I’m struck at the vanity of those impious folks infatuated with their ability to improve the situation without having first served a long apprenticeship under the tutelage of the old. Proudly ignorant—they believe freedom from apprenticeship guarantees spontaneity, relevance, creativity—they enforce forgetfulness.

Believing, as they do, in some always-new technique or method or procedure, they reveal their fundamentalist belief in rationalism—a faith that all can be improved or mastered through some new equipment or gimmick or change. Of course, human reason does not exist in the clouds, for we are to our very core creatures rooted in place, custom, tradition, and history. We would not even exist without the history of others and the institutions bringing them together; we would not have language without a long and collaborative story; our values and ideals are bequeathed to us—in short, we inherit ourselves and our capacities, we do not create them.

And yet in their vanity, the impious casually discard past customs. Holding fast to the prejudice of their superiority, they consider the wisdom of the past—the lamp of experience hard won by countless souls over millennia—as worth less than a new technique schemed in an afternoon and marketed as the next new thing.

Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in contemporary religious expression. As a catholic Christian, I view as a high accomplishment worship rooted deeply and humbly in the tradition, and doctrine which navigates disputes by attempting to grant voice to all that has belonged to the one ancient faith. Catholicity means at least this: a hesitation to idly scuttle that which our ancestors gave to us.

Rationalism detests catholicity, hates its patterns and rhythms, loathes its embarrassed insistence on a long obedience and formation over a complete life. How much better is enthusiasm (!) coupled with a new technique (!!) so as to make something relevant (!!!).

Roger Scruton writes somewhere of the Old Believers, those “people who have believed that holy thoughts need holy words, words somehow removed from the business of the world,” and those who recognize “that words don’t become holy through being repeated, but get repeated because they are holy.”

The rationalist admits neither claim: the holy needn’t have holy words separated from the usual; neither ought those holy words be oft repeated.

Separating holy words and holy things from the business of life is alienating, supposedly; distant from where people are, off-putting, strange, irrelevant. Just so! How little I want a God who is just like the rest of the world (perhaps just a bit bigger and crazier); how little I want the ministers and holy men to present themselves and their gods as just more of the mundane; how little I want a space without transcendent depth, just another circle of the everyday. In descending to the clap-trap of the relevant, they deny the holy and offer something not worth having.

The second impiety, refusing to repeat, denies the nature of God and the nature of Man. We are feeble, distracted, weak, and if God is to become our friend, to make his dwelling with us, he must do so gently and slowly, as he, with great shyness, elevates our stature without embarrassing our current state. God, after all, is a gentleman. The rationalists want instead immediate results, for why would one wait if one can buy on credit, why delay for a sober second look, why look back to glean from the (outdated) experience of others?

And so we Old Believers are assaulted by the vain, the haughty; those who do not think it noble to tend the graves of the long-departed, repair venerable walls, or enrich the ancient soil. They sell their inheritance cheap, and cheapen what they will pass on.

(Need I mention the inhospitality of the rationalist? They are like house guests who throw away a host’s beloved chair for being out of date.)

We live always in dependence on those who’ve trod before us to make straight paths. And now we forget, and many among us—many who lead us—insist we forget, so that we may be free to forge ahead. Never fear, they know what to do, we are told, for they have a new plan.

And the generosity of the dead—the constant nourishing of the present through the gifts still provided—is brushed aside. Thoughtlessly, carelessly, as a matter of no import, as forgetfulness is enforced.

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R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. What’s left of the long dead to tend to, or what’s venerable about a wall in need of repair?, And if the soil is in so much need of enriching is it not better to let it lay fallow for a while?

    In defence of relevance and rationalism, if the keepers of the old traditions had been making and trodding straight paths there would be only the passing desire of youth to defy the old guard… but since tradition so often means self perpetuated power first and truth second then yes…out with the old and in with the new…

  2. Well said.

    If our religious traditions no longer seem “relevant” to our culture, it strikes me that we should start by making our popular culture relevant to the Church, not by making the Church relevant to contemporary fashion.

  3. I lean toward full support of your sentiment. And now, I’ll offer that obligatory “but.”

    It is this: My small-town mainline protestant church is succumbing to a demographic death spiral. Ours is a mix of economic realities. It’s a rural Midwest where a town of 12,000 that once was headquarters and central production for a major industry but some years ago lost that industry along with its white-collar and union jobs. The core of our membership joined the exodus. What’s left is minimum wage and barely better opportunities, and farming, which these days is a birthright. The former seem unchurched in their masses and the latter already attend and grow fewer in number each year.

    Along with this reality is the what I call the protestant tree blight. Our branches became numerous (and each with its tradition and particular ways of piousness), but now wilt and will soon drop. We’ve been in decline since the early 60s. My church is that trend in hyper speed. I look at the gray hair during worship and realize that in 15 years, it will be over.

    And so we’ve struck out on a new path, prepared to sacrifice past customs. We see to keep all of those traditions is to offer nothing for the unchurched in our community, and means that we fail in every way.

    Many won’t like it. Some will leave. Trust me, many of us cleave to your very words, “And so we Old Believers are assaulted by the vain, the haughty; those who do not think it noble to tend the graves of the long-departed, repair venerable walls, or enrich the ancient soil. They sell their inheritance cheap, and cheapen what they will pass on.”

    But our inheritance is clearly before us. As we go now, nothing will be passed on, cheap or dear. And we’ll be left to ponder what answer we have for that Great Commission.

  4. Mr. Theo V,

    Your comment – if the keepers of the old traditions had been making and treading straight paths – suggests that youth and others know whither the path should lead. As mere creatures, we cannot know whither the path leads, so those who claim to know so apparently do not consider themselves mere creatures.

  5. While I tend not to respond to comments, I do carefully read them and attempt to learn from my interlocutors (for whom I am always grateful).

    Reading the comments thus far tells me that I should emphasize two lines from the post, for while I am sharply critical of change, I hope I’m not mindlessly critical of change, and wouldn’t want to suggest such a thing through a lack of clarity. So I’ll merely note two lines from the post as suggestions that the main thrust of my objection is against thoughtless, ahistorical, idle, supercilious, rationalist change, not change pure and simple. I too know you need to paint the fence to keep it in shape.

    The two lines:

    1) Catholicity means at least this: a hesitation to idly scuttle that which our ancestors gave to us.

    2) Thoughtlessly, carelessly, as a matter of no import, as forgetfulness is enforced.

  6. Theo V,

    We Orthodox at least, do not believe the ‘dead’, at least those who are saints at the very least, and even others, are simply dust, but live in God. Therefore, like our author, we consider that ‘praying for the dead’ is at least one of the major forms of almsgiving or corporeal acts of mercy. Those dead in the body have no physical voice (or not usually so) and so are the first to be ignored. Forgetting the perished is a sure sign of a spiritual materialism in a Christian if anything is — as the Apostle says, ‘Like one who after looking in the mirror goes away and forgets what sort of man he is’. If we forget those we cannot see because they are dead, can we be surprised when we forget those who we cannot see because they are poor, distant, sick, in prison, or merely silenced by circumstance?

    The dead certainly count as ‘the least among these’ and their words are heirlooms that if cared for, may last forever. It is for us to dust them off and reuse them and to not forget them because we had some bright idea about something five minutes ago. This forgetting is not only impious but also inefficient; a person who reads the Fathers of the Church will find we have philosophically reinvented the wheel about a thousand times, and even ever so much more rapidly with the increase in our ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’.

  7. Just ran across this. It seems appropos.

    “Local knowledge is knowledge that tells you about life. It is about living. I call it grandmothers’ knowledge and I think the biggest thing we need, the task for today, is to create grandmothers’ universities everywhere so that local knowledge never disappears.” — Vandana Shiva, from the trailer at http://www.theeconomicsofhappiness.org/. The website of the actual Grandmothers’ University is at http://www.navdanya.org/diverse-women-for-diversity/grandmothers-university.

    In Dr. Shiva’s homeland, grandmothers often still have some knowledge to preserve, but in the industrialized world, Grandmother may have been a modern, rationalist innovator herself, contemptuous of old customs, refusing to pass them on to her children and pleased that they should be forgotten. What then?

  8. The ‘everything new is good’ folks are almost always secular, almost always idolize Darwin and evolution. But they miss the whole point of natural selection. If you’re truly a Darwinist, you judge things by their survival value. If people who take one moral path survive and thrive, that’s probably a useful moral path. If those who take the other moral path die young, that’s probably a counterproductive moral path.

    Same with economic and political agendas. Instead of following theories and mathematical models, a true Darwinist should ask “Did this happen before? If so, which responses led to survival and which led to collapse?” Since everything in economics and politics has happened many times before, there’s lots of data available.

    When you do what works, you’ll find amazingly that it works.

  9. “…It is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the
    moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. The spiritual confusion is at its peak. But is it not because the Church, because Christians themselves, have given up so easily that unique gift which they alone – and no one else! – could have given to the spiritually thirsty and hungry world of ours? Is it not because Christians, more than any others today, defend secularism and adjust to it their very faith? Is it not because, having access to the true mysterion of Christ, we prefer to offer to the world vague and second-rate “social” and “political” advice? The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias.

    “My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of our leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found.”
    –Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World


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