Ken Myers shares an extremely interesting quote from Oliver O’Donovan (see his original post HERE). I remember also that he mentioned the same quote somewhere in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Regardless, here is the quote:
The word ‘tradition,’ like koinonia, refers both to an action and a possession. In the first sense it is the activity by which one shares in the community, receiving and contributing. In the second sense it is the reserve of practices and communicative patterns received from the past — but only those which continue to command recognition, that is, which have been effectively communicated down to the present time. The essential thing about tradition is that it creates social continuity. It binds the communal action of the present moment to the communal actions of past moments. What we often call ‘traditionalism,’ the revival of lapsed tradition, is, properly speaking, a kind of innovation, making a new beginning out of an old model. This may or may not be sensible in any given instance, but it is not a tradition. The claim of tradition is not the claim of the past over the present, but the claim of the present to that continuity with the past which enables common action to be conceived and executed.
The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake. The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them. This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain. The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once. The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on. Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations. By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself. . .
The peculiar value of art to tradition lies in its capacity to elicit recognitions, reminding us of the sources of our cultural objects within the structures of natural necessity. This power of reminiscence we call ‘beauty,’ and it arises from the coincidence of natural order with artificial form. Both poles, the natural and the conventional, are essential to an art form, that the evocation of the one within the other may be experienced. Formal qualities are as important as substantive references in evoking the presence of nature in culture. A poem may allude to springtime, or a tune may imitate birdsong. But an abstract fugue evokes nature, too, by exploring the power of repetition in difference, and a sonnet by its balance of thesis development, and resolution.
— from Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community (Eerdmans, 2002)
In the previous post (HERE), we noted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s comment about modern America (in his day): “We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture” (from Keep Moving from this Mountain, HERE). As soon as I read that line, my mind immediately went to O’Donovan’s application of the fifth commandment. Civilization outrunning culture is what happens when people (I do not say children only) do not honor their fathers and mothers.
This entails more than a simple lip service to our biological parents. It involves what O’Donovan calls ‘cultural transmission.’ We are moving at such a pace that culture is here and gone before there is any chance of transmission. Hence there is little stability. Hence how can we expect to thrive?
I think this might be pressing the fifth commandment to its interpretational limits. Yet I think it is a valid interpretation for this reason: most people, including myself, generally refer to the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20. We forget that they are restated, during Moses’ summary sermon, in Deuteronomy 5. The fifth commandment is restated in 5:16:
Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
Now, if you are familiar with Deuteronomy, then you probably know what follows chapter 5 – the famous ‘Shema’ of Deuteronomy 6. Deuteronomy 6 is the great chapter focusing on the central doctrine and practice of Israel. Any careful reading will also reveal that it is Israel’s central text relating to the subject of ‘cultural transmission.’ Chapter 6 begins with the words,
Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, 2 that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long (vv. 1-2).
Next comes the ‘Shema,’ followed by these words:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (vv. 6-9).
Thus far my justification for the validity of this application.
Culture-building involves progress. I often refer to C.S. Lewis’ point that progress entails both a starting point and a destination. Progress builds on what has come before, and builds toward a goal or destination. Therefore, when we cut ourselves off from tradition and from the ‘ancient paths’ we eliminate the very possibility of progress. We may be doing something entirely new, but it does not entail progress. In fact, I think, it entails regress, as though we were starting from scratch when the wisdom of the running centuries awaits to be built upon. This is why I detest the idea of ‘creating a new church.’ I have dear friends who have bought into this notion. They want ‘a new idea of church.’ They are letting their civilization outrun their culture. In fact, they are essentially abandoning culture. They do not believe in cultural transmission. They are good (albeit passe) post-moderns who think we have to ditch everything and start over. Yet they will be offended when someone ditches them and does it their own way. But I digress.
Let me make a quick point of this. In regards to technology, which is the context of our posts as of late, we must be careful that we are using our gadgets to build upon what we have rather than to start over. And if we are using them to build, we must be careful that we are not using them as bulldozers to tear down the progress that has already been made. Can we pour the new wine of technology into old wineskins without the wineskins bursting? We must be very careful. This will take wisdom; likely ancient wisdom.
Part of that wisdom is that we must honor our fathers and mothers. If we are using technology to cast off all traditional forms, then we are missing the mark. If we are using it in such a way that it honors the spirit of the fifth commandment, then I think we are making progress. The can of worms is now open; I’ve made zero concrete applications; I’ve only established a principle. It’s enough to think about for a while.
The main point for the time being is that we cannot be set on ‘Go, go, go!’ When we put the pedal to the metal we let our civilization outrun our culture. And this means that the beauty of culture is left in the dust. Is it any wonder that we are all busy and dizzy and feeling rather unclean?