A little over a year ago, Ellen Coyne penned her personal spiritual memoir, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Ellen. An Irish Independent correspondent and a campaigner-journalist, Coyne held strong pro-choice views and penned articles in support of repealing the pro-life Eighth Amendment to the Ireland’s constitution.
Her book stemmed from an epiphany in the giddy aftermath of the abortion referendum – that the Christian tradition in which she was raised may yet have things to say to her. As the blurb on her book asks, why should the Church “get to keep all its good bits, like the rituals, the community, a guide for living a better life and the comfort of believing it’s not the end when somebody dies?”
Coyne’s shock realisation that the death of Catholic Ireland entails the loss of centuries of tradition offers a revealing glimpse into what lies ahead.
Tim Stanley’s timely book steps into the breach here, its title countering Coyne’s question with another question – “Whatever Happened to Tradition?” The book prompts readers, whatever their persuasion, to interrogate the modern history, uses, and value of tradition and nostalgia in Western culture.
The book’s defence of tradition in an increasingly iconoclastic, atomised and divided culture echoes similar concerns raised by Iranian-American journalist Sohrab Ahmari in The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, also released last year. Stanley’s book differs in that it is particularly inflected towards an audience on this side of the Atlantic (Stanley is British) and is therefore in some ways more relevant to an Irish readership.
Tim Stanley is a published academic historian turned columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Raised a Baptist, he converted to Catholicism in his 20s. A former Marxist and one-time unsuccessful Labour party candidate, Stanley now identifies with small-c conservatism. The book contains occasional anecdotes about the author’s personal, family, and faith life.
Just as its author has traversed the religious and political spectrum, so too the book presents a rich breadth of sources in its analysis and defence of tradition. Nor is it afraid to articulate traditional, long-held views on contemporary (and often contentious) moral issues in a measured and impartial way.
The book’s argument is framed by the events surrounding the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019.
Stanley reflects on the variety of responses to the tragedy, from dignified grief to far-right conspiracy theories, along with the incoherent proposals that followed about what to rebuild there – from faithful restoration to, variously, a zoo and a swimming pool. Further confounding this was the media’s confusion and discomfort about how to cover the story – is Notre Dame a tourist attraction, a national icon, or a sacred space? For Stanley, the incoherence of the event’s coverage and aftermath typifies in a very tangible way the modern West’s dissonant values, ignorance of its own history, and corrosive disregard for tradition.
The book comprises two parts.
In the first half he analyses tradition in Western culture, tradition’s amenability to adaptation and refinement when it encounters a seeming obstacle or “rival” to its influence, and an exploration of the allure and contradictions of nostalgia.
In he second half of the book he offers closer analyses of tradition’s battlegrounds in the 21st century, such as the economy, freedom, and religion. While Stanley posits and defends a Christian outlook, his careful analysis of each topic reveals surprising points of agreement on some issues.
For example, in the chapter on “Tradition and Equality,” he explores the strains of tradition and conservatism at the two poles of economic thought and practice – capitalism and socialism. An insightful and well-argued exploration of early socialism, the chapter may make uncomfortable reading for those of a small-government, uncritically pro-capital persuasion.
Stanley makes the interesting point that the working class, who are often seen (or romanticised) as revolutionaries and iconoclasts of the old order are, on the contrary, deeply conservative and resistant to change. He draws on the most prominent historian of the English working class, E.P. Thompson, who once observed that “the conservative culture of the plebs as often as not resists, in the name of custom, those economic rationalisations and innovations … which rulers, dealers, or employers seek to impose … Hence, the plebian culture is rebellious, but rebellious in defence of custom.”
Thus the miners’ strike of 1984 reveals what Stanley calls an “instinctual conservatism” of people who wanted to preserve their way of life, pitting them against the big-C Conservatives of the Thatcher government far away in London. Stanley argues that 21st century left-wing thought fails to acknowledge the “subtly conservative” strain of early working class movements.
Conversely, for those who advocate smaller, less invasive government, or look to the 50s rather than the 60s for their nostalgia, Stanley cautions that taxes were significantly higher back then, and government more redistributionist: “The kind of world conservatives want has to be paid for, probably by wealthy conservatives.”
A danger with a book such as this is that rather than challenge and edify, it will sink into a leaden sentimentality, confirming the comfortable assumptions of its complacent reader who sees decline everywhere and yearns for a rose-tinted bygone time.
Stanley avoids the trap of self-indulgent nostalgia. Early in the book, he confronts the relationship between tradition and nostalgia, a word that derives from the Greek for “homesickness”. Acknowledging that nostalgia gone awry can be maudlin, he argues that it can also help us to interrogate our history, draw upon trusted narratives from the past, and offer a sense of moral purpose to present activity. Tradition, when its breadth and depth is truly understood, is eschatological. In helping us to trace the roots and purpose of our present-day existence, Stanley observes that ultimately “many traditions are designed, at heart, to prepare us for the end.” Tradition helps us to confront the earliest beginning and the furthest end, the origin and purpose, of our existence.
The book’s final chapter deals with tradition and religion. Stanley is not afraid to share his own Catholic faith. However he realises that many of his readers will have a different faith, or none at all, and the book is geared towards a general, secular audience.
Stanley focuses on funerals to explore the hollowing out of religious tradition in the West, particularly his native England. People want the trappings of religious tradition for significant life events, but seem neither to fully understand them, nor willing to engage much in learning about them.
For Stanley, funerals “define for me the cultural confusion of the West – of a society living uncomfortably off the folk memory of a lost order, haunted by an idea of what it ought to do but not certain how to put it into practice.” The book lays the blame as much with institutions as with individual apathy, the timid acquiescence of Christian churches to the Zeitgeist, leaving them with “no authority” when it comes to doctrine and formation.
The interaction between tradition and freedom gets its own chapter, although this intricate relationship is considered throughout. With regard to religion, Stanley acknowledges that many in the secularised West view it as a constraint on freedom. Morality and tradition can seem stiflingly prescriptive.
However, as Stanley points out, Christianity also promises forgiveness and redemption – wildly generous liberties far greater than anything the narrow vantage of human endeavour can conceive. For Stanley, the duties of faith are “not a burden or a harsh restraint but a liberation, for the great revelation of much religious teaching is that we don’t have to be evil.”
Stanley’s language is conversational, and tone easy-going. Don’t let that fool you, though. The book goes deep into tradition’s intertwined and ever-developing relationship with economics, politics, culture, and religion. Stanley deftly weaves personal anecdote with anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, and history. This makes it hard to confine the book to any one genre. Is it philosophy? The history of an idea? In fact this ambiguity suits the subject matter very well, since tradition itself is a nebulous yet potent, indefinable yet ever present, force in our lives.