Traditionalist, not Utopian

St. Thomas MoreWhen discussing the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ, one is provided with almost limitless material to write about.  Today I would like to talk about an issue that is particularly important, but also particularly difficult  for various reasons.  For the majority of the past 50 years, the traditionalist movement has been associated mainly as a reaction to the crisis in the Church.  Most of the discussion centers around what the Church has lost.

When you center your discussion within these terms, we run the real risk of being utopians.  We run the risk of idolizing those previous times, acting as if they were perfection, or at least pretty close to it.  We long for “simpler” times.  Most importantly, we tend to become pretty bitter that things have collapsed the way they have, and we begin to think things will just continue getting worse.  The more we become marginalized due to these changes, the stronger these impulses become.  If we traditionalists know anything, we know what marginalization feels like.

This kind of attitude will never attract many people towards the traditionalist movement, and our marginalization would just accelerate.  People don’t want to live in an environment where everything is a dystopian.   They want to be told the hard things about sin and the last things.  They don’t want to be told nothing can be done about these things other than whatever the latest private revelation states must be done before the golden age is restored.  Then we find out that our utopian age wasn’t actually that utopian, and that they were struggling with most of the same problems we were.  At that point, get ready for despair.

While this isn’t a problem with the majority of traditionalists, it impacts enough of us to be a problem.  The current approach of most of the commentariat and blogosphere to simply whine and complain about it while offering no alternative won’t do:  it just makes things worse.  Thankfully, we traditionalists already have all the tools we need to solve this problem.  We don’t need catchy buzzwords or cleverly marketed ideas to do it either.  We just need The Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

One of the most dangerous ideas facing Christianity today is that Christ simply became man to give us what we once had in the Garden of Eden and nothing more.  In this the Incarnation is hijacked by the utopian spirit we discussed above.  This kind of spirit has troubled the people of God from the beginning.  Many Jews of Christ’s time were more or less utopians:  they expected the Messiah to overthrow Roman Rule and bring back the great purity of the ancient monarchy.  Christ had far bigger plans than some temporal Kingdom:  He was establishing the eternal heavenly kingdom, with Himself as ruler and mankind ruling in communion with Him.  We know that eternal kingdom on earth through the Catholic Church.

Another way this utopian spirit was present in the Old Testament was that the Jews of their time had mostly given into dystopian thinking about the modern age.  Their independence had ended.  (Even the illegitimate kings were simply vassals of Babylon.)  The old Davidic monarchy was (seemingly) smashed to pieces.  There would be no restoration.

With this lack of hope in mind, it is curious how the prophet Jeremiah records their prayer life.  They plea to “the God who delivered us out of Egypt.”  The people making this claim never lived in Egypt!  They more or less treated God as an absent deity who had not done much for them lately.  To put it bluntly, they were worshiping a dead god.

God instructs Jeremiah that in the New Covenant, God will instead be “the God who lives and has delivered us from the countries of the North.”  (Jeremiah 16:14-15)  He wasn’t a god who was simply a past event, but the one true God who answers their current needs.  They forget that God delivered the first Jews out of Egypt for the purpose of “being their God.”  The message was that God was always with them and to never despair: he would be the answer to their problems.

This deliverance wasn’t just bringing things back to the way they were.  Jeremiah speaks of this deliverance in terms of the New Covenant where not just Jews but men of every nation will acknowledge God.  (Jeremiah 16:19-20)  Christ wasn’t just coming on earth to recreate some earthly paradise.  He was coming to earth to bring us to heaven where we can rule creation with him.  The prophets weren’t Utopians.  The ideal age was and is an age ruled by sin and imperfection.  No matter how good it was, it is not what we should be looking for.

Sometimes I think we traditionalists get far to caught up in the details of this or that crisis in the Church today that we forget why we are fighting.  We become very much like the dystopians of the Old Testament. We aren’t fighting to restore some golden age.  We are fighting to reach the golden age promised to the faithful in Heaven.  If we can use the things of this world and this present age to reach that point, then even better.

We need to remember that not only can God deliver us from the present evils, not only will he deliver us from the present evils, he already has delivered us.  He gives us the Mass, where the cross is made present, and we get the opportunity to place our old selves on that cross with Him.  He delivered us through the sacraments, which help to preserve us from the world.  Provided we stay faithful and walk the noble way of the Cross, we breathe our last and arrive to the Kingdom God has prepared for us before the foundation of the world.  This is what traditionalism is about and needs to always be about.

Kevin Tierney is an Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane.  He also blogs at http://commmonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com.  You may contact him on Facebook, Google+  or follow him on Twitter @CatholicSmark.