Conversations With the Tradition

Recently, out of curiosity, I was perusing the internet pages of several conservative Catholic colleges.  A lot of it was standard academic language; but some of it was that depressing arrogance of the “Catholicism uber alles, Catholicism contra mundum” attitude.  No need to go over all that.  However, in at least one case I did find something I could relate to:  Thomas Aquinas College has built its whole education program on a Great Books foundation.  Now what they do with that good intention I am not sure.  But I want to move on to something else.  Soon after this I saw a story in the Washington Post about Howard University, one of the primary historic Black colleges.  It appears the university had decided to close its Classics Department, and a whole bunch of students, alumni, and friends of the school were expressing vigorous disagreement and protest with that decision.  Now I come to something very interesting…a remarkable op-ed piece in the Washington Post that lays out the reason why Howard was mistaken, but more importantly it points to a bit of wisdom that we all need in the modern world.  The piece was written by Cornell West and Jeremy Tate.  The latter gentleman I don’t know, but West is a famous Black intellectual who has been a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, and in general an inspiration to read. 

 The title of the essay is “Howard University’s Removal of Classics is a Spiritual Catastrophe.”  Strong language but it gets stronger.  The essay begins:

“….one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Amid a move for educational ‘prioritization,’ Howard University is dissolving its Classics Department. Tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, where their courses can still be taught. But the university has sent a disturbing message by abolishing the department.”

So, the authors point out that the classical tradition informed and aided the liberating vision and discourse of such figures as Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King.  This is not too well known but even less well-known is that Black Panther leaders like Angela Davis and Huey Newton quoted figures like Socrates and Cicero.  But this line of argument is not yet getting at the heart of the matter.  The stakes are very high when you are diminishing the presence of the classical tradition in our public AND religious discourse.  Our authors, again:

“Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.  Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.”

A good point but it’s not their best or most important point.  The essay continues:

“The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion. The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.  Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.”

Good points; very well put.  Needless to say Howard University pushed back on this critique but I am not going to get into that argument.  More interesting to me is the applicability of what West and Tate say to the realm of spirituality, theology, religion.  There are at least two different ways that it may apply.  The first is simply to look at one’s own tradition, Catholicism in my case.  There you will find a rich tradition of spirituality, even mysticism of high realization; but it is all encased in a very problematic history.  From some very dubious Biblical tropes to the quasi-mythological language of the early Church to the keen articulations of medieval figures, but limited in their horizon, all the way to our own insights, our own limitations, our own advances.  It is all a “conversation” of sorts, and this is a good way of approaching “the Tradition.”  Unfortunately, however, much too often the Tradition is seen  through the lens of the catechism:  “You have a question; we have the answer.”  The history within which this Tradition unfolds is also too often whitewashed, covered up, retold in a totally unreal way.  The weird, infantile, dysfunctional piety found in many corners of the Church is covered over with grand theological language.  The saints put on a miracle show, and the faithful obey, which is their place in the institution.  The Church’s handling of its dysfunctional and predatory priests and religious was colored by this attitude.  The bishops didn’t want to “scandalize” the “simple faith” of believers; and the “holiness” of the church, that image if you will, had to be impeccable and so propped up….at the expense of enormous injustice and falsehood.  And then  too often the language of our primary texts is left unexamined for what it is really saying; we are encouraged to rely on “simple faith” and “trust” the Church reading of them.  It’s amazing how much superficial religiosity, even false religiosity gets pedlled this way.

But what happens if we begin to see our Tradition as a conversation of a sort…between us and the key voices of our past.  No better example than Thomas Merton.  When he entered the Trappists in the mid 1940s, he was a sophisticated, well-educated young man who was also very intense in his spiritual search; but he was at the same time constrained and limited by the narrow horizons of the Catholicism and the monasticism of his time.  The Trappists that he entered after his conversion saw monastic life as something to “endure” rather than as an intense focus on union with God.  The point of it all was not “contemplative prayer” but continual penitential practices.  Yes, for the love of God, but still distorting the real meaning of the life.  Merton plunged into this program, but he also began a far-ranging examination of the Tradition and recovered the contemplative heart of his monasticism.  He was not the only one doing this among the Trappists, and so by the ‘60s the focus on their life had changed and a vigorous renewal began.  Needless to say, not everything in this renewal was positive or helpful, but the focus had definitely changed.  And the real agent of this change, for the positive elements in it, was an engagement with the Tradition, a re-reading of it, not for the purpose of mindlessly copying or accepting what was there—not looking for easy formulas, new rules, simple answers from the Tradition; on the contrary, learning how to question the Tradition for what was essential in it and what was “window dressing,” etc.  Learning how to get behind  the language to grasp the reality.  Merton’s writings and teachings on monasticism and contemplative prayer articulated in the ‘60s shows the result of this conversation.

But there is another conversation that also arises in this context and also that Merton was a big part of.  Merton discovered that to truly understand the depths of his own Tradition and to uncover “still buried treasure” in it,” he needed the help of the other great contemplative traditions of the world: primarily Sufism, Taoism, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.  This is quite remarkable, and is in fact a new element in our Tradition.  It was never conceived before that it would be a good, even a necessity to engage with these great traditions.  Not as “tourists,” certainly not as “missionaries” seeking converts; but as fellow spiritual pilgrims seeking to learn what treasures these brothers and sisters of ours have.  So there is this new conversation between traditions; a conversation that will enrich some, challenge some, bewilder some, scare some, perhaps even leading some to see their own Tradition in a completely new way.  If the classics helped empower key Black leaders, perhaps Lao Tzu, Milarepa, Han Shan, etc.  can do something for us pilgrims on this journey.