March 7, 2005

Tradition and relativity

Filed under: Books — Camassia @ 4:12 pm

I was sufficiently intrigued by the mention of James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh: Life in a fundamentalist Baptist church in that article I cited the other day to check it out of the library. I’m a little over halfway through it now, and so far it’s been a very, very interesting read. Ault, a sociologist and former participant in the counterculture, went to study a Baptist church in Massachusetts to try to understand the rise of what was then called the New Right. It actually followed from some previous studies he’d been doing on why working-class women and women of color didn’t seem to be going for Second Wave feminism in great numbers. Many of his colleagues attributed this to a kind of Marxist “false consciousness”, but Ault was unsatisfied with that explanation (for much the same reasons as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, from the sound of it). His study of the Baptist church was on a similar vein, trying to understand why large numbers of people were rejecting not just feminism but just about everything that Ault and his compadres thought was progress.

His answers are multiple, and I expect to take up several posts with them. But the most arresting point he makes, for me, is how the church understands tradition.

Over and over, Ault is told that what’s wrong with the people on his side of the fence is that they don’t believe in absolute, unchanging, universal values. (Vaughn Thompson notes that this song is continuing today.) But, as has been noted before, Ault sees that fundamentalists actually do change. Some theologies popular with that set, such as dispensationalism, are relatively new; other former fundamentalist ideas, such as that black people are “sons of Ham” and therefore cursed by God, have fallen out of favor. But Ault doesn’t see this as simple hypocrisy. Rather, he says, there’s a profound difference in the way fundamentalists and liberals change.

One thing that makes the church community he studies premodern, along with its family structure, is the fact that it’s largely an oral culture. Most people are fairly uneducated, and some adults arrive at the church functionally illiterate. The pastor takes few notes, speaking mostly extemporaneously. They also pay little attention to the mass media, seeing it as immoral and irrelevant. So information spreads by word of mouth. Even sermons from faraway churches are spread by radio and audiotape rather than by print material.

One common feature of oral cultures, says Ault, is that there’s a drift in the word-of-mouth information that careful chronicling can show, but that is imperceptible to the participants. This arises from oral cultures’ rather different view of time:

Though change in tradition takes place, at times, in much-heralded reforms or restorations, it more often occurs gradually, in unnoticed ways, as newly minted practices quietly assume their place next to genuinely ancient ones. In time they all come together in an indistinguishable whole that a community values as “what we have always done time out of mind” — in that inimitable tradtionalist expression. Actual change in tradition routinely disappears behind the veil of what the great sociologist Max Weber called the “eternal yesterday” of traditional authority.

To say fundamentalists are not traditionalists, as some scholars have argued, because they combine modern or contemporary elements with genuinely old ones misconceives tradition by objectifying it as commitment to x number of genuinely old practices. In this view, traditional village life could never change, which it obviously does — at times quite rapidly — yet without disturbing, in the least, members’ continued practice of justifying all aspects of village life indiscriminately as what their ancestors have done “time out of mind.”

So while the collective consciousness changes, individuals still experience moral life as submitting themselves to an external absolute. But that external absolute is not so much a fixed eternal God as a collective common sense. Ault says that this sense, in its way, carries even more authority than the Bible, because it tells them how to interpret the Bible. In contrast to their reputation for living by a rigid and unyielding set of rules, Ault found that his fundamentalist subjects were much more flexible in practice:

There are occasions when “an eye for an eye” seems right and others when “turn the other cheek” is good counsel; occasions when a person needs to be reminded of God’s boundless love and others when he or she needs to be reminded of his wrath and judgment; times when spouses need to be reminded that a husband is “head of the wife” and should take more responsibility for his family’s religious life and times when they need to be reminded to “submit one to another in the fear of God.” And on most occasions when Bible verses were applied to life, members of Shawmut River could count on those involved to know much in common about the relevant particularities of the situation at hand — to know how these sayings should be correctly applied. That means collective moral judgment could be arrived at without relying on the explicit application of abstract rules.

When I was reading this, it occurred to me that the church that probably has the best understanding of this sort of traditionalism is Roman Catholicism. Catholic Tradition, it seems to me, basically denotes this same amoeba-like movement of the communal consensus, and its faith that the Holy Spirit is guiding it allows the church to make moral judgments about specific situations. But in contrast to the somewhat self-deluded quality of fundamentalists who think they never change when actually they do, Catholics know that Tradition drifts over time.

Or do they? Another thought that occurred to me is that for most of RCC history, 99% of its members probably had no idea that the amoeba was moving. Medieval Catholic peasants, I imagine, were much like the people at Shawmut River, thinking that they were practicing what Christians had always practiced since time out of mind. The availability of printed Bibles and other ancient texts, from the Reformation era onward, revealed that this was not so, and Christendom still hasn’t really recovered from the shock.

In fact, the challenge of living with “conscious tradition” is one that we moderns all face, Christian or not. How do we deal with the fact of social change, without it all turning to chaos? AKM Adam wrote today that “‘Continuity’ is always a fictive thing — not fictitious, but fictive, something made. ” And yet, doing it consciously seems a bit like when you’re dancing the waltz or playing golf, and suddenly start thinking about exactly what you’re doing. As soon as the conscious mind intrudes, you lose your coordination, and you no longer seem able to do what you were doing so easily just a moment ago.

But I also feel bound to bring in a theological critique here. There’s something un-Christian about this fundamentalist reverence for the timeless wisdom of the ancestors. The Gospel is, first and foremost, the Good News. The word new pops up all over what we like to call the New Testament: new man, new creation, new wine, and so on. True, after 2,000 years it’s kind of old news by now. But the point is that the Jews of the time experienced Jesus as a disruption, a reversal, a surprise. He did not come to impart timeless wisdom or mythic truth: he came to deliver a specific message at a specific historical moment. That is why Jesus is constantly pointing us toward the future.

Contrast this with how Ault’s Baptists revere everything old:

Though traditionalists lend authority, by default as it were, to their elders and to what exists, they can, nevertheless, subject existing institutions to scorching critique as part of movements to reform them. But they always do so by claiming, for example, that America has departed from its original foundation as a Christian nation, that its citizens have drifted away from God’s original “plan for the family” or that mainline churches have diverged from the original church set up by God himself, or from old-fashioned, “Gospel-preaching” churches of America’s past. Traditionalism’s characteristic mode of social criticism is restorationist. What is true and good can never be new.

I know I’ve brought up this Huston Smith passage about paganism here before, but it’s so apt I can’t resist quoting it again:

… the past (for pagans) continues to be considered a Golden Age. When divine creation had suffered no ravages of time and mismanagement, the world was as it should be. That is no longer the case, for a certain enfeeblement has occurred; thus steps are needed to restore the world to its original condition.

I don’t mean to say that Christians shouldn’t hang on to their traditions. I just mean that if some piece of wisdom seems universal, timeless, and above all comfortable, it should probably raise some red flags about whether it’s really Gospel wisdom. In the manner of oral tradition, Ault notes, fundamentalists tend to remember the Bible in aphorisms and one-liners, and sometimes they confuse actual Bible sayings with popular sayings like “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” (which is really from an Aesop’s fable). When the Gospel becomes indistinguishable from Aesop, it’s worth wondering if you’re reading it right. (I should point out that liberal Christians can be guilty of this also. Reading the Resurrection as a metaphor for such chestnuts as “hope springs eternal” or “God cannot be killed” seems to me to be reading the Bible in much the same way the fundamentalists do, however much it’s dressed up in erudite language.)

Overall, though, this question of how to keep continuity with a historical tradition in the age of the written word is not one I feel I have an answer to. It’s not surprising that many moderns look at the past as a foreign country (and premodern parts of the world as doubly foreign countries). Yet doing so, I think, doesn’t just cut us off from certain religious traditions, but from our common human heritage. It doesn’t seem to bother some folks to condemn 99% of the people who’ve ever lived because they were sexist, but it bothers me. And I think it bothers Ault too, which is why his study is so valuable.


  1. It seems that a lot of Christian fundamentalist/traditionalists tend to believe and perpetuate certain myths so that they can continue to appear like the current state of things has somehow deviated from it’s original eden. I’m talking about the myth of the “Christian nation” or the “chosen nation” in which fundamentalists often argue that the United States was some sort of Christian nation, ordained by God to spread the Gospel throughout the land (“manifest destiny,” perhaps?), and you know the rest.

    My friend Charlie recommends a book called Myths America Lives by that debunk or reassess some of these myths about ourselves.

    As per your comment about certain groups of people inserting popular sayings into the Bible, I remember back when I used to listen to Air America, Al Franken played a clip of Rush Limbaugh saying very specifically that Jesus said “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Of course, the problem is that this was never in the Bible– Confucius said that, I’m pretty sure (or just some anonymous Chinese proverb).

    Either way, whichever group tries to defend some myth or saying, I’ve found it helpful to try to figure out what the real goal is behind saying or believing those things. As a former fundamentalist myself, I still don’t fully grasp why I was so adamant about making sure people agreed with me, but as a former conservative who used to listen to Rush Limbaugh, I think it’s pretty obvious that Rush is trying to insert a little bit of “rugged individualism” or Horatio Alger into the Bible, when none of that actually exists in the Bible. Not everybody can actually learn to fish; not everybody actually has bootstraps by which to pull themselves up.

    I’m reminded and inspired by the L’Arche communities around the world, and living in community as described by Jean Vanier, which finds itself standing in direct opposition to this. Thing is, I’m not even doing it very good justice by describing it in this way, because it’s a rather humble text.

    Comment by Eric Lee — March 7, 2005 @ 7:59 pm

  2. I was thinking after I posted this that the main reason change is harder in the modern era is that society’s innovators today leave “fingerprints.” In oral cultures changes usually had (if you’ll pardon the expression) a virgin birth — everybody thought they were doing things the traditional way, but somehow changes just happened. Nowadays people can’t keep their hands clean that way, because everything’s documented. So people will ask (as you’re asking of Rush et al.) “Why are you making this change? What’s your agenda?” The dynamics are therefore totally different.

    By the way, I read the Analects of Confucius in college and I don’t think that saying was in there. It doesn’t sound like him, since he was definitely not into rugged individualism either. It isn’t in my Bartlett’s so probably it’s just a folk saying (another virgin birth!).

    Comment by Camassia — March 7, 2005 @ 8:29 pm

  3. Yeah, you’re probably right about that quotation. A few months back, I found a homeless person’s blog and he wrote about that parable and how it is often used to dismiss people who are in his economic situation. I think he may have given Confucius credit for that, and I may have seen it elsewhere as giving him the credit, but in my Googlings, I also found as many or more that just labeled it as an “ancient Chinese proverb” or just “ancient proverb.” I don’t actually know much about Confucius, so thanks for the intervention! :)



    Comment by Eric Lee — March 8, 2005 @ 12:13 am

  4. I once took a historical theology course (ancient and early Christian thought) in which we began every class by singing “Gimme that Old-Time Religion” — except we inserted the name of the primary figure we’d be studying that day in the lyrics:

    “It was good enough for Irenaeus. It was good enough for Irenaeus.
    It was good enough for Irenaeus — it’s good enough for me. . . .”

    Of course, the ironic inside joke was that that song is inextricably linked to modern American traditions whose adherents would recognize very little of, say, Cyprian, in “that old time religion.”

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. Ault’s thesis has a lot of merit — but what do we do with evangelicals? Many of the same characteristics feature prominently in their rhetoric about the wider culture, but I don’t know that I’d call evangelicalism (a very amorphous entity anyway) an oral culture.

    Comment by Andy — March 8, 2005 @ 9:38 am

  5. That’s a good question, Andy, and I’m not sure what the answer is, not being hugely familiar with the evangelical subculture. But it does bring to mind the bit from Ault that I quoted in the earlier post, saying that fundamentalism is not the natural state of this kind of village culture but arises when it feels under threat. I suspect that evangelicals and fundamentalists are at varying degrees of removal from this type of culture, but they all feel themselves to be defending it to some degree, even if they are educated enough that they really should know better about history and all that. It reminds me of a discussion we had back on Icthus somewhere about creationism. I mentioned this article by Telford where he notes that there’s really a lot of fear underlying evangelical rigidity on the subject — we’d better hold the line on the talking snake, or the whole thing will come crashing down! Nate Lilje remarked that when he was growing up evangelical he at once resented liberals for saying there were inconsistencies in the Bible and resented evangelicals for not realizing that the inconsistencies were obviously there. I imagine a lot of evangelicals feel betwixt and between like that.

    Overall, though, it’s probably better to look at Ault’s study as an important piece in the puzzle rather than The Theory That Explains It All. Some commenters to my last post on this subject seemed to be expecting such a thing, but I don’t think that exists. Ault’s larger point, it seems, is that under all the televangelists and media empires there’s a huge ground layer of small churches like Shawmut River that provide the foot soldiers for people like Jerry Falwell, and most educated liberals a) don’t realize they exist and b) don’t understand them at all.

    Comment by Camassia — March 8, 2005 @ 10:46 am

  6. I think the fear of change is a primary factor, which is why the subtle changes in an oral tradition, presenting the current collective consciousness, is not as threatening.

    I’m reminded of some lines from Auden;

    We would rather be ruined than changed
    We would rather die in our dread
    Than climb the cross of the moment
    And see our illusions die.

    Comment by Jake — March 8, 2005 @ 1:08 pm

  7. I agree with a greal deal of what you have written, but wonder about your opposition of the “timeless wisdom of the ancestors” to the experience of Jesus “as a disruption, a reversal, a surprise … constantly pointing us to the future.” After all, we might want to say that in Christianity “remembering” always points us to the future – “In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:25-6). And, of course, fundamentalists are able to imagine Christianity as a future-oriented disruption – think of the reversal and surprise of a born-again conversion, or speaking in tongues, or, for that matter, the role of apocalyptic. I think that fundamentalists, rather, have a hard time imagining any religious truth that is not immediate, but mediated through time and space. As such, fundamentalism, ironically, is as “modern” as secularism – which is often very spiritual, but cannot imagine a religious practice that can transcend its conditions to reveal something definite of the character of God.

    Thus, Rowan Williams has written:

    “Secularism as I have been defining it – a functional, instrumentalist perspective, suspicious and uncomfortable about inaccessible dimensions – is the hidden mainspring of certain kinds of modern religiousness. When religious commitment is seen first as the acceptance of propositions which determine acceptable behaviour – the kind of religiousness we tend now to call fundamentalist – something has happened to religious identity. It has ceased to give priority to the sense that God’s seeing of the world and the self is very strictly incommensurable with any specific human perspective and is in danger of evacuating religious language of the pressure to take time to learn its meanings. Wittgenstein’s remark that religious language could only be learned in the context of certain kinds of protracted experience, particularly suffering is a very un-secular insight, since it assumes that to be able to make certain religious affirmations is bound up with how we construct a narrative of difficult or unmanageable times in our lives. There can be no decisive pre-empting of religious meanings by requiring instant assent to descriptions of reality offered by straightforward revelation. All the major historic faiths, even Islam, which is closest to the propositional model at first sight, assume in their classical forms an interaction between forms of self-imagining and self-interpreting, through prayer and action, and the formal language of belief; that language works not simply to describe an external reality but to modify over time the way self and world are sensed.”

    We might say, then, that, in our world of “hyperreality,” fundamentalism has understandable lost confidence in time and space – therefore, obsessed with immediacy, it has “evacuated religious language of the pressure to take time to learn its meanings.” Thus, for instance, Scripture is defined by inerrant propositions and submissiveness rather than the slow, contemplative praying that marks lectio divina.



    Comment by Neil — March 9, 2005 @ 9:48 am

  8. Actually Neil, one thing I didn’t mention is that this particular congregation is vehemently opposed to Pentecostalism. Ault notes that the split between charismatic and non-charismatic fundamentalists goes largely unrecognized in the secular media, which tends to lump them all together. Why some some fundamentalists have embraced Pentecostalism and others have not would be an interesting subject for another study.

    I should also maybe elaborate a little more on Smith’s explanation of the pagan view of time. Although this traditionalism seems backward-looking at first glance, it’s actually not because it’s not based on a linear view of time. Rather, it’s about trying to get back to what Smith calls “the Source” — the original divine plan, the timeless way things ought to be. Although this is generally identified with the past, it is not identified with some point in the past, but in that “eternal yesterday.”

    This is different from the traditional Catholic (or at least, educated Catholic) view of time, which follows a chain of events recounted in the Bible and continuing up to the present day. If fundamentalists seem overly interested in immediacy, I think that it is not so much from a modern disconnection from the past as it is a pagan sense of “timeless time” that is ever available to those willing to follow the supposedly traditional ways (sort of like the Australian Dreamtime, in a way). Of course, as Andy pointed out, not all fundamentalists (and certainly not all evangelicals) live in subcultures like this, so what the Archbishop says may be true in other places.

    I was actually going to mention apocalyptic futurism in the post, because Ault discusses it, but I forgot. (The post was long enough as is!) Ault thinks that dispensationalism appeared when it did, and became so hugely popular with this set, because in the industrial era even societies like this one couldn’t entirely avoid noticing the course of historical change. Dispensationalism essentially accounts for historical change in a manner that suits fundamentalist cosmology: as an orderly plan set out by God from the beginning of time, over which humans have no control. In Shawmut River’s church life, it functions mainly as a way of explaining things in the Bible that the social consensus no longer supports — polygamy, for instance. They can simply say that those rules were for another dispensation — a dispensation with a clear beginning and end — without it disturbing their sense that the rules under which they are operating are absolute and unchangeable.

    I noticed also in that Internet Monk essay about evangelical pessimism, which I linked in the previous post, that he sees the fascination with the Apocalypse as a sign of despair rather than looking forward. As he sees it, it’s a longing for this sinful world to be wiped out more than a vision of its redemption. More Noah than Revelation, you might say.

    Comment by Camassia — March 9, 2005 @ 10:31 am

  9. Your point about Christ being a disruption in his day is an excellent one, and one that we do tend to forget. But don’t most Christian denominations also view Christ as the fulfillment of a long line of Old Testament prophecies (stretching back as far as God’s “he shall bruise thy heel” pronouncement to the serpent in the Garden of Eden)? Thus, he may have been a surprise to the Jews of the time, but Christians since then, having had the benefit of Christ’s teaching, can see Him as part of the plan that God had all along. Moreover, He’s not pointing us toward the future, he’s pointing us toward a particular future, one in which He comes again in glory. Obviously, the details of his return, the timing, who gets saved, etc., are widely disagreed upon, but presumably most Christians don’t doubt that at some point He will return and this world will pass away.

    And don’t most Christian denominations embrace traditionalism or the search for the Source in some form or another? Even the most liberal churches will seek to base their beliefs and practices in things Christ said or did (or refrained from saying or doing), after all. For instance, liberal churches dealing with gay ordination or gay marriage have generally sought to show that Christ did not disapprove of homosexuality and that tolerance for it should be found in Christ’s larger messages of love and community. It’s the relatively rare Christians who would say, “Sure, Christ was against this, but we think that if he were alive today and properly educated, he’d reconsider.”

    Comment by Tom T. — March 10, 2005 @ 5:20 am

  10. Excellent postings recently, by the way. There’s been an awful lot to think about, and you’ve written up these complicated topics very engagingly.

    Comment by Tom T. — March 10, 2005 @ 5:22 am

  11. Dear Camassia,

    I sense that I might be describing fundamentalist reflection or theology, while you write of the lived religion of fundamentalism. I also sense that Ault might be describing a particular sort of fundamentalism – “Most people are fairly uneducated, and some adults arrive at the church functionally illiterate,” he writes, speaking of a “word of mouth” culture. I suspect that we can think of other sorts of fundamentalism that are marked by the use of mass media and print material, attended by those who regularly use the cell phones and drive the Range Rovers that are so ubiquitous in the Left Behind novels. I would suggest that these sorts of fundamentalism are indeed more likely to be marked by immediacy – an “instant assent to descriptions of reality offered by straightforward revelation,” in Rowan Williams’ words.

    I do understand what you mean by “the pagan view of time.” In an older book (Dieu et Nous), the Catholic theologian Jean Danielou wrote about “paganism”:

    “This relationship between God and the cosmos is revealed at the same time in the myth that explains it and in the ritual that makes it work. The myth is the normal form, on the level of cosmic religion, of the expression of God’s relation to the world. It consists in the affirmation of the existence, in a world of archetypes, of the patterns of all human realities. These archetypes are the immutable models in which every reality participates. They have their being in what Van der Leeuw calls primordial or mythical time, which is abstracted from the changeability of concrete time. In that realm the gods and heroes perform eternal acts which men repeat. Men’s actions are only real in so far as they faithfully reproduce these pre-existing patterns.”

    Danielou goes on, “Cosmic religion is bound up with permanent patterns. For it, the historical and the unique are unreal; only what is repeated has value. Biblical revelation, on the contrary, places us in the presence of new, decisive divine acts which modify the human situation in a definite way and are not to be repeated.”

    Unlike mere pagans who are conscious of “primordial or mythical time” and “permanent patterns” behind everyday reality, fundamentalists seem more conscious of an inescapable alienation from the sacred that will require a cosmic struggle during which they must cultivate self-consciousness as a marginalized minority. And there will be an apocalpytic resolution. Behind all of this lies the experience of revelation as definitive, discontinuous, unquestionable, immediate.

    Does this make sense?



    Comment by Neil — March 10, 2005 @ 12:36 pm

  12. Thanks, Tom. I don’t deny that there’s a family resemblance between what fundamentalists believe and what other Christians believe — obviously, it wouldn’t be recognizably the same religion otherwise. And like I said, traditions are important to Christians. But when Jesus arrived he didn’t say, “Look, I will restore you to the original divine plan,” but instead revealed that a new chapter in human history had arrived. The idea of original sin (which was only developed after Jesus) does carry an echo of the pagan fallen-away-from-the-source mythos, but it does not claim that we will be brought back to Eden, but that we’re headed for somewhere even better.

    Also, while it’s certainly true that there’s a continuity in God’s plan, it had to be revealed because it is not intuitively evident to people. Myths, archetypes and folk wisdom all bubble out of the Jungian collective unconscious, and so don’t require any special revelation. The reason I said Jesus didn’t come to reveal “mythic truth” is that myths basically tell you what you already know, and generally explain and justify the way things already are. Christianity’s “scandal of particularity” is the fact that it did not draw from this universally available folk wisdom.

    Neil, I think you’re right. Ault mentions that what rank-and-file fundamentalists believe is often very different from what fundamentalists theologians believe, because theologians are using a more modern standard of abstract theorizing and logical consistency. I will go into that more in a future post about how Ault’s subjects read the Bible.

    Comment by Camassia — March 10, 2005 @ 1:55 pm

  13. […] m. But Ault sees female influence as being much broader than this. Recall how, back in my first post about this book, I described how the community operates by a consensus that seems to belong […]

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