How communities remember who they are
Oliver O’Donovan on the necessity of tradition in sustaining communal identity
“The word ‘tradition,’ like koinonia, refers both to an action and a possession. In the first sense it is the activity by which one shares in the community, receiving and contributing. In the second sense it is the reserve of practices and communicative patterns received from the past — but only those which continue to command recognition, that is, which have been effectively communicated down to the present time. The essential thing about tradition is that it creates social continuity. It binds the communal action of the present moment to the communal actions of past moments. What we often call ‘traditionalism,’ the revival of lapsed tradition, is, properly speaking, a kind of innovation, making a new beginning out of an old model. This may or may not be sensible in any given instance, but it is not a tradition. The claim of tradition is not the claim of the past over the present, but the claim of the present to that continuity with the past which enables common action to be conceived and executed.
“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake. The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them. This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain. The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once. The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on. Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations. By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself. . . .
“The peculiar value of art to tradition lies in its capacity to elicit recognitions, reminding us of the sources of our cultural objects within the structures of natural necessity. This power of reminiscence we call ‘beauty,’ and it arises from the coincidence of natural order with artificial form. Both poles, the natural and the conventional, are essential to an art form, that the evocation of the one within the other may be experienced. Formal qualities are as important as substantive references in evoking the presence of nature in culture. A poem may allude to springtime, or a tune may imitate birdsong. But an abstract fugue evokes nature, too, by exploring the power of repetition in difference, and a sonnet by its balance of thesis development, and resolution.”
— from Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community (Eerdmans, 2002)
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