Freddie De Boer has a typically sharp post up at his personal blog analyzing the ‘trad’ trend in some (mostly culturally elite) social circles. Do read the whole thing, but this graf gets at the main critique nicely:
Here’s the problem: you cannot choose to be premodern. If you are choosing, you are inherently postmodern. The traditional mindset people want to occupy is one that cannot conceive of being able to choose a mindset. Gorillas can think many things, but they do not think, “what does it mean to be a gorilla?” And whatever the appeal of having the mindset of a Babylonian shepherd might be, it is difficult to imagine that a Babylonian shepherd’s mindset could be deliberately aped, as the mind will always know it is aping something. No matter how trad you act, you will never not know that it is an act. We cannot choose a way to live without deliberation; it’s an act of the self-will trying to get ahead on a treadmill of self-knowledge. It’s baked into the very postmodern mindset we all find so defeating.
This is the smart leftist take on a critique that a number of my friends, most recently Onsi Kamel in First Things, have been making from a more Reformed Protestant angle for some time.
De Boer attempts to turn the screws a bit more, however. If I’m following him, he wants to argue that it is not possible to be a traditionalist in the contemporary milieu because traditionalism is, at bottom, a kind of reflexive living. At best, you can self-consciously mimic certain traditionalist practices and rituals. But to be a traditionalist is to live in that way without having to choose to do so. And so for De Boer true traditionalism is not primarily wrong, though I’m sure he would see it as wrong at many points, but simply not possible. And so the move many are making to conservative forms of Catholicism or Anglicanism is inherently incoherent because it is premised in attempting to use modern means to escape modernity.
The problem with this is that De Boer foregrounds choice in a way that doesn’t really work. Indeed, he seems to acknowledge as much later in the piece:
Perhaps things were never really that way, that direct and unencumbered; perhaps our vague impressions of traditional life are a distortion or oversimplification, and people have always lived in the maelstrom of thoughts that cannot stop thinking about other people’s thoughts. And we couldn’t set a particular time or place where the ceaselessly self-referential postmodern mindset was born.
What De Boer assumes is that all choices are essentially equivalent. The modern condition is to exist with a bevy of undifferentiated choices laid before us, forcing the individual into the act of choice. And this condition describes the entirety of our lives, we are ‘free’ in the sense that our choices are maximized, and yet this is also alienating. Thus Sartre saying somewhere that we are ‘condemned’ to be free.
The problem is that this is not actually how choice works. I have cited it before in slightly different contexts, but this passage from Oliver O’Donovan is worth returning to:
In saying that someone is free, we are saying something about the person himself and not about his circumstances. Freedom is ‘potency’ rather than ‘possibility.’ External constraints may vastly limit our possibilities without touching our ‘freedom’ in this sense. Nothing could be more leading than the popular philosophy that freedom is constituted by the absence of limits. There is, to be sure, a truth which it intends to recognize, which is that the ‘potency’ of freedom requires ‘possibility’ as its object. For freedom is exercised in the cancellation of all possibilities in a given situation by the decision to actualize one of them; if there were no possibilities, there could be no freedom. Nevertheless, there do not have to be many. Even in deciding whether we will accept an inevitable situation cheerfully or resentfully, we exercise our freedom in choosing between alternative possibilities of conduct.
Where the popular philosophy becomes so misleading is in its suggestion that we can maximize freedom by multiplying the number of possibilities open to us. For if possibilities are to be meaningful for free choice, they must be well-defined by structures of limit. The indefinite multiplication of options can only have the effect of taking the determination of the future out of the competence of choice, and so out of the category of meaningful possibility for freedom.
What De Boer rightly recognizes is how this “indefinite multiplication of options” is “enervating.” But there’s a subtle point De Boer misses: While it is true that we cannot avoid choice entirely, it is not true that we moderns are inextricably bound to a life of indefinitely multiplying choices forever. This is because the action of choosing is itself potent—it has genuine affects in the world that constrain or alter our future choices. Again, De Boer himself tacitly acknowledges the point: “Perhaps they just all got married and had babies and were too busy with family to write blog posts anymore, which would be the closest thing to them winning.”
De Boer is right to note that the trad move is too often defined chiefly by a deeply modern, deeply unhealthy, reactionary posturing, an attempt to identify oneself with a kind of Ideology of Power to rule all other ideologies. Thus everyone is posing; we are just posing the way God says we should. This is unhealthy, vain, and ultimately laughable because it is attempting to recover external practices apart from the inner realities that fuel those practices, that ultimately make them possible over a long duration of time. People who embrace traditionalism for such reasons will inevitably crash and burn; but this is not a discrediting of traditionalism, but merely of traditionalism as pose.
The trad move need not inherently be a pose, however. To become a Christian is to make a choice that radically alters your life’s trajectory. And that will have an external component that can, indeed, look like a pose at times. But the choices add up. To choose to stay close to home, closes off professional possibilities. To choose to marry closes off romantic and sexual possibilities. To choose to have children closes off many possibilities. And yet it does not free one from choosing.
Indeed, it struck me while reading De Boer that only a childless person could think that the life of parenthood is ‘reflexive.’ The choices laid before you as a parent will often seem far more difficult and paralyzing than other choices you’ve made before—and often far harder because they must be made in the absence of sleep. N. D. Wilson makes the point well in Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl:
We are always standing on a cliff’s edge, and the danger is real. The choices in front of you never go away. Scene after scene is given to you and the teeming universe in the audience waits for your reaction, for your line, waits to see if you’ll yell at the fat-faced child who spilled the milk, or if you’ll laugh and kiss a cheek. What kind of father will you be in their story? The hump on their back that will always haunt them, the one who gave them damage to overcome? The one who’s too busy? The one who drinks? The one who cheats?
What will your character do when the petty things happen, when your car betrays you in the cold? When the pipes freeze? When God knowingly places ice on the sidewalk beneath your feet? When the sun sets beautifully while you needle your wife? Do you laugh at the jokes and love the lovely? Are you too important to be amused at your own finitude?
So De Boer is right: We cannot escape choice—and religious conversions premised in a reactionary posture that is attempting to escape the modern condition are likely to fail and certain to be incoherent. But De Boer is wrong: We are not doomed to a life of nothing but making undifferentiated choices. To be human is not simply to possess the capacity to make rational choices; it is to possess the capacity to make those choices potent. And that potency will change you over time, not only in obvious external ways, but internally too. Those changes can be for good or evil, of course, but whatever they are, they are obviously potent. They change you. They change the circumstances of your choosing. They lead you through it. To borrow from Wilson again, it may be the case that the way through this modern condition is simple: Death by living.
Could you point me to where the Oliver O’Donovan quote is from?
I believe it’s from Resurrection and Moral Order, but I’m not 100% sure. It’s either RMO or Ways of Judgment. I’ll try and track it down–I just have it in my files because it’s so helpful on so many points.
Jake, I wrote a substantial comment, but for some reason it was marked as spam. Do you know why?
Stephen – Our comment system is broken and I have not been able to figure out how to fix it–but sometimes comments disappear and I’m not able to even find them in the back end. It’s something I want to fix, but also not a big enough priority relative to the other things I need to do for the site to put much time into it. I’ll see if I can find your comment in our back end and restore it though.
Jake, thanks for responding. I really appreciate it. You don’t have to worry about looking for the comment, though. “Substantial” is probably an exaggeration, and I’m sure there are more valuable things to which you can apply yourself.
I still think that one of his points has value: the question “can a person really live a pre-modern life today”, which I agree that the answer is “no”. By the very nature of being formed by modernity, we can’t go back to the mindset that the pre-modern peoples had. That’s not just the nature of modernity (though to some degree it might be), but also the nature of time. You can understand that even without trying to tackle the issue of “choice”, which is a bit thorny and may be beside the point.
None of this means that you can’t or shouldn’t seek out a way of life that resembles pre-modern life. Whatever being traditionalist means to a person, if those particular things are right and good, then they should definitely be lauded and practiced, even if they clash with modern and/or popular values. What trads should do is to be mindful of the fact that they are creating something new (adopting traditional practices and patterns and grafting them onto the lives of a specific era in time that happens to be modern). Bring back aspects of the past, but don’t be under the illusion that you are bringing back the past in all of its entirety.
Very helpful writing. Thank you!
My strongest impression of the present age is its artificiality. Everyone is choosing to pretend. The old pretend to be young. Men pretend to be women. We are immersed in false worlds of entertainment. Our political and religious leaders are actors.
A month ago, I visited a semi-traditionalist parish. There wasn’t a hint of authenticity from the whispery voice of the chubby-cheeked young priest (why is everyone pretending they can hear him and that he has something worthwhile to say?) to the Latin flourishes (Latin is no more than the ‘English’ – the common language – of a previous historical period) to the unimpressive but solemn music. And the eucharist? Never mind, but of course they saved us from the horror of female servers.
It was all in good taste, but entirely empty underneath the silk lined fiddle backs (A chasuble is just an old Italian garment adapted for religious use).
I am sure that sincere traditionalists understand the temptation of church and even devotion and theology becoming dress up play, like those civil war reenactors. How do you overcome this tempation?
These are helpful limitations on De Boer’s comments. But I’d suggest that he’s correct in the main.
I’m also inclined to agree with him because “tradition” isn’t static. Rod Dreher, for example, writes much about “traditional” marriage. But Dreher’s notion of marriage amounts to little more than the marital practices that prevailed in the US one generation before his own. But why are we to suppose that Americans in 1955 had the perfect formula? Or consider our tendency to recreate “tradition” in our own image. I recall reading Ligonier publications as a kid. Was it just coincidence that Ligonier’s portraits of Calvin made him seem like a body double for RC Sproul?
Scripture nowhere calls us to be traditionalists. In fact, it tells us that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, and that the things of this world are passing away. Our security in this life lies in the our faith in the risen Christ, not in the settled habits of this vale of tears. Instead, Scripture calls us to be wise. Granted, practices that stand the test of time often do so because they reflect godly wisdom. But we adopt such practices because they reflect wisdom, not merely because of their antiquity.
A turning point occurred for me in 2002, when I read David Gordon’s excellent piece in Modern Reformation entitled “The Insufficiency of Scripture”. The piece is a bit dated now. It focuses its critique on theonomy, which fell on hard times after its chief proponent committed a series of sex offenses and its book distributor defrauded its customers to the tune of about a half million dollars. Suddenly, the justice of the Old Testament seemed unduly harsh, at least if those held to account were straight, white, Christian men. But theonomy has largely re-emerged by way of a fetishizing of medieval Christendom before Duns Scotus ruined everything. Now they tell us that all would be well if only we could restore the world to the way it was at Aquinas’ passing in 1274.
One of the reasons I left evangelicalism was because there seemed to be little room to be wise. Attending church had come to resemble a version of brand loyalty to one’s guru of choice. Should I attend a “Desiring God” church or a “Gospel Coalition” church or maybe a “Tim Keller” church? This trend towards neo-traditionalism strikes me as something of the same thing. Growing in wisdom is hard work. It’s easier just to be loyal to a brand, or to some artificial vision of “traditional” practices. In some sense, we can probably never be more than the sum of the roles we play. But we should probably try to be as conscious of that fact as we can be. As CS Lewis so eloquently put it, we can never be more than “probably right.” I fear that the perpetual search for an idealized Christian past—whether it be Dreher’s 1955 or Deneen’s 1274–is a symptom of people who are dissatisfied with the epistemic limits under which we suffer in this eschatological age. It is a sinful effort to avoid the arduous and humbling task of acquiring wisdom.
I disagree ardently with this De Boer guy. But I’m not sure how my disagreement squares with Jake’s comments, if they’re along the same lines or not. I would just say that modern voluntarism is not written into our genes. But it is certainly in the cultural air that we breathe and really difficult to get away from. I would just say this, though, for someone who adopts traditional practices: their motives certainly can’t be crystal clear starting out. Their decision to throw themselves into some basically foreign way of life must be at least partly motivated by the voluntarism that they would flee. (Though what if the modern philosophy sows the seeds of its own demise, that by its own momentum it can’t help but expose its own incoherence? Then the decision to look elsewhere might be resourced by a modernist outlook without that necessarily being an objection to the validity of someone’s decision to look elsewhere.)
Here’s the thing, though. There are practices available that can be adopted for mixed motives at the outset. But those practices themselves instantiate a particular logic that at first can’t really be appropriated, but over time the grain of the practice works against the prior cultural formation. The logic can slowly soak through the person. That’s why the practices are formative. If someone starts fasting on Fridays, it will likely be the case that that person is to some extent trying to make a brand for themselves just like they do when they get on Facebook. But if they keep at it and do a relatively good job of heading the Lord’s command to not make a show of it, that practice will have an effect on them. Over time, they’ll become the kind of person who is less and less concerned about branding. The same is true for a lay Roman Catholic who takes up praying the hours or an Episcopalian who commits to praying the Daily Office. Or other liturgical Christians who allows their lives to be patterned by the Church calendar. Or praying the Psalter. Or keeping a serious discipline of silence. Or deliberately taking time to rest on Saturdays, keeping the Sabbath, the discipline of delight. The practices will do their work. Over time it will become second nature. The need to “make decision” will fade into well-worn habit.
I’ll say I don’t think that the Christian life is formative practice all the way down, and when traditionalists give that impression then I think they’re falling into some of the problems that are highlighted (or quoted) in this article. I think there is plenty else to say about how a person might succeed at not being schematized by the present age. But formative practices have a significant part to play. The need for them is a token of our human frailty. It’s kind of like how practicing scales over and over is a good practice for learning to play the guitar, but it doesn’t take the place of sitting with friends and making music. Or to change the metaphor: they are the work of cultivating, weeding, pruning (cf. Galatians … 6?); but they’re not the fruit itself. (To clarify, I’m largely adding these last comments as a rejoinder to Kiyoshi.)
Thanks for the discussion, y’all!
Sorry. Middle of the second paragraph: “… a relatively good job heeding the Lord’s command …”
The problem is dealing with Post-Modernists. When you deal with them in non-religious topics they are also aggravating.
The issue is here, they are basically having a subjective linguistic fight with you over the word traditional. Definition shuffle is a favorite tactic. Reading this article, I get the impression that De Boer wants ‘trads’ to pick a modernist or post-modernist category to fit into. It is one of the biggest issues I ran into in university dealing with Po-Mo ideas, they refuse to let any old option exist, because Old = Bad. That is not a real argument. You would have to show me that the early modern or pre-modern values do not work now, or that I cannot believe them.
He cannot do that however. If one is a subjectivist, the statement “Only modern choices are available, but no more” is a very objective statement.
Values, ethics, and truth are universal, or they are not. There is not really fudge ground. For religion, this is even more true. If the Bible is true, and Christ died for us, then we follow him, regardless what a Post Modernist tells us.
As the Jake said, this sounds like someone who does not have a kid.
I realize my statement has little progressive-evolutionary in it, because I am a Christian. What’s more, and they are wrong empirically.