Traditionalists and Modernists

It’s becoming ever more clear to me, in these online and person-to-person discussions, that there are two fundamentally opposed perspectives in addressing these issues of faith and worship (these perspectives are also evident in other philosphical and cultural venues, but I am limiting myself to the Christian faith and practice). While all labels can end up being used perjoratively, it seems to me that the terms “traditionalist” and “modernist” encapsulate these perspectives in as neutral as possible way. No traditionalist or modernist is so purely located within their camp so as to be impervious to the other perspective. Indeed, many modernists claims to be adhering to traditional Christian understandings and practices. Similarly, traditionalists while upholding the ancient Christian faith do not presume to bury their heads in the sand with regard to intelligent and caring interaction with the modern world. In short, these perspectives align themselves along a spectrum. So my discussion of these viewpoints will tend to emphasize their distinctions.

Traditionalists start with a mindset of acceptance toward the wisdom of the past. Traditionalists assume that God has revealed his will in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, and that such a will is healing, restorative, and divinizing for all men and women. Strictures against sexual intercourse (heterosexual or same sex) outside of marriage, against divorce, and other prohibitions, are meant to safeguard and protect human dignity (as little lower than God) and freedom. The equal dignity but different roles God has assigned to Christian men and women in marriage is meant for peace and holiness. The limiting of sacramental ministry to men is meant to safeguard and protect the Faith of the Church, and to incarnate the ministry of the Spirit. Traditionalists see the removing of prohibitions against sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and of divorce, as destructive of human dignity and freedom. And, say traditionalists, the statistical reports of our era prove this to be the case.

Modernists, on the other hand, start with a mindset of suspicion toward the tenets of the past. Modernists have a presupposition of human progress, that those who are most recently on the human scene are wiser and smarter than those who’ve been longer off the scene. This presupposition is an easy one to acquire. Technologically we are more advanced than at any other era in known human history. Diseases have been cured, or those that were once lethal have been relegated to simple and inexpensive over the counter treatments. More children receive education than ever before in history. So modernists look back to the past, see it’s sins and failures, and decide ours (the modern age) is the better standard by which to measure wisdom. Particularly the dogma of dogmas for modernists is that of freedom. That which would limit or prohibit autonomous individuals from freely chossing that which they wish to be and do is, for modernists, anathema. Biblical hierarchical ordering of the relationships in the home? Gone. Limiting the priesthood to certain men? Gone. Jesus’ prohibition on divorce? Gone. Indeed, gone is the Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, except as historical documents from which we can learn. Clearly, modernists would say, one cannot take Scripture whole-cloth and live it in today’s world.

Let me reiterate, these two descriptions do not take into account the various spectral degrees with which specific traditionalists and modernists hold to their respective viewpoints. Some modernists would claim a more wholehearted adherence to Scripture. Some Traditionalists would allow modern notions to shape and transform certain traditional practices and doctrines. But for the most part, I think these two descriptions are a fair assessment of the basic presuppositions.

Let me also say that traditionalists do not equate to conservatives, nor modernists to liberals. The Stone-Campbell churches in which I was raised, for example, would be considered very conservative, but they are very clearly modernists. Similarly, the Orthodox Church with which I currently align myself, would be considered liberal on some public policy issues, but is clearly traditional.

To this point, I have tried to strike a balanced appreciation of these two views. However, at this point I have to proceed in criticism of the modernist view. One of the most glaring weaknesses, in my view, of the modernist position is two-fold: a largely critical, adversarial stance to the tradition, and its usually unreflective acceptance of its presupposition of progress. So, modernists begin with something like a belief in absolute freedom, approach Ephesians 5:21ff and dismiss it as “unworkable” and, even more extreme, as “unChristian.” Modernists begin with the absolute equality–which means no difference between–men and women and dismiss 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 as “merely historical,” something modern-day Christians have “gotten over.”

But traditionalists would agree with G. K. Chesterton, in his chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy [Note: Chesteron was an Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism.]:

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

One could also add this text (on books, but related to my points here) from C. S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

In short, modernists, in rejecting the wisdom of the Tradition, subject their followers as well as innocent bystanders, to the consequences of folly. Modernists want to criticize the Tradition because of its alleged “denigration” of women, by making them “second-class” citizens in home and Church. But let’s look at the consequences of the modernist viewpoint in the lives of women: domestic abuse from live-in male companions; the objectification of women as sexual service providers by men who won’t marry their women companions (marriage is, after all, traditional), men who are living the tenets of the feminist doctrines of the last two or three decades; the killing of untold millions of women in the womb; the derailing of ecumenical discussions and resultant perpetuation of schism by insisting on women’s sacramental ordination; as well as the recent hazing incident in Chicago, as young women become like the males they’ve been told they were “just like.”

Now, I know that not all modernist Christians hold to some of these presuppositions. Nor do any modernist Christians I know make the connections I am making between the modernist viewpoint and the consequences I’ve just listed. Most would probably dispute them. But most simply have not made (and many will not make) the connections, because they’re unaware of the consequences of their philosophical convictions.

The modernist “tradition” is being tried and found wanting. The Tradition has been tested for more than twenty centuries, and its healing and salvific results are evident.