Respecting the Ancient Paths

Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it’” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Hear, my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. When you walk, your step will not be hampered, and if you run, you will not stumble (Proverbs 4:10-12).

Recently, the American Secretary of State got into trouble on a trip to Africa with the following comment, “This is a time here in Africa where there are a number of different cross-currents of modernity that are coming together to make things even more challenging. Some people believe that people ought to be able to only do what they say they ought to do, or to believe what they say they ought to believe, or live by their interpretation of something that was written down a thousand plus, two thousand years ago. That’s not the way I think most people want to live.” In these words, Kerry reflects both the strengths and the weakness of modernity and its prejudice against traditional societies and beliefs. I think he did this unconsciously; and as a Catholic Christian, I think he probably did so without any intention to denigrate Christian faith.

The modern world began with the Protestant rejection of Church tradition as a source of religious truth separate from Holy Scripture. It was not ling before the suspicion of modernity was turned upon Scripture itself. By the dawn of our post-modern era, the critical fervor of modernity had been turned towards every source of authority. Among moderns and post-moderns traditional wisdom is used only to support what we choose to believe on other grounds, including personal inclination. The results have been chaos.

On the other hand, a mindless traditionalism can lead to a rejection of reason and of the entire notion of progress. A mindless tradition rejects any attempt to move beyond a current cultural, moral or religious state. Can a life be crafted that finds a moderate spot between these two extreme positions? I think the answer is “Yes.”

Traditional wisdom does not necessarily mean “traditional prejudice.” It can and most of the time does mean, “Respect for the accumulated experience of the human race.” This kind of respect is not a dead respect, never questioning, never asking questions of context or proper adaptation. It is a respectful listening for those who have gone before. It means seeing ourselves as having inherited a tradition, a culture, and a moral tradition that we both live within and adapt to our environment. It means understanding that those who went before us faced many of the same problems we face, and we do not have to repeat their mistakes.

imagesThere is a line in the movie Groundhog Day that sticks in my memory as an illustration of the importance of traditional wisdom. Having discovered that he relives Ground Hog Day over and over again, Phil decides to take a drunken drive on railroad tracks, saying “It’s the same thing every day, Clean up your room, stand up straight, pick up your feet, take it like a man, be nice to your sister, don’t mix beer and wine ever, Oh yeah, don’t drive on the railroad tracks.” As he swerves onto the tracks, one of his drunken companions says, “Phil, that’s one I happen to agree with.” Modern people want to follow only the rules that they happen to agree with at the moment. Unfortunately, the moral universe does not work that way with the result that the modern and post-modern people are often trapped in perpetual adolescence.

Our only escape is to recover a respect for the old paths. Interestingly, when we do recover this respect, we find  a new, richer, creativity and life than we could every have discovered if we had remained trapped in perpetually relearning lessons a thousand generations of human experience have already validated.