Tradition vs. nostalgia

Do people who hold fast to a tradition necessarily live in the past? Not according to Edmund Burke, a conservative icon:

What distinguishes Burke from the French Revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but his desire to live fully in the present, to understand it in all its imperfections, and to accept it as the only reality offered to us. …

Burke … recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.

(Quoted by Peter Lawler at Postmodern Conservative, citing Scruton’s A Political Philosophy.)

One of the things that marks me as Canadian is my tendency to seek the middle ground. In this case, I think there are two extremes to be avoided:

  • Discarding tradition as worthless and useless in the modern context; or
  • Holding so rigidly to tradition that we cease to live authentically in the present.

The middle ground is the terrain Burke sets out to claim for conservatives:  utilizing tradition as a resource for living well in the present.

In fundamentalist circles, Burke’s position would be derided as “liberal”. People with a “liberal” belief system both hold fast to a body of tradition yet maintain a standpoint of critical detachment from it.

I agree with the quote:  the present is the only reality available to us. The mistake made by fundamentalists (whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish) is to hold onto their body of tradition so rigidly that they repudiate modernity and become alienated from present reality.

Thus I like Burke’s distinction between nostalgia and tradition. As I see it:

  • fundamentalists repudiate the present and become captive to nostalgia;
  • modernists repudiate tradition and lose the capacity for critical discernment of the present; and
  • those of us who retain a body of tradition, while reserving the right to critique it, potentially have the best of both worlds.

As Jesus said, “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt. 13:52, NIV).

The photo, by Kirsty Wigglesworth of Associated Press, is from this week’s news:

“Part of a recently discovered hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold is displayed at Birmingham Museum in Birmingham, England Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009. Amateur treasure hunter Terry Herbert was prowling English farmland in Staffordshire, England, with a metal detector when he stumbled upon what has been described as the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered, a massive collection of gold and silver crosses, sword decorations and other items, British archaeologists said Thursday. One expert said the treasure would revolutionize understanding of the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people who ruled England from the fifth century until the Norman conquest in 1066.”


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Zayna
    Sep 28, 2009 @ 14:49:36

    This post speaks to me, though I’m not sure exactly what it’s saying. 😛

    As a young parent, I wanted to maintain some of my family’s traditions that helped instill in me a reverence for a higher power, a practice for family togetherness and a sense of responsibility for sharing with the community at large.

    At first I tried doing this by merely repeating the rituals as per a standard recipe. It didn’t take long for me to realize, just as with cooking, that it was okay and perhaps even better if I adapted these traditions to better suit my own smaller and less religious family.

    So though most of our current family traditions may appear very different than the ones I practiced as a child, they are still firmly rooted in the ideals that I garnered from those early experiences.

    And I do in fact think that, as a result, I have the best of both worlds.

    Thank you for this post and giving me an opportunity to reflect on this issue.


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