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Liberalism, Tradition and the Church III

Faith and the Church

Tradition always points to something other than itself, so acceptance of one’s own tradition — and therefore knowledge — involves faith. Just as institutions and even reason depend on the complex of memories, understandings and habits that constitutes tradition, tradition depends on its connection to a larger order of which it is part and to which it responds. Man does not make himself, and is only a small part of the world in which he lives, so that order cannot be reduced to human things.

Man is not the measure collectively any more than individually. To say that man is not the measure is to say that the things with which he is concerned are not fully captured by logic and human experience. By themselves, the latter cannot tell us that the experience of other people is qualitatively like our own, or even that anything exists independently of us and our thoughts. To understand basic features of the world we have to trust things that go beyond what we can perceive or demonstrate. None of us can abandon that trust without abandoning thought and life. In the end there are no sceptics.

That everyday kind of faith is not foreign to reason, experience or tradition, because those things depend on it. Reason cannot demonstrate the conditions of its functioning: the validity of first principles, the trustworthiness of perception, the coherence of memory, the reliability of the linguistic and cultural setting reason needs to operate. To trust reason is to trust those things, and to trust experience is to trust both our perceptions and the reasoning that enables us to sort them out and come to grips with them. Nor can we understand tradition as simply something we construct. To the extent it is necessary it comes to us with an authority that goes beyond anything we can fully explain. Our confidence in it is based on faith that it is not random or arbitrary but revelatory, that through it the bits, pieces and glimmerings that are immediately available to us have grown into attitudes, practices and symbols that show how things are and make truths available to us that we cannot attain directly.

To some extent our trust in knowledge that cannot be demonstrated — which in the long run, because of the mutual dependence of things, includes all knowledge — is justified by the assumption that our species, society and traditions of knowledge would not have lasted as long as they have unless they were in touch with reality. However, not all our knowledge can be justified by the Darwinian standard of past promotion of reproduction and survival. Our knowledge is not limited to survival needs. It reflects our orientation and interests, which are not limited to reproduction and survival and are sometimes at odds with them. And it is discontinuous with the knowledge of the lower animals, and thus with evolutionary history.

In its extreme forms Darwinian thought purports to give a simple and self-contained explanation of everything: what exists is what has arisen by chance and thereafter survived. Whatever seems to fall outside of the closed circle of mechanistic explanation, like consciousness, it denies, tries to explain away, or simply refuses to discuss. It would show a lack of good sense to accept, at least without better arguments than seem to be available, a view that combines such extreme ambition with such conceptual and ontological minimalism. And in any event, to say that something has been helpful to survival is not to explain what it is, why it works, or how it can be justified.

While knowledge has its uses, and usefulness is a sign of truth, the true and the useful are not the same. Knowledge needs to go beyond usefulness, if only because we can understand things by reference to their use only within a world we already know. Accepting tradition is not simply accepting what has endured in the absence of better grounds for making practical decisions. It is adopting an understanding of what the world is that we believe useful because it is true, not true because it is useful. Some have suggested that modern natural science, which for many sets the standard of knowledge, is simply a collection of models and methods of prediction that have been found useful. The suggestion does not survive questioning. Is it true that scientific models and predictions have been found useful, and that our experience of their usefulness is a good guide to the future? If so, science gets its importance because it is part of a larger system of knowledge. If not, we have no reason to bother with it.

Men build their lives in relation to settled points of reference that cannot be reduced to their own thoughts and experiences. Otherwise their lives could not be rational, since it is part of rationality to connect our thought, experience and action to an order of things that is stable and comprehensive enough to give them a unity justifiable by reference to something beyond themselves. That connection to a world larger and more permanent than what we think and do always draws on reason, experience, tradition and the sort of every-day revelation we have discussed. Nonetheless, it sometimes happens that the latter are not enough for an adequately stable orientation to an enduring order of things. The collapse of liberal modernity into nihilism, dogmatism and manipulative rhetoric, and of classical philosophy into scepticism, superstition and wandering speculation, demonstrate that human reason and experience are not enough to fix truth or meaning.

Nor is tradition always enough, since without something more concrete and authoritative than it can supply through its own resources it can easily lose focus and direction. A tradition is a composite of symbols, practices and beliefs, the meanings of which are largely unstated and understandings of which differ. To the extent it is necessary it is concerned with things that cannot be articulated clearly. Also, tradition is the way of life of a people as it actually is, and as such is likely to incorporate conflict, confusion, abuse, vagueness and a great deal of simple arbitrariness. It must be passed down to exist at all, a necessity that introduces additional uncertainty. Both the weakness of tradition as a human thing and its concern with the inarticulable make it easy for it to lose coherence. Under stress and uncertainty the unspoken faith implicit in it may not be enough to anchor human thought and action and give them a stable orientation. Divisive questions can arise that cannot be settled, and the result will be disruption, confusion and dissolution.

While perfect unity is not possible or desirable, a tradition must have features that keep it oriented toward a stable understanding of the good and true. Otherwise it will lose the coherent direction and identity without which it can tell us nothing and loyalty to it makes no sense. The importance of features within tradition capable of maintaining its coherence is difficult to overstate. We need language to express and develop our thoughts, and language takes on distinct meaning by reference to a tradition that fixes common truths, references and understandings. Rational thought would not be possible if we did not have principles we are entitled to assume are true, and without a coherent tradition such principles cannot be well-defined or coherent themselves.

A tradition can lose the ability to maintain such coherence. If there is no way to resolve basic conflicts within a tradition then its accepted principles lose their grip, its language eventually loses meaning, and the possibility of productive thought and discussion disappears. For our tradition to remain rational, and in the long run for us to understand and assert anything that is at all general or complex, there must be an authoritative way within the tradition to resolve conflicts. The growing nihilism and manipulativeness of modernity results from its lack of such a thing, especially with regard to good and evil.

Externals can aid the stability and coherence of tradition. For example, social and political boundaries can provide it with a stable setting in which to exist, and so help protect it from disruption. Also, government and other social authorities can avoid undermining it by recognizing and cooperating with it, and restricting the range of their own activities to avoid disrupting it. Nonetheless, the main safeguard of tradition must be internal. Since we need tradition to make sense of our world, we cannot stand outside it to force it to be something other than what it wants to be. To manipulate it is to destroy it as tradition.

Like language, tradition has an innate tendency toward system. The greater substantive content of moral and religious tradition compared with language, its implicit orientation toward enduring principles that transcend it, and its necessity to any tolerable system of human life lends an additional element of self-restoring stability. The more coherent the tradition and the more adequate it is to human life and the world, the stronger that element will be. Whether it is sufficient for the requirements of life and thought depends on circumstances. In the comparatively undifferentiated societies preceding the rise of cosmopolitan civilization in the Middle East around the first millennium B.C. such implicit self-regulating influences were enough to maintain the stability and coherence of tradition. The order of human affairs could be identified with that of the cosmos, and the world assumed without argument to be as tradition said it was.

New circumstances brought new needs. As society became more complex, communications improved and political and social relations extended over the borders of particular cultures, questions multiplied, all things became debatable, and tradition had to develop additional features to maintain stability and coherence. Those features forced the manner of dealing with the transcendent — with things that precede and condition the everyday, and are authoritative but difficult to identify and discuss — to become more explicit and formal, and so forced tradition to rely overtly on things that are not purely traditional and customary. Those changes became part of both tradition and reason, in the sense that they became necessary for the continuous and reliable ability to understand oneself and the world.

The most important change was the increasing formalization as religion of the aspects of tradition that relate to the transcendent, and their identification as a specialized field of doctrine and discipline. Every society not in dissolution has some shared unspoken sense of the world and our place in it, and corresponding beliefs and habits that order the society in accordance with stable common understandings. Organized religion gives those things a form and structure that makes them able to defend and assert themselves and insist on their irreplaceable role in human life. When human society is no longer simply identified with cosmic order but becomes ever more a collection of specialized and relatively autonomous pursuits, the transcendent must also become a specialty so that it can assert itself and avoid displacement by this-worldly interests and techniques.

The need for formalization has differed in different times and places. Until recently the situation was less acute in India and China than the West. The former are comparatively compact land masses of sub-continental scale, separated from other major civilizations by natural barriers. They lack the complexity of internal obstacles, such as seas and mountains, that across Europe, the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East made it possible for an enduring diversity of political, cultural and religious centers to establish themselves and contend. Those outside the civilization could more readily be held at arm’s length and fought off or absorbed, so that cultural imports could be dealt with from a position of superiority and either rejected or informally reinterpreted and integrated with the established system. As a result, cultural cohesion and even cosmological understandings were challenged less than to the West. Fewer threats to the unity of culture and tradition meant less need for explicit rational unity of thought and less emphasis on the specific authority of revelation. The Chinese emperor could remain the Son of Heaven until 1912, the Confucians could put culture where the West put philosophy and religion, and “Hinduism” could simply be acceptance of any somewhat mainstream form of Indian religious tradition. Further, a common tendency in the East to view ultimate reality as impersonal, and so to view human goals and the world around us as indifferent and illusory, led men to downplay the possibility of ordering human life by reference to substantive truths and goods. The practical consequence was a tendency away from public life and free inquiry, and toward dynastic despotism in which the greater part of social life is carried on in inward turning groups such as Indian castes and Chinese extended families.

In contrast, the Eastern Mediterranean was a crossroads, marketplace and arena that gave rise to monotheism, philosophical argument aimed at universal truth, and the ideal of scientific rigor. Multiple enduring centers of social life and culture provided a basis for the confrontation of differing understandings of human life and the world. To survive in such a setting a way of life had to be able to put its case in a much more explicit, focused and universalizable form. When ancient Israel settled, urbanized and became part of that cosmopolitan world the Israelites preserved the integrity of their way of life by adding to their informal, domestic and tribal pre-Mosaic traditions sacred scriptures, a comprehensive code of sacred law, purity rules that required ethnic separation, lawyers, a temple and its priesthood, and the occasional prophet. Scripture, law, scholarship and purity rules have been sufficient to maintain the coherence of Jewish identity and tradition, at least among observant Jews, down to the present. The ordering principles of Islam have been similar, although Islam emphasizes political domination rather than ethnic separation as a means of maintaining the practical authority of their faith among those who have accepted it. Judaism and Islam have therefore survived in the heartland of classical civilization, while pagan communities and religious or philosophical sects lacking principles sufficient to define and enforce practice and belief disappeared or were absorbed long ago.

From the outside, the departure induced by explicit revelation from the anonymity and informality of tradition can look like a human construction that functions to maintain the coherence and apparent intelligibility of life and the world. From within, however, it can only appear as the result of an intervention from above. Rejecting revelation has the usual advantages of scepticism: it seems to risk nothing and to avoid all possibility of a false move. Trying to avoid all risk can itself be a false move, however. Man is social and reason is enduring and common to all, so we cannot live reasonably unless we can view the principles by which we live as public and stable. To make sense in the long run rejection of a revelation must be part of a stable and coherent tradition of thought that constitutes the public truth of a lasting community. Otherwise it becomes a personal gesture without definite or lasting significance. We have seen that once cosmopolitan civilization has arisen the implicit truth of culture can no longer be self-supporting, and its public stability and coherence require common acceptance of some revelation. If we reject all revelation we are left with nothing that bears the marks of truth, outside natural sciences that themselves depend on broader traditions of knowledge. We are left to choose among cynical rhetoric, narrow specialization, radical privatization of reality, bullying dogma that tries to create truth by force, and the decline of discourse into an increasingly incoherent association of words. None of those things can give us a reasonable way of life.

For a long time, then, to live a life of reason has been, in the Western world, to accept the authority of some revelation. Nothing has happened to change that situation. To the contrary, it appears from the spread of Christianity in China and Korea, Christianity and Islam in Africa, and the false gods of ideology everywhere, that the need for public, systematic, and comprehensive thought that comes to stable and reliable conclusions has spread well beyond the West. The choice is not between faith and reason but among faiths anchored in some sort of revelation.

The postmodern tendency is to argue that truth — and therefore revelation — is no longer needed for social stability and coherence. Thus, some might argue that a sort of universal nonmetaphysical liberalism has replaced the confrontation of gods and cultures, and the authority of revelation can therefore be replaced by the culture and institutions of liberalism and whatever social arrangements are needed to keep them on top. Multiculturalism, for example, tends to destroy the coherence and authority of every particular culture, leaving only the market and managerial state — and their theoretical expression, which is liberalism — as possible principles of social order. The suggestion is unpersuasive. Liberal culture and its authority are not self-sustaining. Liberalism is insistently critical, individualistic, rationalizing and antitraditional, and bases its claim to authority on the confrontation of cultures it says is a necessary feature of modern life and on its supposed special fitness to deal with that situation because it stands for no particular culture but respects them all and lets them all thrive. If it gives up those arguments it loses its principle of coherence and thus its ability to coordinate thought and action, and indeed stops being liberalism. But to keep those arguments it must be able to explain itself to each of us, and can maintain itself as public truth only through a Cartesian appeal to perspicuously true basic principles.

The development of revelation as a response to an increasingly cosmopolitan, rationalized and differentiated social world did not stop with Judaism. Both Judaism and Islam are valid only for a single people — Islam intends to be universal, but its universality consists in the merging of all humanity into a single nation — and their very detailed codes of law maintain coherence and stability by resisting change even on very minor points. Their textual basis makes them appear to possess the divine word fully here and now, and so tends to deprive them of adaptability. Those who fall away from strict legalism have difficulty finding a place to draw the line and tend toward either mysticism that soon becomes unorthodox or this-worldly radicalism. They lack the comprehensive and flexible rationality needed to support public order in a post-Hellenistic world that encompasses large populations with diverse national and local traditions and accepts the advantages of free public life, including free inquiry on a broad range of issues. For a religious tradition to deal authoritatively with ultimate issues in such a setting without engaging in wholesale suppression of valuable aspects of human life something at once more focused and more supple than textual, scholarly, ritual and prophetic authority is needed.

Neither pure tradition, pure rationality, nor a purely textual revelation is enough, as a practical matter, to settle all issues that must be settled for life to go on. If conflicts among habits, understandings and interpretations cannot somehow be resolved, and inquiry and discussion concluded, free public life will eventually fall apart. In the end the traditions sustaining it will either disintegrate, split into warring factions, freeze and forbid discussion, or become a specialized pursuit and lose the ability to order life as a whole. What will set in is either rigidity and sectarian narrowness, as in Islam, orthodox Judaism and fundamentalist Protestantism, restriction to particular social classes and aspects of life, as in Confucianism, a lack of the usable common understandings necessary for public life and objective inquiry, as in much of the non-Western world, or triviality, manipulation and dissolution, as in the West generally today.

A tradition that accepts inquiry and free public life must therefore have a flexible and authoritative way, on crucial points that could put things decisively on the wrong track, to bring inquiry to a conclusion and draw a reliable line between truth and error. The more cosmopolitan and diverse the society the more necessary such an authority becomes. Otherwise, a proposed resolution of the fundamental conflicts that will inevitably arise can only be the opinion of one man or faction that anyone can rationally accept or reject at will. Modern natural science, an institution supremely representative of a world of free public discussion, views theories that do not allow for public confirmation or refutation as empty speculation. The diversity and contentiousness of cosmopolitan civilization creates somewhat the same view of ethical and religious belief. For a belief to seem worth taking seriously it must be possible somehow to test it at least indirectly, through the testing of beliefs with which it bears a necessary connection.

It is therefore reasonable to have confidence in a social tradition that provides for rational standards and free public life and inquiry in a cosmopolitan setting only if it includes an authorized method of interpreting its most fundamental principles. Since human reason and experience are not enough to resolve all unavoidable issues, the method must be understood as embodying an intelligence greater than our own, and thus as equivalent to continuing divine guidance. Otherwise the tradition suffers from an inner weakness that will predictably lead to irrationality and collapse. But if we know in advance that a tradition of life and thought is doomed to incoherence what it tells us can no longer be viewed as an image of the truth but only as a practical stopgap, something we do not believe but find useful in pursuing particular ends not justified on grounds other than arbitrary desire. It loses its authority, and therefore its ability to define reality for us.

Since reason and truth are self-consistent, the method of decision should fit together with tradition and other aspects of the way in which we come to know things. Tradition is necessary because realities that concern us cannot be known in a fully explicit and propositional way. Truth that cannot be unambiguously formulated has a necessary personal element. Impartial expertise can develop possibilities and cast light on details, but it cannot settle much of practical importance, especially outside the hard sciences. Events and propositions can be construed to mean very different things without violating formal criteria. The possibility of knowledge thus depends on personal orientation and commitment.

Tradition, the common mind of a community, is also personal. To believe as a member of a community — as we must, if our beliefs are to be stable and coherent — is to put our trust in its common mind, and let ourselves be formed by it. That is what it means to accept the authority of a tradition. For that acceptance to be rational, and to maintain our commitment to truth, we must believe that our community of belief has a relationship to ultimate things that makes it capable of knowing them truly. The Christian account of God become man and still present in his Church makes comprehensible, in the most direct and complete way, how a community can have such a quality. It makes the love, loyalty and trust toward one’s community and tradition that is necessary for coherent thought reasonable. Since God is understood as a living presence in the community here and now, it becomes comprehensible that the decision of the community on disputed matters should rightly constitute our understanding of how those matters stand.

When a specific question is to be resolved, the mind of the community must be brought down to earth and made concrete through a human authority that is its guardian. Secular life provides useful analogies. Where public life is ordered by principles intended to be final, comprehensive, and flexible enough to respond to new circumstances, responsibility for construing them normally falls to a hierarchical college appointed for life. Most often such a college is headed by a panel, like the United States Supreme Court. However, when the system is not a branch of government but is itself an independent society not subject to external control, as in the case of the dominant party in a one-party state, it is normally, for the sake of unity, personal responsibility, and the possibility of decisive action, headed by a single man. If the public principles are to be understood as stable, objectively valid, and independent of human will, the other members of the hierarchical college should nonetheless retain a certain independent status so that there remains an element of distributed judgment and voluntary personal adherence. A traditional European monarchy, with its hereditary nobility, provides somewhat of an analogy.

The arrangement of belief and authority described is that of the Catholic Church. It is the one most consistent with the genius of tradition, because it is both universal and personal, and therefore bears more than any other the appearance truth must have for us. Only Christianity understands the community as the earthly body of an incarnate divine person. Only Roman Catholicism, through its hierarchy headed by the Pope, enables the visible Church to speak and act in a personal and authoritative way. Roman Catholicism thus displays, in the most clear and consistent way possible, the natural form for truth to take in a world of free public life. It is altogether in character that Catholicism fostered learning, philosophy and the arts, that the distinctive institutions of Catholic Christendom have included universities, free political institutions and modern natural science, and that Western culture was so fruitful for so long. The decisive rejection of Christianity — which even in its Protestant and liberalizing forms has depended on the Roman Church and Pope for its coherence and force — in Western society has been accompanied by irrationalism, radical decline in all aspects of non-technological culture, and the attempt to reduce politics and public life to purely technical functions and so abolish them.

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is not a contingent feature added on to an arbitrary doctrinal system for self-interested reasons. It expresses a necessity of the post-Hellenistic situation that makes coherent thought and meaning with regard to the world as a whole impossible in the long run, at least in a cosmopolitan society with Western traditions of public life and rational inquiry, without something very much like the authoritative universal Church headed by the Pope. Other religions can not fill the gap. Islam is unbending and tyrannical, Judaism lacks universality, and Eastern religions have too little to say about the things of this world. Orthodoxy, with an authoritative church but no pope, has tended toward mysticism, stasis, national divisions, political tyranny, and domination of church by state. There have been no Eastern Orthodox universities. Protestantism, which rejected an authoritative church while maintaining and even exaggerating beyond sustainability Catholic traditions of self-government and free inquiry, has had difficulty maintaining coherence and relevance, and ends either in fundamentalist rigidity or liberal dissolution.

Some object to the arrangements just described as necessarily obscurantist because they are “authoritarian.” They claim it would be more fitting to have experts, community consensus, or broad and representative groups make the most important decisions, because experts know better and consensus and democracy draw in a more disinterested way on wider knowledge. However, the point of tradition is that it relates to matters beyond the competence of expertise, and the necessity of revelation is that consensus breaks down. Further, a college appointed for life seems most likely to deal with doctrine intelligently and maintain its coherence. The authority of a hierarchical college rests on its claim to stand for correct doctrine, while a council, unless it has been called to deal with a crisis that trumps particular interests, tends to draw authority from the groups and interests its members represent. Its actions often reflect faction, politicking, and — since permanent personal responsibility is lacking — the shamelessness of anonymity. And if a large and diverse body dealing with something as specialized and difficult as doctrine is to act at all coherently, it will always be dominated by some small and cohesive group in any event. To insist on the appearance of democracy in such a situation is to encourage obfuscation and manipulation. In fact, it is normally more consistent with freedom to give a single man the ultimate responsibility for doctrine than institutions that claim to be representative. A single man cannot do as much as a larger group, he is more dependent on voluntary cooperation, and as a practical matter he must point to tradition as a whole and understandings he cannot create by himself to justify his actions. Democracy has strong claims in the case of contingent decisions that reflect relative personal interests, but in doctrinal determinations such things are irrelevant.

The natural guardian of basic principles is thus a hierarchical college appointed for life, headed by a single man, and relying on precedent, tradition and reason as ultimate reference points. A guardian, of course, is not a tyrant. Exercise of ultimate authority must be restrained in practice to respect the vitality of tradition, which by nature is decentralized, non-administered, and reluctant to define things abstractly or comprehensively. Overly-active authority would place truth too decisively in formal institutions rather than God and the believer, and destroy the responsibility of each man to assimilate and live by reason, tradition and revelation.[fn: Note that the problem is incomparably worse in the case of a society governed by experts. In such a society it is not legitimate for anyone to form his own conclusions about anything.] Nor should the Church have direct political power. For the highest good to be seen as superior to worldly affairs it must be relatively independent of them. In any case, the single most important political function of the Church is to relativize the state and place it in a larger setting. It can only carry out that function if there is substantial mutual independence. Nonetheless, the necessary independence of the state does not do away with its obligation to act by reference to the public good, which includes the goods of religion.

Nonetheless, explicit limitations on ecclesiastical authority are difficult to create because the authority relates to the highest things and so has to be greater and more comprehensive than any other authority. It was the claim of modern thought and the modern state to the right to reconstruct the whole of reality that forced the declaration of papal infallibility. If limitations were defined on the authority of the Pope someone would have to interpret and enforce them. A second pope would have to be added to the first.

To say that something looks like what a system of truth would have to look like does not, of course, prove that it really is a system of truth. Not every point can be established at once. To argue that we in the West today must accept Catholic Christianity if we are to understand ourselves as reasonable is not precisely to prove the truth of Catholic Christianity, but only to argue the impossibility of rationally rejecting it. Totalitarianism and perpetually dividing sectarianism show us one alternative, Samuel Beckett and the superstition, esotericism, wandering speculations and radical scepticism of late antiquity show us others. Those who reject Catholic Christianity on grounds of enlightenment should show us what other thing they favor.