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Theological Aphorisms on the Politics of Tradition

This is a short paper I gave at the Society for the Study of Theology conference in Durham earlier this month. It’s not very substantial, but there are some ideas in there I intend to take further, so I’d welcome feedback.

Theological aphorisms on the politics of tradition
Mike Higton

The following paper is aphoristic not because I am emulating Nietzsche – that’s unlikely on facial hair grounds alone. Rather, it is aphoristic because it is a sketch for a longer piece of work: it’s the (at present intolerably abstract) skeleton of an argument, and I’m hoping you might be able to help me flesh it out.

My main intention is to overcome any simple picture of the relationship between secular public space on the one hand and religious traditions on the other which sees secular public space as a neutral container in which well-defined and monolithic traditions sit and interact, and in which they fit rather awkwardly. I know other people have already done this, perfectly adequately – I’m simply intending to reinvent the wheel using materials I understand.

Anyway, there’s not much time, so on to…

Aphorism 1: All action is the action of our past

By which I mean that we always, inevitably, act out of what we have been given, what we have heard, what we have inherited.

Our action is simply one form that our utter dependency takes. Sometimes one might want to talk about that dependency in terms of the power of sin, sometimes in terms of grace; sometimes in terms of constriction, sometimes in terms of liberation – but dependency it remains. All action has a back story.

Aphorism 2: Because forgiveness is possible, the past is no prison

I act as one formed by my past, yes, and there is nothing I can do to cease being the person who was brought up in a certain way, had certain experiences – no way, after today, that I can cease being the person who delivered this paper to you, with all the emotional trauma that will entail.

Yet I also act as one who consciously and unconsciously construes the past, tells a story about it – and (in an action that will, of course, itself be a form of dependency – an action that might, like forgiveness, be a gift to me) I can construe the past differently, tell a different story. I can in that sense, if no other, live differently out of the same past. So:

Aphorism 3: In all our action, we respond to the past by plotting, abducting, and dividing the spoils

In the loosest and least technical sense of the word ‘story’, to act is to tell a story about the past, and to continue that story. So to act is to plot the past, to identify by abductive reasoning some structure to the past, and so to divide the past into the salient and the peripheral. Plotting, abducting, and dividing: that’s what we do to the past as we construe it. (And that’s the sense in which I will be using the word ‘construe’ in what follows.)

Aphorism 4: Tradition is that activity in which the past is construed as an enabling context for action

I’m here thinking of tradition not as a sacred deposit that is preserved, but as an act of passing on – the handing on of the baton. All action is action with a back story, action that emerges from a past: traditio, the act of tradition, is action that acts to hand on that past – it is action in which the past is construed not as a prison to be broken free from, nor as a childhood to be grown out of, but as an enabling context for ongoing action – and therefore as a context to be preserved intact to enable the action of future generations. (Two quick asides at this point: First, in another context, one might want to talk about this in a forward-looking way, as an identification of goods, stabs at specifying the common good. Second, it seems to me that if forgiveness has something to do with the gift of a liberative reconstrual of our past, tradition and forgiveness are linked in more ways than the one I have already suggested, but that’s another story. My point so far is simply that any investigation of ‘tradition’ that concentrates only on the act of handing on might miss the active construal by which what is going to be handed on is first picked up.

There is, however, a problem.

Aphorism 5: There is no past in theology

This aphorism is not mine, but Karl Barth’s – who once said, ‘Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, and all the rest are not dead but living … they and we belong together in the Church …. Our responsibility is not only to God, to ourselves, to the men of today, to other living theologians, but to them. There is no past in the Church, so there is no past in theology.’[1] It is not that the past does not exist; it is that it is not past in the sense of over and done with, and that the past is not dead, in the sense of inert and available for our manipulation. So I think I could put Barth’s point a different way:

Aphorism 6: The besetting sin of tradition is not the preservation of the past but its betrayal

If we concentrate on the act of construal involved in tradition, that act by which the past is read as a context for our action, the inherent danger of tradition, its besetting sin, might not be so much the undue preservation of the past as its betrayal: its being forced into use at our hands. The danger is that the past is treated as dead, and as at our disposal. To use the past without acknowledging simultaneously its resistance to use – its independence of us, its excess, its life – is to betray it.

So whatever might be true in other traditions, Christianity provides a way of naming this possible betrayal as violence, as a failure in the love we owe to our brothers and sisters. If Augustine, Aquinas and the rest are ‘not dead but living’, then the notion that we are responsible to them makes sense. So…

Aphorism 7: The past rightly gets in the way of tradition

If all tradition involves a construal of the past, and if the past is not dead, or ‘over and done with’, then there will always be a possibility of remembering against the tradition – of remembering that which resists and exceeds the construals we make as we make use of the past. And if we are responsible to Augustine, Aquinas and the rest, then such remembering against the tradition is a perpetual Christian responsibility. (Those who know her work will understand why I think of this aphorism as proving the necessity of Morwenna Ludlow.) So, I think it follows that

Aphorism 8: Having a short memory is a necessary condition of being a traditionalist

That would be fun to pursue, but I need to change tack now, with

Aphorism 9: If nothing ever changed, there would be no such thing as tradition

A world where nothing ever changed would be a world where there was no use for the word ‘tradition’; there would be no tradition, only – life. We only talk about ‘tradition’ when there is something to contrast it with: something against which we can preserve that about the past which is construed as enabling.

To inhabit a tradition is, therefore, not simply to construe the past, it is always to construe the past in a changed situation, for that changed situation. Traditions are invented (the past re-construed) as a response to change or the possibility of change. So…

Aphorism 10: All Christian tradition is mission

Why? Because all Christian tradition involves taking the inherited gospel into a new context. It involves construing the Christian past in a new situation, for a new situation. And…

Aphorism 11: All tradition is inherently innovative

If tradition inherently involves the construal of the past in a new situation, for a new situation, it inherently involves construing the past differently. The act of passing on a tradition is the act of reinventing it. It is a creative act, which makes something new out of the past.

And here is where the excess, the resistance of the past to tradition, the past’s life, becomes important again. The past does not simply get in the way of tradition, as I suggested in Aphorism 7 – it can always be re-read for the re-invention of tradition. The excess of the past is as much resource as resistance. Tradition involves the constant revisiting of the past, to construe it differently for a different context.

However, any active, creative construal will only count as a continuation of a tradition if the construal is recognised by others as a faithful and authoritative construal of their past. Therefore,

Aphorism 12: Tradition lives by recognition

All the construals that constitute tradition are social proposals, and they only succeed in constituting a tradition if they are recognised socially as good proposals.

What we normally think of as ‘tradition’ is simply the form of this process of proposal and recognition that happens when both proposal and recognition are tacit, when they ‘go without saying’.

To speak about tradition is therefore to speak about recognition; and to speak about recognition is to speak about what counts as authoritative, what counts as faithful. And, thankfully, given the topic of the conference, to speak about tradition is therefore to speak about a politics: about the ways in which proposal and recognition form a polity. And to speak about all that in a theological context is to speak about the church.

So let me translate the terms ‘proposal’ and ‘recognition’ into something more obviously ecclesial.

Aphorism 13: Tradition cannot exist without prophecy

I have said that tradition is inherently and unavoidably marked by speaking out of the construed past, into a changed situation – and speaking in such a way that the faithfulness and authority of this speaking is recognised.

You might therefore say that tradition is impossible without prophecy: without authoritative and faithful forth-telling. And the making of proposals – the activity of construal that is at the heart of tradition – can therefore be understood as the prophesying of the members of the body of Christ. The prophecy is a gift from God to the prophet (and remember that I said that the creative act of construal is not itself an act which somehow escapes the utter dependency that characterises all our acts); the prophecy becomes a gift from the prophet to the body.

This leap from ‘proposal’ to ‘prophecy’ only makes sense, however, if we add another element.

Aphorism 14: Tradition cannot exist without the discernment of spirits

Tradition is impossible without the discernment of spirits, in the sense of a process by which prophecy is tested and recognised as authoritative – or rejected.

So, prophecy and the discernment of spirits are the form that the continuity of tradition takes. Without them, there could be no such thing as tradition.

This charismatic language of gifts of prophecy and discernment leads me on to the suggestion that, for Christian theology, the functioning of the Body of Christ as an economy of gift – in which the life of the body is constituted by the offering of gifts by members of the body and their discerning reception by the body – the functioning of the Body of Christ as such an economy of gift is a necessary condition for the operation of tradition.

Aphorism 15: Extra ecclesiam, nulla traditio

Outside the church, there is no tradition. In order to be a tradition, rather than simply an imposed innovation, the uncoerced recognition of proposed construals of the past as faithful to the past must be possible. Outside the body of Christ, tradition is an impossibility.

Aphorism 16: Tradition cannot exist without repentance

If a fully functioning economy of gift, the body of Christ, is a condition for the true operation of tradition, then tradition is clearly an eschatological concept, and repentance and reconciliation, processes for responding to fractures in the body, to failures of prophecy and discernment, are de facto necessary conditions for any partial existence of Christian tradition this side of the eschaton.

This means, however, that if on the one hand the concept of tradition in principle marks out a kind of unified social space, a space of consensual and free exchange, one in heart and mind, the economy of gift, actual tradition will constitute a somewhat messier space, in which there is a fizz of differing construals in play, each living differently off the destabilizing excess of the past. It is important, therefore, to note that

Aphorism 17: Tradition does not live by consensus alone

This side of the eschaton, recognition, or the discernment of spirits, is not a binary matter, as if the answer can only be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and nothing in between. And for a tradition to exist and persist this side of the eschaton, there only has to be just enough recognition for an ongoing shared life to be able to function. The existence and persistence of a living tradition does not therefore require a unified space of utterly uninhibited giving and receiving, but a space of overlapping, interlocking construals where sufficient shared recognition is only just accorded to some proposal for continuation, some construal of the past. This will be a space that is bound both to have fuzzier edges, and be more of a site for argument, than any eschatological space of pure giving and receiving. As I said, it will be a space in which there is a fizz of differing construals in play, living differently off the destabilizing excess of the past.

Now, in a longer presentation, I’d like to talk about traditions functioning in an economy of recognition, non-recognition, and mis-recognition, and I’d invoke the spirit of Tim Jenkins, and his account of the economy of fantasies. We’d be able to move from an idealised picture of the space of consensual, gift-giving tradition proper, to a more complex layering and overlapping of spaces in which it is difficult or impossible to delimit individual traditions, and in which the reproduction of traditions depends as much upon the disagreements and confusions between these spaces as upon explicit recognition and agreement – but time is against me, so instead, I want to move on to the final limb in this skeleton of an argument, and move directly to introducing the concept ‘public space’

Aphorism 18: The concept ‘public space’ is parasitic upon the concept ‘tradition’

I suggest that from the understanding of tradition I have been developing, a concept of ‘public space’ emerges quite naturally. But it is ‘public space’ that is not a neutral holding ground for traditions, nor the arena in which they compete. ‘Public space’ emerges, rather, not neutrally, but both negatively as the space of incomplete or broken recognition (the space where the fizz of differing construals breaks down into froth), and therefore positively as the space in which acts of traditio (acts of construal of our inheritance that propose future patterns of life) seek recognition. So, public space is the space of tradition’s failures, but also the space of tradition’s hope; it is a space marked both by division and by yearning; and it is the space of the now-and-not-yet marked out by Christian theology. One might, if one wanted to sound a little more Milbankian, say that public space is a space in which to act in trust, for the sake of a rightly-ordered future. The ‘secular’ of ‘public space’ lives in the broken but hopeful saeculum which is the time between advents.

So, ‘Public space’ is a space in which the creators of tradition in hope call others to recognition, but also a space in which those creators attend to others with hope, listening for the possibility that in the proposals made by those others they will find a gift, and be given again their own past.[2] Public space is not the neutral contained or traditions, but tradition’s penumbra.

Aphorism 19: ‘Public space’ is not itself a public concept

The definition of ‘public’ that I have just offered is, of course, a traditioned way of thinking about public space. It will probably not be shared by others, from differing traditions, who don’t recognise the terms in which I offer it.

But just as with ‘tradition’ itself, what is needed for the public space I describe to function is not consensus over the nature of public space, but simply sufficient overlap or interlock between partial forms of recognition to allow this shared form of life to carry on, and to some extent to reproduce itself. (So this is a theological account of why an explicitly theological account is not the only story worth hearing.) What matters, therefore, for the proper maintenance of public space is not whether this Christian construal of public space can be wholly shared by those outside the church, but whether it overlaps and interlocks sufficiently with other construals of public space (with, for instance, secular versions, or variants from other religious traditions), to allow a common form of life.

But it seems to me that Christians can participate in public space as just about recognisably good citizens precisely as those willing to treat it as pregnant wirth the economy of gift, the body of Christ… and public space is therefore inherently, as public, space for mission, for prophecy, for the discernment of spirits.

And that, really, is as far as I have got. I think there are the bones here of a theological account of ‘public space’, and I think those bones are strong enough to support a Christian ethic of public space – a theological account of what it might be to tend this public space, and avoid shutting off the hope for recognition that is its defining characteristic. But my time is up, so the rest is left as an exercise for the listener.


[1] Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History (London: SCM, 1972), 17.

[2] That I call this space ‘public’ of course assumes that I think there is in principle nobody who can be excluded from this space of hope – and that, in turn, relies upon some theological claims about humanity as such, which might need fuller discussion. But it is an assumption I am happy to make. Actually, the account I have been suggesting might yield rather more than two spaces – the space of reocgnised Christian tradition, and the public space. It might be a more complex pattern of interlocking, sometimes concentric spaces: Jewish/Christian space; Abrahamic space; religious space; European space – each of them a space of traditions, proposals, hope for recognition, each of them to be thought eschatologically – none of them neutral spaces in which traditions are intelopers.

More on that trumpet

SCM have put up a pdf of the first chapter of my doctrine book. So if you have always wanted to know how Jane Austen, gossip, Iain Banks, the NW London Eruv, and Edwin Drood might make it into an introduction to Christian theology, now’s your chance.

Mike Higton - Christian Doctrine

Cutting the taproot: The God Delusion, ch.4

Claim 1: Chapter 4 is central to Dawkins’ argument.

In Chapter 1, as I have argued, he specified his target: religion properly so called, which is the realm of supernaturalist belief in God, defined both negatively, as any discourse about God that is not really naturalist atheism in disguise, and positively, as belief in a supernatural intelligence.

In Chapter 2, he gave that target a definition: the ‘God Hypothesis’ is that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.’ Religion properly so called involves belief in a supernatural designer.

Dawkins finishes Chapter 2 by saying, that ‘before proceeding with my main reason for actively disbelieving in God’s existence, I have a responsibility to dispose of the positive arguments for belief that have been offered through history.’ Chapter 3 then attempts this disposal, and with Chapter 4 Dawkins turns to his ‘main reason’ for disbelieving in God’s existence. This argument is, he says at the start (137) ‘the big one’. By the end of the chapter, Dawkins is saying, ‘If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God Hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far.’ Given what he has said in chapters 1 and 2, I think we can take this quote absolutely seriously: Dawkins thinks that the argument of ch.4 undoes the knot that holds all real religion together. The rest of the book can proceed on the assumption that this job has been done, and that other questions about religions origins and impact can now be treated without any lingering question about whether its claims about God are true.

So, it seems fair to say that Chapter 4 is central to Dawkins’ overall argument – that this chapter is not simply an attempt to tackle some particular variants of belief in God, or some particular aspects of belief in God, but to go straight for the taproot of all real belief in God (all belief in God that is not really some form of naturalist atheism in disguise). If Dawkins’ argument here succeeds as thoroughly as he thinks it does, belief in God will be in real trouble. If his argument here fails, the whole book gets holed below the waterline.

Claim 2: Dawkins’ argument is a successful attack on creationism.

I have to admit that I found chapters 1 to 3 a very disappointing read: I disagreed with so much that Dawkins said, and had such strong doubts about the quality of the concepts and arguments he deployed, that persistent irritation overwhelmed any pleasure that the wit and clarity of Dawkins’ prose might otherwise have generated. Chapter 4, by contrast, is mostly a pleasure to read. Dawkins has returned from unfamiliar territory to home ground, and the difference in intellectual quality is astonishing: the assurance and incisiveness of his arguments is of a whole different order of magnitude. It helps, of course, that I agree with nearly everything in the chapter. Dawkins takes on creationists (including the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd) and knocks them out of the ring: it is a real joy to watch. Dawkins’ summary of the argument, given in advance at the end of ch.3, gives the gist (‘A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right’); chapter 4 simply fills in the detail. If chapter 4 were simply presented as an attack on creationism, I’d be able to applaud, and leave it at that.

Claim 3: Dawkins’ argument misses its wider target.

Let me clarify. In a comment to another post, I distinguished various differing claims that a believer in God might make:

(1) A theologian may believe that God created the world.

(2) A theologian may add to (1) the idea that this claim offers a good explanation for some otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena, such that the existence of those phenomena, and their inexplicability on other grounds, constitute good reasons for belief in God.

For some who hold to (2), they will take it in its weak form,
(2a), where the explanatory argument is a secondary aspect of the theologian’s claims about God – such that dismissal of this explanatory argument would not do serious damage to the theologian’s belief in God or account of the nature of God, even if it damaged his or her attempts to commend that belief to others.

For others who hold to (2), it will take form (2b), where this explanatory argument is taken as a primary aspect of the theologian’s claims about God, such that his or her account of God looks like it stands or falls by the success of this explanatory argument. In the strongest cases of (2b), God is presented as an explanatory hypothesis: the theologian believes in God because of the explanatory work that the God-claim does, and the content of the God concept is primarily dictated by the explanatory argument.

Dawkins’ chapter 4 presents a strong argument against claims of form (2); I accept that happily. But he presents this as cutting to the heart of belief in God per se, so appears to be assuming (2b) as the standard form of such belief.

Now, pretty much all Christian theology involves some version of claim (1). Quite a bit of Christian theology involves claims of some form like (2). Creationists are among those who present those latter claims in a form like (2b), and it is no surprise to find that they are the main (though not the only) antagonists cited in the chapter. Yet I think, as I have explained elsewhere, that (2b) is and can be shown to be a misrepresentation of Christian beliefs about God (and that includes being a misrepresentation of creationists’ own belief in God).

Personally, I accept (1); I am unconvinced so far by any form of (2) in its weaker form (2a), and I reject (2b). I can happily accept Dawkins’ attack on explanatory arguments of form (2), without finding it relevant to my belief in (1): my belief in God, and a creator God at that.

Claim 4: Dawkins’ argument can be partially salvaged – but the result is less immediately devastating to belief in God.

It is possible, however – and there are some hints that he sees this – to detach Dawkins’ claims about God’s complexity from the wider argument about explanatory strategies of form (2), so as to make his argument an attack on claims of form (1) as well. The argument then would simply be that any claim that God exists is a claim that something of unprecedented complexity and power exists – and so a claim that something exists which is even less explicable than the natural world. That is, it is an argument about the inherent implausibility of theistic belief, rather than an argument about its explanatory power. Recognising this implausibility will demand from theologians a high level of justification for such belief – and (clearly, given Chapter 3) Dawkins thinks no such high level of justification exists.

In this salvaged form, however, we get thrown back on issues I’ve touched on earlier:
(1) I don’t think Dawkins does a good job of understanding what ‘God’ means for at least the strand of Christianity that I belong to – so his detailed account of the implausibility of the God hypothesis sits a little oddly with me;
(2) In particular, because he thinks so much in terms of explanation, Dawkins sees reference to ‘mystery’ simply as a hand-waving refusal to think seriously, whereas it is quite central to my account of God; and
(3) I don’t think Dawkins does a good job of understanding the kinds of justification for belief in God that make sense to me.

So, in the strand of Christian theology that I belong to, God cannot literally be described as a designing intelligence; using such language to talk about God is at best analogous. And that caveat rests upon an account of God’s incomprehensibility or mystery, which is not a hand-waving refusal to argue, but is actually a pretty central (and carefully argued) part of this tradition’s account of what the word God means. (And, yes, that means that reference to God is bound not to be a very good explanation for anything.)

More importantly, I think that the account of God-and-the-world that includes this belief in a mysterious, non-explanatory God actually provides an intellectually powerful way of making sense of the world we live in. It claim, as I discussed in an earlier post, that it provides a coherent, resilient and habitable way of making sense – and that, as I said in another post that it is a way of making sense that is thought-enabling rather than brain-deadening.

All this is to say that, if we try to salvage Dawkins’ central argument by de-linking it from explanation, there is a more interesting debate to be had – but it is not really one that, in the present book, Dawkins pursues.

Claim 5: There’s also a problem with Dawkins’ account of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question.

One final aside. I still don’t think that Dawkins understands the nature of the ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ question. I don’t think that asking that question gives a proof of the existence of God, so I don’t think anything very much stands or falls by what I am about to say. Nevertheless, I think Aquinas was right inasmuch as this can only be understood as a metaphysical question, a question whose answer simply cannot be any natural phenomenon or process, and a question whose answer (if there is one) must be deeply, irrevocably mysterious (in order to be an answer). If you think ‘God’ means what Dawkins seems to think it means, then of course God doesn’t help you at all with this question – but that may not be our only option.

Interim conclusion on The God Delusion, Ch.3.

There’s plenty more in Dawkins’ ch.3, ‘Arguments for God’s Existence’ than the material on Aquinas and Anselm – the arguments from beauty, from personal experience, from Scripture, from admired religious scientists, Pascal’s wager, and Bayesian (probabilistic) arguments. I’m not going to work through any more of it in detail, however – I don’t have any candle to hold for the arguments Dawkins discusses, and (however engaging his own presentation) he doesn’t discuss interesting forms of any of them. I want to move on. A couple of comments before I do, though.

  1. What I have said with respect to Dawkins’ comments on Aquinas and Anselm remains true of the whole chapter. Whenever it is possible to discern what Dawkins takes these arguments to be about – what kind of ‘God’ they are seeking to prove or disprove – it looks like he is talking about one more contingent thing that there might be, and a thing pretty closely resembling a human intelligence, albeit much more powerful.
  2. Perhaps inevitably, in a popular book – but nevertheless disappointingly – Dawkins is not a good guide to real debates about God’s existence. First, he doesn’t try finding or tackling the strongest versions of any of the arguments he looks at – he presents the kinds of arguments you might find on an average internet discussion board, and doesn’t find it difficult to dismiss them. Second, though, he doesn’t latch on to the fact that the whole project of proving God’s existence in this kind of way is controversial within (at least) Christianity. I’ve talked in an earlier post about a rather different approach, for instance, one which is not particularly eccentric – and which does not rely at all on the kinds of Dawkins is discussing.

On both these grounds, the chapter simply isn’t about anything that I (as one kind of fairly traditional Christian believer in God) hold dear.