Tradition and Traditionalism

From Common Objects of Love by Oliver O’Donovan:

The word “tradition,” like koinonia, refers both to an action and a possession.  In the first sense it is the activity by which one shares in the community, receiving and contributing.  In the second sense it is the reserve of practices and communicative patterns received from the past– but only those which continue to command recognition, that is, which have been effectively communicated down to the present time.  The essential thing about tradition is that it creates social continuity.  It binds the communal action of the present moment to the communal actions of past moments.  What we often call “traditionalism,” the revival of lapsed traditions, is, properly speaking, a kind of innovation, making a new beginning out of an old model.  This may or may not be sensible in any given instance, but it is not tradition.  The claim of tradition is not the claim of the past over the present, but the claim of the present to that continuity with the past which enables common action to be conceived and executed.

This is a good but challenging distinction.  Can changing traditions, moving from one line to another, be a kind of innovation in itself?  How far back can you trace a thread of your tradition until the connection becomes too tenuous?  I’m not sure it’s an “either-or,” but the conversation around the topic could be longer than anticipated.  The idea of innovation, of course, is key to Root’s argument in Congregations in a Secular Age.  What of acts of retrieval or ressourcement?  And what is a culture to do when it has lost all sense of tradition?

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