Saturday, July 22, 2017

Arguments from Tradition

I have recently realized why I don’t find arguments from tradition (especially in theology) very persuasive.[1] It used to be that I didn’t take church tradition very seriously at all. Now, I certainly think there is value in it (though I don’t perceive it to be authoritative). Nonetheless, I still find such appeals to tradition to be problematic.

It seems to me that the argument typically goes like this: this is a position tradition has upheld for a thousand years or more; you are arrogant to think that you somehow have it right where a thousand + years of Christianity had it wrong.

While there are issues on the periphery that bother me (e.g., if it’s arrogant, while that’s interesting, this alone says little about whether I am correct; it’s not clear why mere disagreement entails arrogance, and potentially so on), a bigger issue seems to me to lie in the claim itself that, in our example, has stood for a thousand years or more.

So let’s take it to be the case that this traditional position has been either: a) affirmed by a council, or b) made official dogma (I only differentiate in cases where someone might; I’m just trying to cover bases). This prevents a weaker case of tradition where some view has simply been held by Christians over the years; this is a view held by perhaps the vast majority of Christians over centuries.

While I agree that going against such a view should only be done in the gravest of care, I think we have an interesting scenario: it isn’t, presumably, the case that over the course of a thousand years, the vast majority of Christians who ever lived tested out the position to see if it was true, and all independently came to this conclusion that the position is true. Instead, in cases of (a) or (b), the position simply becomes the paradigm within which Christians work. At best, most Christians simply accept the position, and the rest work assuming the paradigm is true (in apropos Kuhnian fashion) and seeing how to defend it or what results from it.

Much, perhaps even most, of the force of these types of traditional arguments are removed when one realizes that the claim amounts to, “Everyone else has gotten in line; why haven’t you?” That claim, of course, works easily in cases where one takes tradition itself to be a kind of authority; but I don’t (for better or, as my Catholic friends may say, for worse).

[1] This is true in most contexts. Obviously, where the discussion centers around what tradition has typically upheld, I take it that traditional appeals are demonstrative.

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