Sunday, April 26, 2009

Past and Present: both needed for your self-understanding

A week or so ago after attending an evening class with friends at The Personalist Project, I was asked (not in these exact words) what I thought about the topic of tradition vs. the now (i.e. custom vs. novelty; the past vs. the present; the old vs. the new). I didn't get to respond and so I'll offer a few thoughts here.

In recent Catholic history the following two terms have been used to capture the above notions in regard to how one approaches theology: aggiornamento, and, ressourcement. The former pertains to updating (using the new); the latter to recovery (of the old). Some would claim that those whom I'll call ultra-traditionalists want to return to an idealized past--using only the extraordinary form of the Mass (i.e. the "Tridentine" Mass used universally in the Latin rite until the Mass of Paul VI was promulgated after Vatican II) and eschewing modern theological and philosophical categories in preference for what had been taken in the early 20th century to be a strict Thomism of a pre-modern bent. In contrast to this are some (can they be called "progressive," theologians?) who seem to prefer ignoring any portion of the Catholic theological heritage seen as substantially rooted in pre-conciliar (as in, before Vatican II) thought.

Stepping aside from these extreme traditionalist and modernist camps, there is an idea that Catholicism, in order to be healthy, always needs both perspectives. This was indeed important for Pope John XXIII when he announced the Second Vatican Council.

I observe that clarity can be shed on this if one simply thinks about one's own personal experience as a unique, individual human being.

Who would say that what they think and believe, and how they behave in the present, has nothing to do with what they have done and thought in the past? Of course, at every moment of our time-bound lives, our experience of ourselves and our self-identity, our habits--our virtues and vices--are constantly informed by the sum total of our human experiences up to the present. Our present self, as we know ourselves, is never an isolated island of the present moment, disarticulated from our personal past. Rather, our self-identity and self-understanding are ever shaped and formed by our constantly expanding and living personal past. So, in regard to the individual person, there can be no isolated consideration of one's present self as cut off from (unrelated to) one's history. Likewise, our self-identity is never taken as merely equal to a frozen point from some past moment, static and unmoving. We, as human persons, are always a dynamic harmony of the present with the ever-expanding past. We cannot be otherwise.

It is the same with the Church and with any culture as a whole.

And so, my take on this is that it is very artificial to attempt to fix on an idealized reference point from past historical circumstances and try to bring it forward in static fashion as a model for today. This would be like preferring a single picture frame of a movie to the entire moving picture, thinking that one can understand the whole simply from the single frame, without taking the whole film into account. Therefore I think it is clear that in any human science wherein we want to have a sane understanding of who we are and what we are about as persons and as a people--because of the nature of human life (as both in time, but made for eternity)--we need to engage our minds continually on the new and the old, the past and the present, in a continually unfolding interplay.


  1. You were asked but you didn't get to respond?!! I fear this is a bad habit in our house. :(

  2. Actually, Katie, it was outside on the sidewalk. Joan had to take a call.

    Among any engaged group of people this can be a challenge, especially for those who are not always eager to jump into the conversation with a certain degree of insistence.

    It is an interesting exercise to try to hone one's skill (and I think it definitely is a skill--perhaps a virtue?) at participating in spirited dialogue such that you become able to get your main points across effectively while still being gracious and genuinely open to others' ideas, and not dominating the discourse in an inappropriate way. This is one of the many side benefits of having the opportunity to participate in something like the Personalist Project.


Thank you for civil and well-considered comments!