawing the incarnational and spiritual dimensions of reality into the concrete life of the Christian and the Church. Put differently, tradition is not an abstract idea or epiphenomenon that appears in the absence of texts. It is a living (lived) reality.

The world through which the father and boy travel in The Road is broken, barbaric, and brutal, it is a dehumanizing world in which the transcendent referents of human existence seem to have faded from human consciousness and cultural memory. In fact, midway through the novel when the father mistakenly sensed that death was finally upon him and the boy, he sat watching the boy sleep and began to cry uncontrollably. But he wept not for his and the boy’s impending deaths. The father “wasn’t sure what [his weeping] was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all.” If the boy is to survive the loss of the father, if he is “to know and remember” the father when he is gone, then he must be able “to name” what has been implicitly lived in their relationship.

For the boy to “carry the fire,” then, for that living reality to burn within him, the deeper dimensions of truth, beauty, and goodness must pass from the level of implicitly lived in his relationship to the father to the level of explicitly known.

[1] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 1 a. 7.

[2] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 180-181.

[3] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, Q. 59 a. 1.

[4]Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), 74.

[5] Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 74-75.

[6] Dana Gioia, Interrogations at Noon (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2001), 3.

Featured Image: Georges De La Tour Newlyborn Infant, 1640s; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Robert Koerpel

Robert Koerpel teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition

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