Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Response to Poulos: On the Authority of Tradition

...and here is my reply to both of Poulos's responses (so far!).


Poulos's wonderfully rich response (and his second one too!) in some ways might be taken as having anticipated and directly contrasted my previous reply of John Fea, with my talk about the "democratic input of the people" and the "civic order"; he suggests that what truly threatens traditions is the sense of authority-denying equality which has been to a degree an inevitable consequence of the creation of a civic order which respects the democratic individual. His use of both Tocqueville and Nietzsche in exploring this idea only raises the stakes even higher: if equality, and the resulting doubting of authority, is the true cause of traditions decline in the modern world, then perhaps the roots of this problem is as old as Christianity itself.

Poulos's question is thus a challenging one: that perhaps "tradition," far from being an interpretive and participatory creation, one which arises via the active subjectivity and involvement of all who are touched by and enlisted into a particular, significant belief or practice, is actually fundamentally aristocratic, bespeaking an authority which is to be responded to...and which has been on the defensive ever since the message of the radical equality of all human beings began its liberating, and confusing, work. Poulos's comments about marriage fit this perspective quite well; it isn't difficult to read the gradual evolutions and adaptations of the ideal of heterosexual monogamy over the centuries as a long retreat, with the authoritative ideal itself always casting about for one justification or another, as the aristocratic ethos which it once presumed weakened before the slow rise of gender and economic egalitarianism.

This is an abstract and theoretical argument, but it has immediately relevant applications, as Andrew Sullivan's engagement with Poulos's concluding thoughts about the future of marriage in America makes clear. If Poulos is right, and the real issue is the question of authority (a question, really, about who or what, if anything, a democratically inclined people will fully accept as sovereign) then the compromise he gestures at--"the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak, with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private"--might be the only way to keep the aristocratic principle arguably contained within "traditional marriage" alive. Save marriage-as-an-acceptance-of-authority by separating marriage from the increasingly authority-absent civic order! It's a compelling compromise (and libertarians will love it). But I would prefer to see if formalizable, meaningful traditions might not emerge as the legal, social, and religious particulars of marriage continue to be hashed out through the breadth of our democracy, without any side calling for a full retreat or complete victory as yet. That sounds almost hopeful, I realize, and I suppose it is. If I am, it is because I'm not sure I can agree with Poulos's account of tradition's authority necessarily involving such an aristocratic acceptance.

Poulos, is his second response, notes my dissent from one of Tushnet's points:

I would quibble with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly.

and he concludes:

Eve proposes that community can have an immanent foundation; Russell rejects this.

Now perhaps there is simply some confusion here in how certain philosophical or theological terms are being use, but I'm not sure how Poulos comes to this conclusion. He may well be understanding me correctly, but if so, I'm not certain that could be discerned from my disagreement with Tushnet above. She suggested that certain practices, through their repeated performance, might themselves become authoritative simply through a process of accretion. I find this unlikely. Now, if Poulos is taking Tushnet to mean that a community of practice (her specific example was journalists going about their work) have within them a source of teleological or moral meaning which will be immanent to the performance of the work involved, then yes, I do reject that idea. (Though I do not think that is what Tushnet was talking about; I read her as stating that some institutionalized practices precede any authority entirely, and gain authority simply through repeated performance, and I disagree with that for the same reason I agree with her about brushing your teeth: just because you may always brush your teeth in a certain way doesn't make it a "tradition," because there's nothing social or authoritative involved, binding you or anyone else together.)

What is the relationship between authority, community, and tradition? I hold that, at some point through the history of a particular belief or practice, some one or some thing emerges or stands revealed in connection with it which those who hold to the belief or practice subjectively experience a sense of authority for. This could be at the origin of the belief or practice: Moses coming down from Sinai, speaking in the name of God. It could be a revelation that comes almost accidentally, a piece at a time. But whatever the case, there is not, I think, some foundational moment where authority become immanent to all subsequent performance of the designated beliefs and practices; the authority comes through and in its subjective recognition by those who come together as a community around it. That is the interpretive, revelatory work of traditions: a situating of the self in regards to something which comes along with a community of belief or practice. This subjective realization may take the form of acknowledging an aristocratic ideal being so communicated, but it is not as though that sense of authority was immanent to the tradition the very first time it was ever enacted.

I do not mean to reduce all traditions to a identical intellectual and experiential process; there is surely an immense historical variety in how these processes play out. The Puritan communities of 17th-century Massachusetts and the classical Confucian communities of Han dynasty China, for example, were both, in their own ways, profoundly traditional, with the traditions which bound those communities together being held as highly authoritative, but the experience of that tradition and authority was quite different. For Puritans, it was a process of recognizing the spiritual authority of congregational leaders, through accepting a covenant of grace which the Puritans held set them apart from other Christians. This was a highly unequal context--Puritan town meetings were not modern democracies--yet it still depended upon a uniform, participatory acceptance of that authority by all in the community. For Confucians, it was a process of adhering to a set of ritual instructions and performances, ones believed to have been handed down from the ancient Zhou. There was also a great of inequality in these communities--and yet, again, the actual binding authority of the rites was identified with the moralistic relationships and connections which the enacting the diverse roles and responsibilities specified by the rites (father, husband, teacher, servant, wife, son, minister, friend, etc.) instantiated. (I discuss these differences and similarities at length in my Philosophy East and West article here.)

Traditions should be preserved. Do we need to worry about preserving the authority of traditions, and perhaps separating them out from a democratic, anti-authoritarian civic order in order to do so? While I find Poulos's speculations about the authority of traditions challenging, I am not persuaded that the loss of an aristocratic, inegalitarian ethos (which hasn't been, it should be noted, a total loss) renders them incapable of doing their shaping, modeling, and binding work. The experience of authority through communities and traditions is not so dependent as he implies, I think, upon getting and keeping the foundations right.

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