Footprints in the Snow
Footprints in the Snow

Footprints in the Snow

"Men and women resist believing that they follow beaten paths. But they really become insufferably proud when they look around and think they leave no tracks."

March 1 st 2012
Appears in Spring 2012

The following is an interpretation of a scholarly article by Dr. Cal Seerveld. The editors take full responsibility for any errors or misinterpretations. All insight and wisdom should be attributed to Dr. Seerveld. Used by permission.

Once upon a time, a young angel who had a little spare time (very rare for an angel) noticed a devil doing something curious. The little devil had a broom and was whisking out the footsteps of a middle-aged person walking through the freshly fallen snow.

Devils can be so stupid, thought the angel. That poor devil doesn't realize the cold Canadian wind will blow the snow around to cover over the fellow's tracks. If the devils want somebody to lose his way, they could put their time to better use. But the angel reported it anyhow to Gabriel, just for fun.

Gabriel was not amused. "That little devil will go far in being a trouble maker," said the archangel. "Men and women resist believing that they follow beaten paths. But they really become insufferably proud when they look around and think they leave no tracks."

Augustine says that "it was pride that changed angels into devils" and "it is humility that makes men as angels." If we Christians wish to become less like devils and more like angels, we must heed Gabriel's advice and spend some time looking at the footprints in the snow—and not just looking, but learning, understanding not only those who have gone before us, but how we think about traditions. Our understanding of traditions shape our understanding of what we believe the footprints have to say to us, as Christians, today.

People who have reflected on the nature, meaning, and authority of tradition have taken a handful of major positions; I shall characterize just three and let these thumbnail profiles give us a sense of the topography we are entering as we prospect for a place to lay our own heads.

For T. S. Eliot, tradition is the deposit of texts or monuments that form an ideal order among themselves, and whose whole realm of the model canon is slowly augmented by any really new classics produced. Tradition is an active reception of the presence of the past in our current consciousness. Tradition is a person's spiritual parentage and educational life blood. Without an appropriated tradition, a human is an orphan, sick unto death with cultural anemia.

By contrast, in Hans Gadamer's perspective, tradition is the inescapable process of handing over and handing on the common knowledge. Tradition is really the activity of traditioning, where you keep busy joining and echoing the chorus of voices that have been sounding from time immemorial, world without end. Traditioning is what makes us sane. It is not so much a subjective act resulting in a definite, finished traditum as it is backing into the glorious process of mediating traditioning itself, dialogically fusing the past with your present. It is a happening—a dynamic, never-ending questioning.

Yet another view comes from Michel Foucault, who believes that successive periods of culture are absolutely unconnected to one another— which thus obliterates the possibility of any continuing progress. "Tradition," in this view, is practically a misnomer. Foucault believes the human has a probably endless, possibly hopeful, but certainly monotonous journey, because the human's mode of being is repetition (la répétition). The actual events, artifacts, disciplines, and structures of history are mysteriously repetitive; limited individuals do not originate and then develop so much as enter into a fertile soup which from time to time coalesces and emerges in what is made by force by the powerful to appear as orderly. This everlasting, all-consuming solvent of any particular achievements is History, which nevertheless orders and enables unfixed communication between different creatures, societies, and significations.

So Foucault denies that tradition is an accumulation of treasures (T. S. Eliot), and also never positions the human as one who needs to initiate traditioning to be busy claiming and renewing one's humanity (Gadamer). The ongoing, endlessly repeated play of dominations that preternaturally envelops every individual is as given as the primordial round of ying resonances to tzu-jan of Tao. And the ritual—the rite of passage—of one's emergence into life, speech, and cultural activity reveals one's flow-back into this residual, noname Procrustean Ocean where the return of the Same is always imminent. For Foucault, the ritual of doing over such a charmed undoing of culture is the virtual occurrence of tradition—a cosmic web of ephemeral, hidden connections, which initiates read like an eternal circle, with no beginning and no end.

An Alternative Working Definition of the Nature of Tradition

These three conceptions of tradition call to mind the story of the three blind people who describe an elephant they are holding— one by the trunk, one by the foot, and one by the tail. All three are describing genuine features of tradition, but each conception, in my judgment, is out of focus. Certainly, there is a given or perduring content to any tradition. All traditions are the result of human formation which takes place in space and time. And tradition is also in process, eventful, a happening, and not an entity, and so the act of passing on is essential within traditions, dead or alive. Finally, traditions are certain kinds of human communal holding patterns, for the time being, rather than something unique or finished. And all three of these ideas need to be present if we want to have an undistorted grasp of the nature of tradition. Yet there is something more to tradition, too.

Tradition is peculiarly human. Animals have no traditions. God is not subject to tradition. So far as I know, angels and devils lack traditions, since they do not have children. Creaturely reality as a whole is set up, however, with God-ordered stability of duration, of temporality, imprinted with the mark of proceeding from the beginning to the end of history. Such an ongoing fund of process makes creation an eminently traditionable theatre of operation. All it takes for a tradition to develop is a community of humans whose leaders— in response to how God has provided in creation this particular method for transmitting and handing down activities, enactments, and institutions—accept and continue somehow that particular, cultivated form of action.

A Structured Passing On of Wonts

Let us add to this by saying that tradition is the structured transaction of passing on wonts— that is, customs or habits—from practiced to inexperienced human hands.

Much, though not all, traditioning occurs subliminally. The new, willing, subjective reception and carrying on of the pattern being subliminally presented for adoption is crucial for a tradition, so it is probably wise to say (with Edward Shils) that transmission of tradita should occur at least twice (over three generations) before it can be called a bona fide tradition. A tradition by definition is a living praxis, a communal habitude, with a recognizable identity carried on similarly, wittingly or not, by a following of different human subjects.

When patterns are flatly reenacted simply because they are precedents, in a traditionbound or in an ideologically closed society, I would call such a process traditionalism. It goes without saying then that tradition is not new wine put into old skins, but is the old wine being drunk out of new glasses. And furthermore, tradition is pre-analytic—it's in us without us thinking about it first, like our common language or the images our cultures draw upon—and so it is more extensive than a single person; a tradition is always shared by a limited number of adherents.

These are basic factors in the power of tradition. Once a person participates in a tradition, she appropriates the past treasure of human wisdom (or folly) congealed in the wont that channels her activity. She gives tacit approval to such forming, and benefits from or is handicapped by that windfall of cultural formation she is inheriting and swimming within, provided she lives within it as her own. Traditions, like habits, save an incredible amount of exploratory and indecisive time, because they give the novice a head start (or a drawback) in culture-making.

Varieties of Traditions

A final comment is in order on varieties of tradition: Tradition is the most elemental institution or bonding in "neighbourhooded" human nature. Traditioning is an inescapable, pervasive reality that underlies all other kinds of human culturing and societal relationships. You cannot take up art without being grafted as apprentice into some kind of artistic tradition; you cannot live in a neighbourhood without learning social traditions (customs) already in force.

But it will be helpful to take good note of the fact that a confessional tradition (Confucian, Lutheran Christian, Zen Buddhist, or whatever) has a different sort of hold on a person than a political tradition (Whiggish Liberalism, Utopian Socialism, Fascism). A thought tradition (like empiricism, evolutionism, dialectical materialism) impinges on human life differently than does an ethical tradition (celibacy, polygamy, promiscuity). Not any one of these various sorts of tradition has an a priori privilege of influence on human life, in my judgment. And the quality of a given tradition in a specific zone of human endeavour is a still different matter for concern. But an awareness of how mixed and complex one's tradition always is (one embodies several kinds of traditions at once), let alone how any one tradition is also modified or compromised by one's personal strengths and faults, age, health, and experience, could caution us against oversimplified analysis.

There are other complexities too. Let me give a few examples. When the practice of duelling was a synecdoche for the tradition of war as at the time of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17), or during the age when medieval knights met in chivalric jousts, it served a political purpose fairly well. But when duels became charged ethical ceremonies presumed to settle breaches of honour in Bismarck's Germany, duelling had become a brand of aristocratic vigilante justice confused with a deadly sport.

Or consider that the liturgical tradition for baptism (immersion or sprinkling) is distinct from the confessional tradition about what the sacrament testifies to (God's redemptive activity, or church certification of one's faith). If the difference and relation between (styleful) liturgical tradition and (dogmatic) confession tradition is ignored, then debating the issues tends to let one over-read or under-value what is at stake for the life of the church.

If we keep in mind that there are varied, irreducible sorts of traditions that humans construct and simultaneously inhabit, that awareness could help us sort out some of the problems that seem to plague our coming to understand the nature of this rich, enigmatic, protean reality of tradition. Meanwhile, granted the working definition I have sketched on the systematic nature of tradition —passing on wonts from a practiced to an inexperienced human generation who carries them further— I should like to explore the sense in claiming that humans are necessarily implicated in one most basic tradition not of their own making, the tradition of meeting and accepting or rejecting allegiance to Jesus Christ, a fundamental, historical faith-tradition that relativizes, betters, judges, and orients all other kinds of humanly enacted traditions, to the source of their meaning, and as a test of their vanity or sterility. But first let me describe what is at stake in discerning meaning and authority as inescapable features of tradition.

On Meaning and Authority of Traditions

On Meaning and Authority of Traditions Let me say very simply that the central meaning of tradition is to be found in its being the fund that capitalizes human culturing activity. A tradition of whatever sort provides the historical context for renewed continuation of such activity at hand. That's what tradition is for. If the thought tradition of Kuyper, for example, prompts your thinking, as it does mine, your analysis inherits a wealth of insights and baggage that situates your analysis very precisely, and relates how you'll likely form your concepts and decide on priorities to a definite, long-standing way of thinking, however you personally modify it at present. A person's thought tradition bodes a particular concentration of ideas, and the analytic schemata that person comes to assume both limits and points his thinking further, but does not restrict him from thinking broadly.

A traditioned person, as all of us alive today are in various ways, is not so much equipped with a thesaurus of knowledge for consultation in given cultural fields as set before certain options that temper his or her action. Someone traditioned by, for instance, the music of Beethoven and Brahms is perhaps less likely to veer off into contemporary rock from India, though he may find himself naturally appreciating the musicality of a stringbacked singer-songwriter. Your tradition is your underpinnings; it identifies your collaborators as you yourself proceed to posit norms (by leading or following) in that cultural area.

Someone who comes out of the Anabaptist confessional tradition is surrounded by a host of celebrated witnesses—John Hus, Menno Simons, John Bunyan, Roger Williams, C. H. Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody—who adumbrate how to confessionally face everything under the sun, whether it be Cartesian philosophy, political activity, schooling, or rock music and cinema. Maybe a latter-day Anabaptist like Jacques Ellul will flirt with Marxist Utopian themes and censure the secular city and the established church, but again, the thrust of this example too is that the meaning of tradition is its proleptic force.

A tradition outfits you for your cultural journey. Traditions mean nobody can be born yesterday. A tradition gives you your lease on certain cultural life. Unfortunately, many people begin heavily mortgaged—thoughtwise, aesthetically, confessionally—in how they are initially traditioned.

So, then, here is the question: Are the traditions you inherit fundamentally circumstantial? Can you be circumspect in the tradition you come to own? Is it possible to act as if you were born yesterday or assume you can begin fresh like Adam and Eve, and rid yourself of these millstones hung about your neck? Before we face these questions, we need to examine briefly the authority that tradition by nature assumes and properly exercises, and find out if and when such claims to authority go wrong.

Traditions Bear A Priori Canonic Force

A tradition covertly exudes authority. Everybody who encounters a tradition always has a sense that it has been sanctioned—even those who question the given tradition's right to be there. Traditions always beat an individual to the punch, it seems, by having been mysteriously authorized once upon a time before you got there. Even founding a tradition cannot be done by oneself, by fiat. While it takes two to tango, it takes three to tradition: you need first, the charismatic pattern-former whose face cinematically fades into; second, the initial receiver-turned-transmitter turning toward a third subsequent follower, who accepts the meaning of the transaction and responsibly enacts it with others. This threefold institution of a tradition is why tradition naturally enjoins a given person's accord—the transindividual pattern is actually in force, a priori as it were, legitimated by historical existence, even solemn with age, before one faces its embrace oneself. A tradition is like a silent, enabling injunction.

Schools are a good example of how this complicated triple action intrinsic to traditioning— where a hand-me-down becomes actually worn by a third party to whom it was given by someone other than the original wearer—exercises authority. Schools, like families, are par excellence institutional agents for passing on cultural inheritances and for issuing promissory worldand- life-view notes to potential heirs for signing. Schools possess massive authority.

The student is at the mercy of a teacher because the teacher has (presumably) mastered the older knowledge and wont he mediates for the new generation to take in hand. The authority of the traditional way to do numbers in school, the authority of what the pupils learn, constitutes their national literary treasury, the authority for how jobs and professions are ranked that a youth may prepare to take up, and myriad other kinds of tangential wonts embodied in the discipline of schooling: the authority of the pre-emptive choices made by the teaching community and being formally and informally transmitted in schooling is all the more powerful the more tacit the rulings are. Traditions passed on in the practicing arena of a school tend to be taken by the younger for the way things are or have to be. And it is right here that a pressure point in schooling elucidates a danger in traditioning.

The danger that the canonic character of traditions may be inflated into a sacrosanct infallibility by newcomers, or by transmitters, is mirrored in the fine but fatal shift in schooling from education to indoctrination. A teacher needs a learner to be a teacher, but if the learning novice is subtly pressured into becoming a disciple of the teacher, then the correct bond of pedagogical leadership has been twisted into a bondage of tyrannical control, benign though it may seem.

While there may be settings when the young are properly trained to mind strictly a given confessional or skill tradition (church school or dental school), ordinary public schools are the place to face students with the world and cultural history at large, to help them touch, analyze, imagine, and articulate everything under the sun, in the light of a chosen faithtradition, to be sure; but schools are not the proper institution to catechize, proselytize, or tradition conformity to an established pattern of vision. Similarly, a tradition in transmission needs respect and deserves to be maintained by the next generation absorbing its wont anew. If those accepting hand-me-downs are kept, however, from making alterations to fit their bodies, then the traditioning is denatured into commandeering, which violates the very crux of the responsibility of human subjectivity to enact a normative calling.

Authority Limited to Its Measure of Obeying God's Specific Call

A given thought tradition, artistic tradition, or whatever kind of tradition, deserves the conforming authority it subtly asks for so long as its bonding pattern itself is in obedience to God's call for a tradition to promote the integrating, distinct service of the human activity it sheathes. A tradition that protects the special glory of a given field of human cultivating and gives such culturing the room to be committedly and skillfully honed and developed while relating its acute blessing to the person and community or society's life as a whole is entitled to its authority of summoning proper compliance. The type of limited authority and acquiescence at stake depends upon the specific kind of human activity with which the tradition is dealing.

For example, the ethical tradition of lovers' engagement prior to marriage, no matter the untold variations throughout the centuries in East and in West, is basically a sound tradition because it beckons a couple to take betrothing time for testing and enhancing each other's tentative commitments in loyalty and intimacy, relativizing the crucial erotic from any besotted romanticism, with the outcome that the patina on their married sexual joy may have an enduring luster unknown to the unions arranged by quick elopement.

Or, take the scholarly tradition of footnotes in learned books and articles: if it be the posturing of conspicuous consumption or undigested thought, the documentation soon rings false; but if the footnotes are humane and attest to researched care, sharing specialized knowledge while subtly making the point that enriched analysis involves a communion of thoughtful people and is not simply barefaced argument, then footnoting is a good traditional usage to be stipulated for academic work, even if it be out of fashion.

A last example: consider the ancient socioeconomic wont of the business lunch. Unless I am mistaken, the business lunch, under the guise of socializing sales, is a cost-efficiency ploy that commercializes fellowship. Whoever takes the check has gained the advantage of dispensing a company favour left outstanding, which the recipient in the deal goodhumouredly weighs so as not to be outfoxed. I do not say this tradition is always a charade for Machiavellian manipulation of those who take the hedonist bait, but as a time-honoured practice it does not deepen human intercourse. The common business lunch pattern blocks the gift of good food—let alone the second cocktail—from heightening eating into a celebrative meal by covertly turning mealtime into a deductible expense, and simultaneously pretends it makes economic reality personal while actually cheapening people, uniting them for the occasion of intimacy by the glue of pleasure and money. The pulling power and authority of this suasive lobbying tradition is better to be shunned. No wonder Proverbs 23:1-9, centuries ago, warned those with ears to hear—there are no free lunches.

The assumption that underlies the alternative, working definition of the nature of tradition I have been expositing is that there is a creational law of God—as permanent as God's Word—toward which human traditions and traditioning are patterned or normed. Given that basic thesis, the existential problem then for anyone who wishes to make earnest with the human condition of being traditioned, is this: does the priming holding pattern for passing-on wonts that I have adopted, wittingly or not, engender good prospects for historically deepened fruitfulness in that cultural area? Does the human traditioning at hand in my life embody the nitty-gritty peace and wisdom to open up whatever activities are at stake for refined service in God's world?

If the answer is yes, those who lead or follow in that complexly traditioned way of life may pray with good conscience to be kept humbly faithful in the will of God. If the multiple traditions fall short of or run counter to this call of God for redemptive traditioning, then the carriers and custodians of the particular tradition, with the counsel of friendly observers from outside that tradition, need to consider policies of reformation, blood transfusion, or skin-graft surgery. But to suppose naively, as many North Americans do, or to pretend proudly, as is the custom of utopians and revolutionaries, that one can begin new—untraditioned—is foolishness.

Calvin Seerveld
Calvin Seerveld

Calvin G. Seerveld is Professor Emeritus in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and the author of several influential books, including Rainbows for the Fallen World.


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