By Christopher Zehnder

Here I continue with the theme of last week’s essay, “Traditionalists are Right, Sort of…”

Henry David Thoreau, an anti-traditionalist

One of the most compelling arguments against a reverence for tradition is that traditions are often wrong. Henry David Thoreau stated the matter in words that still resonate. He wrote in Walden, “What everybody echoes or in silence passes as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.”

Throughout history, men have discovered that what their ancestors passed down to them as true was merely false. One could point to many examples of false traditions – polygamy, for instance, or chattel slavery. Throughout most of human history, both of these institutions, especially slavery, were considered simply part of the order of things. One did not question them, because they were woven into the traditional – handed down – fabric of life.

The fact, too, of the diverse human traditions, holding to contrary propositions as true or enjoining clashing customs and modes of behavior, underlines the fact that tradition and truth are not necessarily synonymous. Even so great a mind as Aristotle saw the exposing to death of weak or disabled infants as part of the order of things, while our Christian tradition sees this as murder. American native peoples thought it perfectly acceptable to torture and mutilate their enemies, while Europeans thought the practice barbaric – even if, at times, they indulged in it. Hindus hold cows as sacred, while we treat them as provender.

That tradition is not an entirely trustworthy guide to truth or right behavior seems to belie the assertions of traditionalists. One may argue – as I did in last week’s essay – that one should reverence tradition, look to it as a guide to truth, or humbly acquiesce to it when in doubt. Yet, even the most stalwart traditionalist cannot escape the nagging realization of the fundamental uncertainty of what we hold by tradition – that is, if he is not willing to descend to relativism. For traditionalism can turn into a thinly veiled skepticism spawning the uncertainty that one can attain to a knowledge of truth, and so must rely simply on what is handed down.

Since the 18th century, the apparent untrustworthiness of tradition has led many to a radical reliance on reason. Reason alone, in this view, becomes the arbiter of which traditions are true and which are false. To judge traditions properly, reason has to transcend tradition and judge everything received from the serene height of pure objectivity. This has led to the notion, current in the modern and post-modern world, that the human mind must question everything, leave no apparent truth unexamined. And since the human mind is individual, every person must become the arbiter of what he is told is true. Nothing can be taken on trust.

Voltaire, an 18th century devotee of rationalism

Yet, such a reliance on reason begs a few questions. Can one so entirely escape his preconceptions, his traditions, that he can judge them objectively? Does every person have the ability to think well – is everyone’s mind sufficiently well-trained – to be able to judge the truth and falsity of sometimes difficult philosophical and ethical problems? Our society at times assumes an optimism about the abilities of the individual mind that is not warranted by the facts.

Like tradition, reason shows its radical insufficiency as an utterly trustworthy guide to truth by the very multiplicity of conflicting conclusions reached by even the best minds of history. The lack of consensus on even the most central questions of human existence either forces one into a stubborn adhesion to one’s own ideas, or into mere subjectivity (where one speaks of “my truth”), or into the fully avowed conviction that truth cannot be known. 

I don’t mean to say that reason cannot attain to truth. I mean only to point out that reason is not infallible. Most, if not all, men who come to the truth, come to it only after long labor, and with much admixture of error. Left to ourselves, we can come to truths but not to the fullness of truth.

The Gospel, however, proposes an antidote to the despair anyone must feel when he considers the radical insufficiency of both reason and tradition as guides to truth. Jesus said, “They shall know the truth, and the truth shall set them free.” The Catholic Church, moreover, indicates the means by which this truth can be known. That means is the self-revelation of God to man in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Catholic solution embraces both reason and tradition. God’s self-revelation has not been locked in history. It did not end with the departure of Jesus from first century Roman Palestine. It has been communicated to us living today, says the Church, through two means: a written testimony, the Sacred Scripture, and an unwritten tradition.

Reason plays its part by examining, interpreting, and contemplating both scripture and tradition. It makes connections, draws distinctions, forms syntheses, based on what has been revealed through these means by which God communicates himself to us. And since God has not only revealed himself to man, but even man to himself – his relation to God and this world – reason can draw from revelation truths that otherwise could only be gleaned from a long and arduous study of philosophy and ethics. Indeed, this divine revelation guides men in the study of these disciplines, helping unaided reason to interpret the witness of nature while working according to the proper principles of the disciplines themselves.

Pentecost, from a 14th century manuscript

Yet, even these two means of revelation – scripture and tradition – are insufficient guides to truth. For scripture is often difficult to understand, and over the centuries false traditions have been intermixed with the Tradition of Christ, so much so that it can be quite difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. We would be left with the same despair of knowing God’s self-revelation if we were left with only scripture and tradition as the two means of knowing it.

It is here that the Church proposes a third means of knowing truth; namely, the Church herself. St. Paul calls the Church the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15). Scripture and tradition call the Church the Body of Christ, and like the human body, the Church has divers members. That member, analogous to the human tongue, is the Church’s magisterium, her teaching authority – of which Jesus himself said, “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16).

The Church’s magisterium, vested in the pope and bishops in union with him, is the tongue that speaks the word of God’s revelation. Or, to use another analogy, it is the sharp, two-edged sword that divides truth from error. When speaking with the authority of Christ, the magisterium is the means by which Christ, the Truth, fulfills his promise made to those who believe in Him: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

The magisterium, too, says our Catholic antidote to skepticism, is trustworthy, not because of the men who exercise it, but because of the presence of the Holy Spirit who guides it, keeping it from error. Obviously, this is not an assurance to those who do not have faith, but it should be to Catholics, if, indeed, they are truly Catholic. It is the Gospel, the glad tidings, that not only makes us free, but imparts the conviction that we have been freed from the skepticism and despair that enshrouds our age.

If you found this essay interesting, you might want to look into two novels I have published: A Song for Else, Part I: The Vow and Part II: The Overthrow. They tell the story of a boy growing into a man during the “heroic” years of the Reformation in Germany and of his struggles to make sense of a rapidly changing world.