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An Important Question

Sure, Rod, I'll dine with you anytime. But is this really a very important question? ~Maggie Gallagher

Ms. Gallagher had many other dismissive things to say about the "crunchy" idea, but this one captures the spirit of the entire column. Here she happens to be taking issue with Rod's ideas about food, but she could just as well be talking about anything else in the book. You can hear her saying, "Sure, homeschooling is nice, in theory, but is educating children well really a very important thing?" Of course, she wouldn't want to say something like that. So she picks on Rod's food talk, because it is easier to mistake this for something unimportant. Easier, but not really defensible.

When Rod describes the "sacramental" nature of a meal and speaks of it in terms of "communion," he has tapped into the mind of the Christian tradition to which we are all heirs. The Eucharist, the sacrament of koinonia, in Scripture and in patristic interpretation is represented with the symbolism and language of wedding feasts and meals. It is in one sense the embodiment of all other festivity--all other festivity is festivity to the extent that it resembles this sacred reality of fellowship, thanksgiving, unity and love. In the early Church, the profane agape meal after the Eucharist had to be separated from the liturgical service proper because early Christians too easily blended the two together in an improper way--but this easy confusion reflects the close similarities between holy sacrament and profane feast. This imagery likely made a great deal more sense to traditional peoples because their feasts and meals were more like this than ours are today.

Behind every snarky or even every polite rebuttal aimed at the "crunchies" is the question: do you people really believe that these things matter? It might be nice to have these things, Ms. Gallagher suggests, but why should anyone care? In this, she has shown that she really didn't understand the purpose or meaning of the book, which, incidentally, was not a call to "create" anything but to restore and return to the even older conservatism that, alas, she and her colleagues tend to forget.

In other words, the problem isn't just that Rod and his family don't have their own "native" tradition to return to and must create one (which would make them like everyone who has ever participated in a tradition anywhere at any time), but that they are actually more interested in seeking that authenticity, virtue and wisdom of a good life than living a conventional, forgettable life, the "only available American way." It wasn't always the "only available American way," and it does not have to be the American way. It is the only available way if you believe that you must maximise opportunity, attenuate all natural affinities and make your own way to be a successful person. Most generations of Americans have not thought in this way, and it is ultimately an unnatural way to live, exacerbating many of the worst spiritual and practical habits that flesh is heir to.

This brings me to a few more words about tradition (and Tradition). At some point, someone or some group of people started the customs and habits that became the venerable tradition we know today. Someone deliberately maintained them, even if they maintained them for no other reason than because it was the custom of the ancestors (which was in turn tied up with inherited customs of holding ancestors in high esteem and regarding them with a reverence that many Americans, for all their genealogical enthusiasm, do not understand in the slightest). But for it to become the custom of the ancestors, some of those ancestors had to take the initiative. Usually this involved creating stories that explained these customs in terms of their great antiquity, and attributed their institution to a primeval lawgiver or sage. To say this is not to demystify anything, because the wisdom of tradition does not rely on the mystification of the human mind in the modern sense of bewilderment or confusion. It is instead mystification in the ancient sense of initiation into a sacred reality and the revelation of truths. If the truths of a tradition are enduring and true, as their survival and reproduction through the centuries partly attest, they will be true "even though" someone at some point "created" them. (Of course, it is important to note that man never really "creates" anything, strictly speaking, but fabricates and artifices from elements of the created order that existed before him--God alone actually creates).

This "creativity" or, better yet, artifice in tradition is often held up by postmodernists as some sort of proof that traditions are "constructed" and therefore not really very worthwhile or meaningful. Of course, everything in human civilisation is "constructed" in this way, which makes it more meaningful than something that accidentally happens or comes about through random interactions. Everything tangible and enduring in a civilisation's history is "constructed," because something that endures in this world is something that has been built, erected, established and founded by men, and has subsequently been expanded, repaired, maintained and restored by later generations. (Of course, nothing built by man endures forever, which is the difference between our traditions and Holy Tradition, which is eternal.)

But according to the postmodern critics, if traditional attitudes and customs did not come down from the sky in a beam of light (or whatever it is they believe traditionally minded people believe), why should anyone take them seriously? The logic is that men built them, so now we can discard them as it suits our contemporary needs. Which misses the entire point. But, then, po-mos would miss the point, wouldn't they?

Besides the obvious social and psychological needs tradition fulfills, it normally functions as a map of the prior experience of numerous generations. It is the record of experience considered most useful for living well and living a whole life. The map of tradition is the living connection between generations past and those yet to come. We do not belittle actual maps because cartographers made them or because the maps were not given to us on Mt. Sinai. We trust them because they have been proven to be reliable. Just so with traditions.

Some maps of tradition are better than others--some are more accurate and well-proportioned, and others can be complete rubbish--but that a man would want to have the map to his own patrimony, so to speak, rather than stumble around blindly and fall into a ravine through his own far more fallible orienteering skills should be obvious. It is precisely in an age where everyone thinks that all he needs to make his way in the world is his own compass that returning to the map is so vital and such a lost art. Indeed, many Americans and American conservatives among them have forgotten how to read the maps of their own patrimony. Some have even forgotten where their patrimony is.

Every attempt to return to a life according to the inherited customs and wisdom of your tradition, broadly speaking, is an attempt to find and make use of just such a map. Ms. Gallagher would prefer that we accept the "American way of life" simply as one endless interstate, which bypasses all of the really interesting parts of the countryside, and follow that road for our entire lives. It is the "only available" way. No, thank you. Let's take the scenic route instead. Beauty rather than efficiency, after all. That scenic route may not even take us to the same place as the interstate, but then perhaps we are not meant to go where the interstate is taking us. That is the very important question that Rod is interested in answering, and the one in which Ms. Gallagher seems uninterested.

Daniel Larison | March 15, 2006


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