Courage to Live a Tradition


The well-known philosopher Robert Spaemann, referring to the failings in education in Germany, has argued that one could “lay the blame at the doors of destabilization and intimidation campaign that we have experienced in the last decade (1968-1978). This campaign was in many respects the continuation of the revolutionary cultural one that took place in German after 1933 that the National Socialist Student Union had already unleashed at the universities.”  

In a sort of parallel, at the time of the Palmer raids (1919), in New York City alone there were seventy-three district offices of the Communist Party. It goes without saying that they, too, carried out extensive student organizing. They may have proposed slightly different socialisms among themselves, but in values, methods and results they were all basically united. And just to be cover all the bases, the right’s reduction of things to the pursuit of profit has also had bad effects on education.

In both Germany and the United States, the normal expectation about education used to be “to have the child share in what we ourselves, those who are grown, consider good, beautiful, valuable, meaningful or useful.” (Spaemann) This was disrupted in Germany, however, by the a “intimidation campaign.” We have a similar phenomenon here. The mocking of values has become a regular ritual – the unreasoned “how can you believe that” approach that is supposed to stop analysis or the presentation of the truth, even before it gets started.

Spaemann recalls the “youth can only be led by youth” slogan of the thirties, which came back in the sixties and continues today in Germany and in America. Under this dispensation, young people aren’t introduced to a tradition. Whether it is the Hitler Youth being separated from their German traditions, or students at Columbia University hating the culture that paid for their studies, disconnecting the young from their traditions has created a sequence of “fatherless” generations.

Men and women from those generations, even thirty or forty years later, are still fatherless. Whether they are university professors passing on the counterfeit currency of their radical years, or people at conferences speaking of the Church as if it did not exist until they walked into the room. The perpetually juvenile mentality created by denying the past means they can only pass on how to be disconnected and homeless. What a putrid gift to the young. Here’s how you can be fatherless too! “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?” (Luke 11:11-12)

Spaemann does not refer to the ubiquitous commercial component of this ideology. The media have opened a vast new arena for reaching young people and selling them products, services, and materialist values. All of these are tied to the present moment (“new,” “latest”) and so by their very nature bypass what parents might be trying to do for their still unformed offspring.

                       Robert Spaemann

In Spaemann’s view, education is “for the most part, a side effect of living together, of intimacy with one another in the family, a side effect also of school instruction.” We seek being at home in the midst of all of these relationships in a deeply human and humane sense. The young are thus embedded into the matrix of time so that they too might have a complete humanity, or as he puts it “the identity of a civilization.”

The return of the Prodigal Son, when it is not understood as a merely individual instance, involves the son’s return to his ancestral home. At home he is connected to his father and mother and the rest of his family.

That temporal connectedness is a profoundly human characteristic. It is the “fundamental assent to reality.” It is the rejection of arbitrariness, of “neopagan barbarism.” Recognizing the debt owed to the temporal nature of the human being is an essential part of a real education.. Tradition is not a dirty word. It is tradition that brings the human being to full stature in the temporal realm.

The tradition, inspired by the Spirit, also forms the Church, even though many Catholics rejected it in the 1500s during the so-called Reformation. It is the reason that we read Scripture from within the tradition. As Vatican II said: “there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture.”

The Church does its part to protect and defend the temporality of human beings. Along with passing on the truth of Scripture and tradition, there is a need for “fathering” in the Church. The father of a family helps his children find their place in time. A mother does this through maternal relationships. The priest “fathers” a parish depending on how richly the fathering of tradition is part of his own natural gifts and training.

In our time, the arbitrariness and paganism of anti-traditionalism seeks to sweep all this away. It takes courage and dedication to stand against this pressure, to make tradition and our full humanity truly present.