Monday, July 11, 2011

Tradition! Or, why Tevye the milkman was right.

In Rome, St. Paul
encountered the type of moral decadence that comes from the total loss of tradition: people were deprived of that interior evidential character that in other times had been offered to man form the outset of this life by usages and customs. Where nothing can be taken for granted, everything become possible, and nothing is impossible any longer. Now there is no value capable of sustaining man, and there are no inviolable norms. All that counts is man’s ego and the present moment.

Reflection – This is from the beginning of an essay entitled “The Natural Knowledge of God” which is so utterly relevant to our times that I will probably be quoting most of it in short bits and pieces on this blog. (Really, though, if you’re going to buy one book of the pope’s, make it this one – it is short and superb!)
We touch in this passage upon another major theme in Ratzinger’s writings – the historical amnesia of Western Civilization, our being cut off from the vast wisdom of tradition accumulated and passed down through the centuries. It is this sundering of the individual from ‘usages and customs’ that draws us down into moral decadence and chaos.
Simply put, when nothing is passed on, everyone is left having to figure it all out themselves. Since this is rather difficult, to say the least, most of us end up parroting whatever the majority opinions or fashionable gurus of the day tell us, in easy to remember slogans. Hence we are trapped in the present moment and whatever 'wisdom' it has to offer us.
Of course human traditions are flawed—after all, slavery is a venerable human tradition, as is child sacrifice. But when tradition is discarded whole cloth, which is certainly the case in much of North America and Europe today, then the sole counterbalance to the force of the ego and the spirit of the age is lost. We are left trapped in our own desires and devices, our own projects, agendae, and plans, with no actual experience of a standard, a rule, a social norm to check or correct us.
Social convention, for all its flaws, has a capacity for curbing the unbridled egoism of the human person. That there are things that 'one simply doesn't do' is more important than we like to admit. Its loss (largely) in our day is a terrible one. The amnesia of our inherited moral wisdom is even worse; each person has to laboriously work their way through the whole mess.
I will never forget the young woman who triumphantly pointed out to me that the idea of a binding absolute moral law could not possibly be right since people have to steal food if they are starving to death and kill in self defense. It had simply never occurred to her that both starvation and violent attacks are not recently discovered phenomena, and, just perhaps, the very moral theologians and philosophers who argued for an absolute moral law had noticed those facts and given those questions some thought over the millennia.
Ratzinger has repeatedly called us to a radical anamnesis (remembrance) of the moral tradition of our civilization, so that we can rebuild a bulwark against the moral decadence of the unfettered ego and a defense against crushing conformism to current fashion. His life work is dedicated in many respects precisely to this.
So is this blog.

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