It’s always amazing to me how one thing you read can inadvertently lead to another. I spent a good bit of my spring slowly reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s Antifragile. I read it because it had a praise-worthy mention in an article that Alan Jacobs had linked to using his Pinboard account. It’s a great book, the kind that anyone concerned with systems should read. A few days ago, Taleb showed up in my Twitter stream by someone pointing out how his concept of the “Lindy effect” had been used in a religious article. So I clicked the link and found this article by Tara Isabella Burton, whose book I had bought a couple of weeks ago because of a glowing review by Rod Dreher. So even when it’s a big world, it can be a small world.
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On Sunday, I posted a Nancy comic that had to do with thinking and changing one’s mind. Yesterday, I wrote a bit about a talk given in the realm of journalism and writing that had to do with the effects belonging and fear has had on those vocations. Burton’s essay seems to be the snippet of a story about someone in search for truth but who has wrestled (at least some) with how religious truth might be manifested in forms of “traditionalism.” It’s a great piece, one that will likely offend all of us slightly, so caveat lector. After reading the piece, I found myself ready to give a closer look at Burton’s book, Strange Rites. It’s introduction is brilliant (and, once again, likely to offend, so caveat lector). Both pieces feel like a gloss on the thoughts of Charles Taylor, the oft-quoted Canadian-Catholic philosopher and author of A Secular Age, a tome that is all about how we have gone from believing in God as a societal presupposition to the exact opposite in the matter of a few centuries (or less). And so even while Burton’s Commonweal essay is about relationships and engagement, it’s also about the cultural practices of a traditionalism (here, Catholic, but also easy to find in some form or another elsewhere) that never seemed to settle well with her. She longed for (fetishized, she says) transcendence. Transcendence, of course, is something that Taylor says we have lost sight of almost completely since we have adopted, knowingly or not, a more immanent frame of existence. Transcendence, one might argue, has the Lindy effect on its side.
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Here’s how Burton sums up Taleb’s Lindy effect:
There is a tendency, in certain corners of traditionalist Christian discourse, to valorize things as good because they are old. It is the sacralized version of the Lindy effect—the idea, popularized by the statistician Nassim Taleb, that a trend’s predicted “life expectancy” should be understood in light of how long it has already survived. (Thus, in certain reactionary web circles, the use of Lindy as slang meaning both trad and good. Eating rare meat? Lindy. Keeping your maiden name? Not Lindy).
It takes Paul’s directive—be not conformed to this age—and turns it inside out: if something is pre-modern; if something is nostalgic; if something is anathema to the prevailing discourse of our sclerotic liberal modernity, it is automatically good, because it is both ancient and transgressive. This goes double if the traditionalism in question is rooted in some sort of perceived biological reality: differences in sex, authentically prepared food. Trad skirts. Sourdough bread.
So to use Taleb’s other term, such Lindy things are more likely to be antifragile, particularly if they have found ways to thrive when presented with things that might destroy them. And so traditionalism is something of a “nostalgic” approach to life (and fatih), at least on a cultural level (one could also easily argue for an ontological and teleological level, but that doesn’t seem to be where Burton is going). Burton’s struggle is what do you do if what you’re looking for is closely tied to such traditionalist things but those things seem to elude you or too easily become synonymous with the deposit of truth that is the Christian faith itself (which is, of course, a major part of the debate about marriage and family in the 21st century).
There is something to be said for the desire to reclaim authenticity: to look to the natural world and to creation as sources of wonder, rather than as resources to be mined. There is something to be said, too, for the celebration of the embodied experience, the embedded experience, the understanding—so much more difficult, when we live in an avatar age—of ourselves as animal creatures, subject to sweat and sickness and death. And there is something to be said for looking to what we have lost, in an era and an economic system that so often reduces us to numbers and words, from eras more conscious of bodily reality.
But there is a danger, too, in fetishizing its opposite . . .
She then name-checks a couple of writers that I follow and often find encouragement from, so there’s that. But I see where she’s going, I think.
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In my thinking and my teaching I often refer to the Bible as a five-act play. It’s something that I picked up from N. T. Wright that I use as both a narrative framework and an interpretive framework. I’m mindful of what the great Baptist thinker David Dockery said about Scripture: all of Scripture is important, just some parts more than others (my weak paraphrase). The five-act play framework reminds me that all of the biblical story is important and that all of it comes into play at some point in one way or another. In terms of a general response to Burton’s piece, I think the following.
1. It is clear that some of the traditionalism she is responding to (in good and bad forms) is rooted in natural law as mediated by divine revelation. So yes, there is a strong sense that traditionalism is rooted in the ontology and teleology of humans as depicted in Genesis 1 & 2.
2. Her use of “nostalgia” and “veneration” and “fetishism” is a response those strands of Christian faith and practice that see the Genesis 1 & 2 ontologies and teleologies as the be-all-and-end-all of human existence. Such a view easily (or unknowingly) dismisses or minimizes the effects of sin from act two of the story (Genesis 3-11). It can also dismiss the hard sayings of Jesus in the Gospels about marriage and family. Now, those often-minimized truths can also be over-emphasized, no doubt about it. But it’s probably more likely to go the other way, and with good reason. Marriage and family are the bedrock for a good, healthy society, just like they can be a significant part of the bedrock for a Christian community.
3. By the end of the piece, it seems like Burton is arguing for a “fulfilled” ontology an teleology for people, something that Jesus points towards (and something that Paul points towards and something that is an often-subtle thread throughout all of Scripture). She writes of conversion and of Christian community well. And while (you were warned) her story takes her to places that make many feel uncomfortable, we ought to find something about the faith that finds her to be a point of connection for us. And it’s something that should spur us on to a fifth-act account of things. This account reminds us that God makes all things new in Jesus and that the last shall be first and that those who mourn will be comforted and those who have left all to follow Jesus will find more both in this life and in the next. That’s the fullness that the latter have of the biblical story teases out for us. And it should probably keep any potential “bad” progressivism as “in check” as any “bad” traditionalism.
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Near the end Barton writes:
The faith I sought, in the aftermath of my disastrous engagement, was not the faith of the strong, nor of the settled, nor of the secure. It could not be the faith of the squarely paired or the appropriately fecund. It could not be the faith of trad skirts and cleaved roles, of dominance hierarchies that are little more than teleologies of oppression . . .
The social order of things—its hierarchies, its divisions—may seem inevitable; it is not. Christ’s love breaks it open. Christ’s love takes the body, takes the family, takes nature itself, and reveals how much more there is within them than we can ever come to comprehend.
To be not conformed to this age is not to succumb to nostalgia, nor to the golden-age rhetoric of social traditionalism. Rather, it is to recognize that transformative power of Christian life to create a body that transcends our understanding of flesh. It is to recognize that justice, that liberation, that the New Jerusalem, means tearing down all the oppressive structures that bind us: those uniquely modern and those lindy, too.
It is to recognize what miracles create, and what—in so doing—they destroy.
Some of that, of course, is language that likely makes us uncomfortable. Because, let us remember, conservatism at its best asserts that there are good things that are old things that are worth maintaining in hopes of flourishing. Instead of “tearing down” I would probably say something about God’s kingdom pointing to a better, fuller way in which every good thing He has made gets caught up in its way rightly, that even the best of earthly things is redeemed and transformed and maybe discarded, but for the sake of Christ Himself and not just as a way of trading one fetish for another.