The spirit of tradition and the anti-traditional spirit
Stratford Caldecott


It was the view of the English historian Christopher Dawson that every civilization is the expression of a sacred tradition, handed down, developed and unfolded by succeeding generations. Civilization is faith transforming itself into culture, the living out of faith.[1] Our own European civilization is historically a métissage, the product of the interbreeding of several traditions, though the traditions themselves remain distinct and resist any attempt at synthesis precisely because each understands itself to be founded on truth.

The word tradition derives from trans- "over" and dare "to give".  In every traditional society or civilization, a process takes place that can be called a “handing over” of the stories, the knowledge, the accumulated wisdom of one generation to the next. It is a handing over which makes each new generation into a source of wisdom for the one that will follow. What is handed over is a “gift”. It is not simply a bundle of property whose title deed is being transferred to the next generation. Rather, it carries within it something of the giver. Its transmission is an act of love. Thus the gift of tradition involves and transforms the interiority of both the giver and the recipient.

Tradition in the sense I am describing is of the highest value because it is not something we simply manufacture, nor something cooked up by our parents, but something our parents themselves have received with gratitude and respect. Its origin is what makes it sacred.  Some kind of revelation of truth, or what is believed to be a revelation, forms the seed of every great tradition. Tradition is venerated because of this. The moment we suspect that our tradition is based on a lie is the moment it loses its authority over us. Thus tradition is based on the act of faith. I adhere not simply because it has been handed down to me, but because I believe it is “true” (even if I cannot directly verify its truth for myself).

The “spirit of tradition” is the spirit in which the transmission of culture takes place. This allows the initiation of succeeding generations into the “truth” that binds them together. The receptivity proper to love makes possible the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. And when that spirit is present, tradition is never felt like a dead weight on the present. Only a tradition that has lost this spirit can become a deadening force.[2]


Tradition is the giving of a life-giving gift. But there is also an anti-traditional spirit that prevents the transmission of the gift, and this arose and flourished in Europe from the fourteenth century onwards, becoming ever more virulent, until it took the form of a radically secularized technological consumerism by the end of the twentieth century.  This development is the drama of our age, leading towards a final end which we can only imagine.

The anti-traditional spirit rejects all reference to the transcendent, and thus centres each human being on itself, making love almost impossible.[3] The “turn to the subject” much celebrated in contemporary thought is too often a turning away from love, from worship, and from legitimate obedience. Modern technology contributes to the elimination of tradition, of a truly human living in time. In traditional societies, the past is assumed to be a living part of the present, continually rehearsed, celebrated, and interpreted through ritual and story. Tradition joins generations together in a community which transcends time through anamnesis. But if human memory and knowledge is evacuated into cyberspace by Google, the past becomes something external to us, something other than ourselves, something we can sit back and observe. The self then contracts into a point, and ceases to dwell in the world by being extended through time. It is no longer fully embodied. It becomes a detached observer of the grid of knowledge – a kind of insatiable consumer let loose in an infinite supermarket of information.

Technological consumerism threatens to become the perfect inversion of tradition. Whereas tradition requires the initiation of persons into a living world that is received as gift and which calls for gratitude, anti-tradition converts the world into a pattern of information that can be transferred instantaneously from one mind or computer to another, merely in exchange for money. The purpose of tradition is to serve the personal growth and development of man. But the purpose of the mechanical order is for man to serve the growth and further evolution of the machine.

Romano Guardini gives a fuller analysis of this in The End of the Modern World.[4] He thinks the medievals were concerned not so much with the rational or empirical investigation of nature (this was a later obsession), but rather on the basis of revelation and ancient authority to construct a symbolic cosmos. The cosmos was supposed to provide the necessary imaginative mediation between the world as experienced around us through the senses and the world of true ideas and essences, the world of the contemplative intellect. Under the impact of technological progress, our knowledge of Nature becomes increasingly indirect, mediated no longer by a symbolic imagination concerned with essences, but by the scientific imagination – purely mathematical models (designed to “save the appearances”), quantities devoid of quality, facts separated from values.


Neither modernity nor postmodernity have succeeded in eliminating religious tradition or religious civilization. Nevertheless, religious believers are part of history and historical forces have affected them in many ways. What has come to be known as “religious fundamentalism” is a hybrid of the modern spirit and the religious. It is an incursion of the anti-traditional spirit into the world of religious belief, a radical distortion of tradition. And of course it is found both within Christianity and within Islam. Fundamentalists, whether Biblical or Quranic, view modern secular society, founded on the autonomy of the individual and on critical rationality, as the enemy of true religion. They seek to counter this enemy with the authority of a Book, whose teachings are deemed to be both evident and unambiguous. The fundamentalist seeks certainty in a simplified version of revelation, with which he opposes the uncertainty and relativism of modern life.

This simplification of revelation is a profoundly modern phenomenon. It appears on the surface to be merely a rejection of rationality in the name of religious authority, and of critical inquiry in the name of obedience to tradition. It is, however, founded not in the rejection of discursive reason but of contemplative intelligence – this being the very rejection that makes modernism possible. Modernity in its negative aspect was founded on the systematic elimination of the symbolic cosmos, along with the allegorical method of interpretation and the analogy of being. It had to reject these things in order to focus its energies on the scientific method, which became the dominant paradigm for all human knowledge. The over-simplification of tradition and the elimination of ambiguity are fundamentalist traits. The fundamentalist has therefore been deprived of an entire dimension of his own religion – that very dimension which modernity itself fails to understand and has long since discounted. Without that dimension (in which, of course, mystics and Sufis rather than jurists or moralists feel most at home) what remains is essentially religion as “ideology”, a set of doctrines to be adhered to, and to be imposed on society by force if persuasion fails.

Naturally there were “fundamentalists” in every age, long before they emerged in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt discussed by Gilles Kepel in The Revenge of God, or the Wahhabis by S.H. Nasr in his book The Heart of Islam, or the American Protestant Evangelicals by David Lawrence in Defenders of God. There have always been religious believers who lacked the knowledge or experience of contemplation. But in the modern or postmodern period groups of believers defined by this characteristic are to be expected, and furthermore they have assumed a disproportionate political importance in the context of a world which is both dependent on oil and capable of mass destruction by instruments of terror.

To look beyond the problem of fundamentalism, we must consider again the nature of tradition, and ascertain the extent to which both Muslims and Christians can cooperate in its defence. I suggested that both our traditions have been threatened by the anti-contemplative spirit of modernity. An adequate response to the challenge must take the form of an attempt to revive the contemplative spirit in both Christianity and Islam. But we must remember that even such a response may be tainted by modernity if it is not quite radical enough. A concentration on the “interior life” of prayer viewed through the prism of individualism may lead to a falsification of our tradition just as serious as that of fundamentalism. Love of self, or even love of God, detached from love of neighbour is a falsification. Any genuinely radical fidelity to tradition will hold these things together. Prayer and action can and should be integrated together in both Islam and in Christianity, and they are held in this unity by tradition itself. (That is why the “Common Word” initiative has been a significant development.)[5]


Islamic tradition purified of fundamentalism consists not just of the Sunna or hadith but also of the Quran, both together comprising the Shariah.[6] This is the substantial core of what is given or transmitted from each generation to the next in order to form a Muslim people. (In the same way, Catholics sometimes contrast Scripture and Tradition, but may also speak of “tradition” in a broader sense that comprises both.) Shariah is defined as the body of Islamic law founded on the Book and the Teachings of the Prophet. Interestingly, the word itself means “path to the source of water”, referring to the heavenly water that purifies the soul (according to Surah 8:11). For the Muslim, the Shariah is nothing less than the Divine Law revealed on earth, a Law that in its heavenly archetype governs the movements of all things visible and invisible. As such it is analogous to the concept of Dharma in India, and Torah in Judaism – and even to Logos in Christianity. The plants and animals are also supposed to have their own shariahs which they follow obediently. In the case of man, to correspond with that Eternal Law by the correct use of free will is to become righteous, or holy, or wise – it is, in Islamic terms, to give God true worship by “doing what is beautiful” (ihsan, which is also to “act as if one is seeing God”). This state of righteousness or spiritual beauty is precisely what Christians believe cannot be achieved by human beings without the assistance of divine grace. But, then, Muslims would say that the entire Islamic Tradition is a grace.

The essence of tradition is understood somewhat differently in Christianity. We believe the Law, the Logos, has become Man. Tradition is rooted in Christ, and in a certain way it is Christ, who is himself the Way to the Father. The Church is the supernatural organism or corporate personality in which or in whom the gift of Christ is received and transmitted.[7] This identification of Jesus of Nazareth with the Logos or divine Word lies at the root of many of the differences between Christianity and Islam, and even changes the way we understand the Unity of God that we both affirm.  As Christians, we reject the suggestion that it provides a way of salvation independent of Christ.  But that is because we believe the Eternal Law which the Shariah is supposed to mediate is identifiable with the man Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the “heavenly waters” to which the Shariah ultimately leads can be understood by Christians to be the waters of Baptism.

The differences, as well as the similarities, between these two traditions are profound. But Christianity and Islam share something that modernity cannot comprehend. It is not merely that we each acknowledge the authority of a “tradition”. We share the spirit in which we acknowledge that authority, which is ultimately a love of a truth that transcends us, and to some extent gives us our identity. We may believe each other to be mistaken in our particular adherence, but our preparedness to submit ourselves to the revealed truth, and to grow in that truth, makes us men and women of tradition. “Fundamentalism” begins when that spirit is lost, when instead of belonging to a tradition we start to see ourselves as its owners and controllers. We need to encourage each other to revive the spirit of tradition, and in so doing we will find the only possible common ground on which to stand, debate and collaborate with each other.

Christians and Muslims share a religious understanding of human life and destiny, and combined with this a religious understanding of nature. The modern world undermines religious understanding even among believers, whose faith now adrift in a secular universe comes to resemble a political ideology, with disastrous consequences. It is the very conception of the purely secular universe that we must challenge in an intelligent manner, because the assumptions built into it are false. Nature herself is a revelation of God – she is the primordial “tradition” (as S.H. Nasr and others have argued).[8] It is incumbent on believers to demonstrate that the gifts of God – not simply tradition but even nature herself – cannot be understood without love, without contemplation, and without gratitude.

 This article was first published in the journal Oasis

[1] “It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture. The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest. A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture” (Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion, Sheed & Ward, 1936, pp. 232-3). Furthermore “the religious instinct finds its fullest and most conrete satisfaction in the historical field – through faith in an historical person, an historical community, and an historical tradition” (ibid., p. 244).

[2] In all of these thoughts, I find support in an excellent essay by the philosopher Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept and Claim, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2008. Pieper stresses the fact that tradition is not expected to change or progress over time. By its nature it is something that must be handed down faithfully and intact.  I would qualify this by adding that “development” (in the sense explored by John Henry Newman) does in fact, and should, occur in tradition, but only organically, so that the essence of the tradition remains intact. And, as Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “To honor the tradition does not excuse one from the obligation of beginning everything from the beginning each time” (Razing the Bastions, Ignatius Press, 1993, p. 34). Furthermore, since we adhere to tradition believing it to be true, we must also be prepared to purge it of anything we discover to be false. In that case, the spirit of tradition would only insist that we do so with respect, and without jettisoning important truths at the same time.

[3] The transcendent, here, is assumed to be “that which lies beyond” – beyond the self as consciously controlled, beyond the exhaustively known, beyond the finite. The human self is assumed to be a limited or bounded creature, arising from a Source that, being infinite, also contains the finite. The end or goal of the self can only be attained by reverting upon or participating in this transcendent Source through cooperation with grace. The form this participation takes is love of God and neighbour. Thus the human person is naturally/supernaturally centred not on itself (which would close it against the infinite), but on the “other” or that which lies beyond the self and thereby, also and equally, deep within it.

[4] R. Guardini, The End of the Modern World (ISI Books, 1998).

[6] The word itself appears in the Quran at 45:18.

[7] Interestingly the word tradition is closely related to the word treason, meaning a betrayal. In the betrayal of Jesus by his disciple Judas Iscariot in the garden of Gethsemane we have an illustration of tradition inverted, just as in the Virgin Mary we have the image of tradition in its perfection. Mary receives the gift; Judas rejects it. Judas hands Jesus over to his enemies. He hands the Tradition to those who want to destroy it. He does so with a kiss, which is a sign of love (or pretended love). His motivation is money, for he receives 30 pieces of silver in return for his deed. Thus the Christian tradition has always been betrayed by those who pretend to love while only seeking their own advantage and wealth.

[8] See e.g. S.H. Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford University Press, 1996). In fact Josef Pieper in the essay already referred to has the Christian tradition primarily in mind and leaves little space for the Islamic. But without accepting every aspect of Nasr’s theory of Tradition, I think it is helpful to consider his point of view concerning Islam – that it is in some ways, as at least understands itself to be, a restoration of the “primordial tradition” of which Pieper himself speaks in that essay.