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.

2 Thoughts on “Theological Aphorisms on the Politics of Tradition

  1. Rachel on April 24, 2008 at 8:48 pm said:

    I’ve just been looking at this book:

    Don’t know whether the Amazon extract will be long enough to convey this, but the first chapter is a fascinating account of the recent “politics of tradition” in relation to ordination.

  2. Mike, I’ve sat on this post for a while, pondering some of your very provocative suggestions. I’m especially excited by your thoughts on tradition vs. traditionalism, on change and public space. So many aspects of theology these days are going in the direction of emphasizing dynamism – so why not tradition itself, that supposed bulwark of motionless blah?

    Your fizzy aphorisms should really be discussed over a pint, so let me restrict my online responses to two.

    First off, I like that you tease out the heart of traditio – namely, the handing down, the handing over, the movement of ideas and praxis through time and culture. Any kind of calcification supposes that tradition has come to rest, i.e., is dead. Wherein I wonder if there are actually two different (but functionally equivalent) varieties of tradition-killers. First, the dreaded “traditionalists” of aphorisms 7-9 who circle their wagons around the familiar thing in their denial that any change is possible – or at least that any change could be necessary or good. Their goods are protected. On the other hand we have those who see tradition as something “in hand” to be bartered in the public space (a space usually less carefully defined than your own worthwhile framework). Here the legacy of the past becomes a commodity to pillage, adapt, even synthesize – nearly always with the intention that it become part and parcel of the sexier, more progressive commentary of the world. So, if with the first subcategory we find traditio turned into traditionalism, with the latter it has become for us mere trade.

    A second observation is that your proposals seem to have a (dangerous?) proximity to Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God in CD I/1, particularly when you speak of remembrance and proposal in the form of “the hope for recognition.” Barth describes the proper context of the hearing of the Word of God as the congregation which enters into recollection (via scripture) in expectation (via proclamation) – in which God may miraculously take these media and have them become present revelation. Your wedging tradition between memory and hope seems reasonable enough, yet I wonder if you are wanting to ascribe too much to tradition. Is there a point in which we just have to say that as much as tradition isn’t a dead, static thing, it also isn’t a living thing like revelation is a living thing? Is tradition not but human and only human, and thus half-alive by nature? Tradition is handed over to us – and so becomes much like us, the living dead, or, to be a bit sunnier about it, the decrepit who are nonetheless sealed with the surety of the Spirit. (Let me also say that I recognize and appreciate how you disarm the high-handed uses of tradition precisely because our handing-down happens within the penultimate climate.) I guess I’m still unsure of whether tradition can be spoken of in any analogy to the event of God’s speech, or if the dynamizing of tradition subtracts from the unique speaking of God which rattles our eardrums.

    I hope to cross paths soon. At present I’m up in Edinburgh with McDowell and Fergusson and company, and so will keep an eye out for you at upcoming conferences.


Post Navigation