Reflections on Tradition and History
Wilfred M. McClay*
Let me begin with a slightly controversial statement. It is my strong impression that many of the finest and most stimulating historians of the present generation are historians of religion, and of Christianity in particular, and furthermore, that they are men and women who are themselves likely to be serious and engaged Christians. I say this neither to boast (since I’m not myself strictly a member of this group) nor to flatter (since to do so would run the risk of ensnaring Christian historians in a web of spiritual pride, which would be, among other things, a highly ironic form of tribute). But it seems to me to be, at the very least, a very plausible assertion. And if I’m even partly right in making it, it constitutes a fact well worth reflecting upon.
There are of course many reasons one could adduce to account for this state of affairs. It may, for example, have something to do with the defensive and self-critical posture Christians are forced to assume in the academy. This is not always a pleasant experience, to put it mildly. But it may, like other forms of unwanted discipline, have had certain beneficial effects. Being salt always entails being in a minority; and being in a minority means that the benevolence and fairmindedness of the mainstream can never be presumed. Hence, one must stay on one’s toes, and strive to be, academically speaking, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I doubt very much that the fate that has befallen Michael Bellesiles of Emory University, a case that, among other things, represents a massive and sustained failure of the historical profession’s peer-review processes, could have befallen an openly Christian scholar. Not because the latter scholars are better, but because their work is likely to have received more intense and scrupulous vetting, at an earlier stage in its development, particularly if their thesis is at all controversial.
*This inaugural Campbellsville University Honors Lecture was delivered on March 23, 2005.
Christian scholars also have the advantage of approaching their work with a built-in resistance to corrosive doctrines of nihilism and relativism, which are ultimately destructive of the whole historical enterprise. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, they have an informed sense of the limits to positivism, materialism, rationalism, and other forms of reductionism. In other words, the Christian faith equips one to appreciate both the value of conventional standards of evidence-gathering and proof, and their inherent limitations, and to hold these complementary but conflicting insights in balance. Such balance is otherwise hard to find, in an intellectual world where one’s choices often seem limited to either sterile modernism or wild postmodernism.
These assertions have been put forward boldly and persuasively by a host of others, notably the distinguished Notre Dame historian George Marsden, to whom all of us owe an enormous debt. I cannot improve on their arguments. But I would like to use my time today to suggest that there is an additional way that the Christian faith may strengthen the enterprise of specifically historical scholarship. And that is simply the fact that the Christian faith requires one to take account of the past as something real, as something in which one is unavoidably embedded, and to which one is profoundly connected, indeed, as something that has a certain measure of authority over the present and future.
The extent to which it does so varies, depending on one’s theological or confessional position. And there are important countervailing forces, both in the Christian faith itself and in contemporary culture more generally, that work against such accounting. I will try to take account of these forces in what follows. But the fact remains that a religion that asks its adherents to walk by faith and not sight, and to order their lives around revelations and events that occurred at least two millennia ago, is a religion that places an enormous value upon the authority of the past. We do not turn to the past only out of curiosity, or out of a desire to recast it in a mold more to our liking, or to make of it a suitable background for whatever we propose to do next. For Christians, the past really has something to teach. As it happens, this is a disposition that, if followed, can make for superior historical insight.
But as I’ve already suggested, this is a very complicated matter, and it would be irresponsible not to explore the complications further here. And there is no better place to begin than with a consideration of the word “tradition.” We often use the term “tradition” to designate the ways in which the past has authority over the present, or enriches and informs the present. We tend to use it as if it is a fairly direct and uncomplicated concept. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the word “tradition” is an enormously rich and complex one. It contains worlds within itself, and manages to retain a profound ambivalence toward the very thing it signifies. That ambivalence is evident early in the word’s history. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio, and before that from the past participle of the verb tradere, which means “to deliver,” in the sense of carrying something across, from one place to another. But it also means, and this seems to be the more primary meaning, “to surrender” or “to betray.” In other words, although the word seems consistently to refer to the act of “carrying across,” it can mean “carrying across” in more than one way. It not only means “to hand down” but “to hand over.”
Indeed, the more negative meaning of “tradition” as a “surrender” or “betrayal” seems to have come earliest in the word’s history, and the more benign meaning of “handing down” customs, stories, and beliefs, the meaning that now seems our chief association with the word, seems to have been a later modification. There are other words deriving from the same root that are still in circulation, and have retained elements of the more negative meaning. For example, we still may use the verb “to traduce” to complain of an act of verbal defamation, or to call someone a “traitor.” This amazingly versatile common root is what made possible the famous Italian pun, Traduttore, traditore!, literally, “Translator, Betrayer!”, the translator, meaning one who takes it as his or her task to “carry across” the linguistic lines, is a traitor to, or betrayer of, the thing he translates.1
So, although there is a certain warm and fuzzy feeling that attaches to the word “tradition” for many of us, the word contains many countercurrents. This sense of tradition as a betrayal of human potential is especially strong in modern American culture. Think, for example, of the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began his “Nature” with the following cry:
The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?...The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
When Emerson divided our intellectual history between “the party of memory” and “the party of hope,” there was little doubt which was to be preferred.2
Or if Emerson is too highbrow for you, then consider the words of the great anti-historical philosopher of history, Henry Ford. I have to admit that I’ve always rather liked his description of history as “one damned thing after another,” which perhaps has unrealized potential for Christian historians. And even though he didn’t mean it in a Calvinistic way, it shows a certain flair for anti-metanarrative. But his cruder, and better-known, words, are probably closer to expressing the strain of anti-traditionalism in the American outlook: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today.”3
Ford never made it clear how anyone would know that we are making history today, if no one took time out to reflect on the past. And it’s notable that Ford, like most of us, was not entirely consistent in these bold and pithy assertions. After making history by transforming the American landscape through the mixed blessing of mass automobility, he then sought, in a convulsion of history-mindedness, to reconstruct an ersatz nineteenth-century village, known as Greenfield Village, as a way of preserving the world he’d done so much to destroy. But I digress.....
A more interesting example of split-mindedness in American culture is the hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” which not only represented an enormously important cultural phenomenon in the United States, but all over the world. Tevye the milkman, and lovably ineffectual spokesman for the authority of Jewish “Tradition,” has been portrayed by actors speaking not only English, French, Russian, and German, but Japanese and Turkish and Chinese. Apparently, to paraphrase the famous commercial for rye bread, you don’t even have to be Judeo-Christian to love this story, for its appeal seems to be frankly archetypal rather than historical. At its core, it is a parable of modernization, of the breakdown of shtetl life and the emigration to America, the land of the future.4
And while the life of the shtetl is lovingly portrayed, with its wonderfully colorful array of human types, on the crucial issue separating the traditional order from the modern one, the issue of arranged marriages, and more generally, of the importance of romantic love and mutual consent in marriage, it leaves us in no doubt that the old order did not stand a chance. When Tevye rejects his daughter who dares to elope with a non-Jew, and treats her as if dead, we see him as monstrously inhuman. Such rigidity seems almost of a piece with the brutal Czarist pogroms that finally drive these Russian Jews to seek freedom and peace in America. The oft-repeated refrain of the song “Tradition!”with which the musical so brightly begins has become subdued and plaintive, almost a dirge, by the end.
Ambivalence about tradition is also a prominent feature of the Christian faith. The gospel is about new birth, about the making of a new man in the crucible of conversion, about the washing away of sin, the cancelling of debt, the negating of the weight of the past, the annulling of the condemning power of the Law, in favor of the redeeming and renewing power of the Spirit. This suspicion of the hidebound and traditional seems to be especially strong in certain strains of Protestantism, where it is sometimes informed by an explicit or implicit anti-Catholic polemic, which distrusts the institutional Church’s tendency to be shaped by the historical accruals of the past, and which often looks back to the simplicity of the apostolic church as a model for renewal. The old rugged cross is not venerable because it is old--i.e., because of a traditional or historical meaning--but because the truth it embodies is imperishable. There is nothing, in the extreme version of this view, that the Church can “carry over” from one generation to the next. There are, in this view, no grandchildren in the Kingdom of Heaven, since the fundamental insight of the Gospel must be freshly reappropriated by each of us individually, person by person, and generation by generation.
Yet the anti-traditional radicalism of Christianity is not exclusive to Protestants. It is inherent to the Christian faith. One of the chief elements in Jesus’ radicalism is in his constant criticism of the religious establishment of his day, not only for its pride and impiety, and its self-serving disregard for the plain meaning of Scripture, but for its exaggerated reverence for its own traditions. Again and again he defied social convention, often by showing concern for the very people who were normally despised or marginalized by respectable society. He spoke to women in public. He showed especial solicitude for children, a countercultural gesture in a Roman-dominated world that calmly accepted such horrors as infanticide and the deliberate abandonment of unwanted children. He associated with prostitutes and lepers, and had even allowed them to touch him. He demonstrated repeatedly his disdain for particular human customs, and he did so because he wanted to expose those who mistook the authority of tradition for the authority of the word and will of God. “Why,” asked the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, in Matthew 15:2, “do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” Jesus fires back with a question of his own: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” No matter how venerable, the traditions had no authority of their own, unless they were clearly in line with the more primary authority of God’s word.
So anti-traditionalism is strong in American culture, strong in the Christian faith, and it’s also strong in the historical profession. True, there is a weak sense of the word “tradition” that is common in scholarly discourse. There are many shelves worth of books with the word in their title. But in that setting the word usually plays the same vague role that the word “community” is so often called upon to play in our speech. These are what might be called “nominal nouns,” which exist as hooks on which modifiers can be conveniently hung, to give the appearance of solidity to the things they are describing. So, just as we have “the world community,” the “international community,” the “intelligence community,” the “scholarly community,” and even “the drug-abuse community”--communities, in short, that are not communities--so we have books with titles such as The Anarchist Tradition in American Poetry, traditions that are not traditions. This weaker use of the term “tradition” is not terribly significant; it’s a way that a scholar or publisher tries to impart a sense of coherence to what otherwise might look like a grab bag of disparate materials.
But as for “tradition” in its stronger sense, the authoritative sense given it by Tevye and others, we historians are taught to distrust it profoundly, and treat it as guilty unless proven innocent. The invocation of “tradition” is routinely regarded as an act of rank mystification, and the likely stalking-horse for some present-minded political purpose, some lurking act of domination or exploitation. For a long time now, historians have treated the work of Eric Hobsbawm and his anthology The Invention of Tradition as something approaching Holy Writ, and the mention of it is guaranteed to certify oneself as a deep thinker, a critical mind, a properly educated person who is not rube enough to be taken in by nationalist sentimentalities and packaged nostalgia.5 The underlying spirit of modern historical scholarship places a high premium on debunking, and the assault on tradition is an inevitable concomitant of that spirit.
Add to this the much more powerful and pervasive fact of our living in a such a technologically, socially, and economically dynamic society, where the rhythm of constant change, institutionalized in what we interestingly call “the fashion industry”, add this, and the homeliness and stasis of “tradition” would hardly seem to stand a chance, except as a rest-stop for weary travelers, who often end up settling for a Cracker Barrel restaurant rather than the real thing, the exception that, alas, proves the rule. Nothing against Cracker Barrel restaurants, by the way, which I like, even if they are noisy and cluttered; and I have no nostalgia for the road food of the pre-chain era, and would choose a Cracker Barrel in a heartbeat. But my point is that it is the inevitable tendency of consumer capitalism, with its relentless drive toward fluidity and mutability, to encourage the constant erasure of memory to make room for new desires, new markets, new purchases; and that therefore memory itself, always a mutable thing, is lost or debased in the process. Tradition not only cramps the human spirit. Even worse (!), it is bad for the economy.
So the suspicion of tradition is, as it were, overdetermined in American life, both in terms of the general culture, and in so many of the particulars in that culture, some of which, but not all of which, are admirable. I’m reminded, in an ironic way, of the famous words at the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby, in which Gatsby’s hunger for possibility, symbolized by the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier, is shown to be futile: “So we beat on,” Fitzgerald intoned, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”6 Beautiful words. Yet we would seem to have the opposite problem, especially as historians. No matter how hard we try to make sustaining contact with the past, we are ceaselessly borne back into the present. Our culture, our faith, our professional training, all seem to conspire in keeping the past at arm’s length.
But Fitzgerald had it right, perhaps without entirely realizing it. For Gatsby’s desire was not really for the future. It was a yearning for the recovery of the past. He longed for a restoration and fulfillment of his romance with Daisy, the goal to which he had dedicated his whole life, and his entire personal makeover. It was an unworthy goal, pursued by unworthy means, and that’s a big part of what the book is about. But my point, and perhaps some part of Fitzgerald’s too, is that the human longing for sustaining contact with the past is not something that can be willed away.
For Christians, all the modern world’s accumulated suspicion of tradition and memory has to yield and bow its knee before Jesus’ singular command: Do this in remembrance of me. This is the only regular ritual act that Jesus instituted, and it is fundamental, irreducible, inescapable, central. His body given, his blood shed, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, the prospect of his return, all of these things, and more, are to be remembered. Our different denominational and confessional traditions differ in the respective emphases given to each of these. But they are agreed in contending that the remembrance of Christ is to be kept fresh and vital, to be placed before our eyes regularly, day after day, week after week, generation after generation. This is a principal aim of Christian worship, to make Christ’s death present for us--to make it, in the best sense of that much-abused word, contemporary, meaning that it is made fully manifest to us in our time. This is the profoundest imaginable application of tradition.
When we speak of “the faith once delivered to the saints,” that “delivery” is precisely traditional, in that word’s elemental senses. When we speak of “remembering” Jesus’ death, we speak of something we did not experience firsthand, but something that we came to “know,” at least at first, through traditional means. Evangelicals tend to speak of “knowing the Lord,” a manner of speaking that is meant to convey immediacy, in the strict sense of not needing the mediation of history or culture or tradition or a priestly class. But that understandable desire for the immediate should not obscure the fact that traditional means of knowledge, the telling of the story, the “delivery” of the faith, the canon of Scripture, and any number of other things, are necessary prerequisites. Christians of all people really cannot do without tradition, and it is far better to face that fact consciously and honestly.
And let me add that it seems strange to me that historians, of all people, should have become so disdainful of the past, including the past of their own profession, and the achievements of their predecessors. Why do we study the past? Do we study the past only in order to disenchant ourselves, or release ourselves from the past’s tutelary influence? Is our study of the past to be nothing more than an extension of modernity’s bulldozing effort to master all of reality, so that time itself is desacralized and made to serve the needs of the Almighty Present? Or do we look the past, as Gatsby did, for meaning that has fled from the disenchanted present? If so, should we not find a better way to look at tradition--not as the quintessence of hideboundness, but as a means by which we free ourselves from the tyranny of the present, with its peculiar obsessions, anxieties, and other forms of cognitive imprisonment? Are we mature enough to recognize that disenchantment is itself a form of enchantment, and that debunking, however necessary it may be at times, is an activity that ultimately leads nowhere?
The novelist John Dos Passos expressed very well the resource that the past can provide: “In times of change and danger when there is quicksand or fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”7 Can we really say that the work of professional historians has contributed to this sense of continuity in our culture?
For all the attention given in recent years to the social context of discourse, remarkably little is given to the way in which the context of modern academia shapes the way we think about the past. We talk a lot about political correctness of various sorts, which certainly is a way that the past is drafted to serve the interests of the present. While that’s an important consideration, certainly one that affects the career prospects of openly Christian scholars, there is another, and subtler, factor at work. One of the really satisfying things about Peter Novick’s 1988 book That Noble Dream, his history of the American historical profession, despite its tendency toward relativism and complacency, is the way it turns the armamentarium of critical historical scholarship against the activity of critical historical scholarship itself.8 One can’t read his book and not come away with a deep sense of how much our sense of the past has been hopelessly muddled by the internal imperatives of the profession. It is by endless cycles of cutting and slashing, revising and revisioning, and “neo”-ing and “post”-ing and interrogating and all the rest of the tedious professional jargon, that reputations are made, empires are built, careers are jumpstarted, and, not to put too fine a point on it, tenure is won and promotion is secured. The dynamic of revisionism, a dynamic of churning, incessant novelty, serves the cause of academic careerism, even more than it does the cause of political correctness. And academic careerism and specialization are enemies to a heightened sense of the past.
There also is something ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating about the Emersonian-Fordist belief that tradition is a pernicious inhibiting force that can and should be overcome. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued compellingly, much of the intellectual activity that we value is tradition-constituted; meaning that it exists within discursive traditions that are no less indispensable for being unacknowledged as such. The most vital traditions, in his view, are traditions of argument, in which a whole series of debates and disagreements and visions and revisions are constituted around and constellated into a certain set of assertions, perspectives, and questions.9 It is a misunderstanding, in this view, to see tradition as an inert body of propositions and customs passed along intact from one generation to the next. Tradition is the necessary medium, institutional, linguistic, social, cultural, within which fruitful intellectual and cultural activity is rendered possible. It is not just a chest of treasures, but also a web of debates.
A small anecdote may help to make clearer the core meaning of what I think MacIntyre is saying. I think of a friend and colleague, a very advanced literary theorist, who complained to me once about his students. He had spent his career telling students why the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Conrad, et al., rather than being held up as cultural icons, needed to be deconstructed into the colonialist, racist, and sexist artifacts that they were, and displaced from their high position in our culture. But until recently, he could assume that students came to his university having read those authors. He could assume that their high-school teachers had supplied him with material to debunk. But he now found this no longer true, and he was left utterly confused by it all. “What am I supposed to do?” he moaned. “I used to tell students that they didn’t need to read the authors that they’d read in high school, that these texts were false idols. But now they come to college not having read those texts, or much of anything else. What am I supposed to push against? Do I have to assign these books myself?” Clear testimony that liberators need a traditional target, just as surely as traditions beget liberators.
There are some aspects of MacIntyre’s argument that I find overly academic, as if all the world could be a seminar room. But his fundamental point, that radical anti-traditionalism is just as unintelligible as radical individualism, and for exactly the same reasons, is right on point. Just as a baby cannot rear itself in isolation, so an argument cannot find voice without drawing on and depending on an enormous armory of resources that are the gift of the past. And he is right, too, to insist that tradition is not static. Even the faith once delivered to the saints needs to be expressed again and again, in fresh ways, with fresh words and fresh metaphors, to be made vital and compelling and....contemporary. There is a difference between tradition and traditionalism, a difference that the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, whose wonderful little book The Vindication of Tradition ought to be read by every historian today, has expressed unforgettably: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”10
In Pelikan’s view, the distinction between “tradition” and “insight” that Emerson made is not sustainable.
A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump, which begins at the line of where we are now; it is a running broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight, in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology, has not come through progressively sloughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work that way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. Of course we do not listen only to the dead, nor are we a tape recording of the tradition. That really would be the dead faith of the living, not the living faith of the dead. But we do acquire the insight for which Emerson was pleading when we learn to interact creatively with the tradition which he was denouncing.
And Pelikan concludes with a charge, taken from Goethe:
What you have as heritage,
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own.11
All of which suggests how badly the critical and debunking mode of modern historiography falls short of what we really ought to be doing. Man does not live by critical discourse alone. We need to disassemble, from time to time, and clear away the brush. But we should do so in order to build.
This is an important point. The acknowledgement of tradition does not absolve us of the need to think for ourselves, and build things of our own. Instead, it helps us to recognize the work we are meant to do. Our heritage IS our task. We cannot undertake the task without the benefit of the heritage. But it is by doing our task that we can come into the full possession of that heritage, thereby perpetuating the tradition as something living, rather than something moribund, and thereby making it possible for us to have a free and full relationship with the heritage, like that of a child who has fully grown up.
And when we build, we should strive to build things meant to last. Things that strive to imitate the permanency of the most lasting traditions, and graft themselves onto their grand trunk. Things that we have the power to set in motion, but whose full meaning is not likely to mature and unfold in our lifetime. We should accept that, exult in it, and approach our task in the same spirit as one sees exemplified in the parable of the sower, a spirit that cheerfully does its appointed share, and accepts that the harvest is for others to witness. When we make a clearing, we should do so not in order to enjoy the pleasure of weedwhacking, or otherwise working our will on the landscape, but in order to plant something. And what we plant should be something substantial: a sequoia, so to speak, and not merely the decorative flowers of a season.
Permit me to focus, in my closing words, on the image of the sequoia. It has long been an irresistible subject for gifted writers, and no wonder. With its amazing size and longevity, and the silent majesty of the groves in which it grows, it seems the closest thing on the earth to an Edenic organism, which lives and grows without decay. Hence it is a particularly powerful symbol of what we might strive for in our labors. And I would like to conclude my remarks this day with three literary evocations of sequoias, each designed to make different but related points.
First, there is the sense of the sequoia as the kind of object we should seek to organize our labors around, as a focus, so to speak, for the sacrificial labor whose object is both permanence and cheerful impersonality. The poet Wendell Berry has expressed this disposition nicely in a poem called “Last Words”:
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.12
Plant sequoias. Or, as one might express it in a more conventionally Christian way, do what you do, as Bach did what he did, for the glory of God. And do it, as he did it, not only in the B Minor Mass but in every partita and cantata and etude and two-part invention. We approximate that, however feebly, not only when we try to write histories in ways that are worthy of becoming tradition, or a part of tradition. We do it whenever we contribute to the health of the permanent things, and live for things that transcend ourselves and our moment.
To do so requires a width and breadth of perspective on the human condition that is at the furthest possible distance from the perspectivalism and “I gotta be me-ism” of so much contemporary historiography. One has to come to such a task armed with a capacious metaphysics. Consider, then, another sequoia image, this from Mary Austin’s luminous 1927 book, Lands of the Sun, describing her travels in the Sierras:
The trees have each its own voice, a degree of flexibility or length of needles upon which the wind harps to produce its characteristic note. The traveler in the dark of mountain nights know his way among them as by the street cries of his own city.....But there is one tree that is voiceless; it speaks, no doubt, but it speaks only to the austere mountain heads, to the mindful wind and the watching stars. It speaks as men speak to one another and are not heard by the little ants crawling over their boots. This is the big tree, the sequoia. In something less than a score of forest patches, the sequoia abides, out of some possible preglacial period, out of some past of which nothing is left to us but the fading memory of the giants in those days. The age of individual big trees can be computed in terms of human history. There are evidences written in the rings of these that they endured the drought which made the famine in the days of Ahab the king, against which Elijah prayed. These are growing trees whose seeds are fertile.
One might make a very dramatic collocation of the rise and fall of empires against the life period of a single sequoia....13
We may not always be capable of taking what might be called a sequoia’s-eye view of history, or speaking with that austere and lofty voice--but at least we can acknowledge that those heights and vistas are real. An awareness of them will condition and restrain what we make of the enthusiasms of the present.
Finally, let me conclude with a poem, an extraordinary poem, by the American poet Dana Gioia. But first, a little background on it. The poem is called “Planting a Sequoia,” and it describes just that. But it is also an enactment of a tradition, with the very kind of twist and adaptation that makes traditions live, and makes them even more vital. Gioia is of Sicilian descent, and relates in the poem a Sicilian custom, followed by his own father, of planting an olive tree or fig tree upon the birth of a first son, along with a piece of the discarded umbilical cord. The poem depicts a reenactment of that tradition---but with a difference. For Gioia’s own son had died tragically of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.
In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s
An olive or a fig tree, a sign that the earth has one more
life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock
into my father’s orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.
But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an
infant’s birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.
We will give you what we can, our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by
the circuit of bees,
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.
And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.14
There are far too many things to be said about this poem, and I have already spoken too long this day. But let me make one last observation. What Gioia has done here, both in the poem itself and in the act that the poem describes, is a luminous and haunting lesson in both the permanence and the adaptability of tradition. He has kept faith with his heritage. But he also has made it his own. And instead of planting a “practical” tree that will be productive within the range of his lifetime, he chose to plant a thin slip of a mighty tree, a tree whose lifetime will be measured in millennia--and whose full majesty and mature fruitfulness will never be seen by anyone now alive, or in any context that we can now imagine.
Such a noble gesture defies the spirit of our age. To forgo the pleasures of contemporary applause and aim one’s acts at an audience yet to be born, this seems quixotic at best, and deluded at worst. But that gesture embodies what is best in us as human beings. Only in looking to the furthest horizons, and beyond, can we hope to redeem the brokenness of this life, making something fine and enduring out of what would otherwise be sheer meaninglessness. Despair is held at bay by the greater dignity of simple affirmation, of keeping faith with what one has loved. In thereby adapting one tradition, the poem imparts fresh meaning to another, best expressed in the familiar, soaring words of the prophet Isaiah. Think, as you hear them, how strikingly and precisely these words address themselves to the moment described in Dana Gioia’s poem
Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth; the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.....I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years....they will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. (Isaiah 65: 17-23, New International Version)
The messianic vision promises us a world restored to what it should be, in which each lives in safety, under his own vine and fig tree, with the full complement of offspring. But our broken world, which so often falls bitterly short of that promise, must sometimes pay its respects obliquely. That may mean planting a different kind of tree, whose value is not in the fruit it bears or the shade it provides, but in the austere distance it marks between the promise and our own circumstances. We stand between the two. We hold the tension between them in our minds and hearts, remembering the messianic hope, but not yet forgetting the former things. Not yet. To embrace this tension is the very choice I commend to you today. To do so is not only an act of love. It is also an act of faith. And a figure of hope. And an example worth following.
1 See Dale T. Irvin, Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (New York: Orbis, 1998), 41; and John Milbank, et al., Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (New York: Routledge, 1999), 92.
2 Brooks Atkinson, ed., The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 3.
3 Quoted in the Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916.
4 Jerry Bock, et al., Fiddler on the Roof (New York: Limelight, 1990); Richard Altman with Mervyn Kaufman, The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof (New York: Crown, 1971).
5 Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
6 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1925).
7 John Dos Passos, The Theme is Freedom (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1956), 153.
8 Peter Novick, “That Noble Dream”: The “Objectivity Question”and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
9 Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
10 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.
11 Ibid., 81-82.
12 Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” from Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 151-2.
13 Excerpt taken from Peter Johnstone, ed., Giants in the Earth: The California Redwoods (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001), 213-14.
14 Dana Gioia, The Gods of Winter (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1991), 10.