Friday, May 31, 2013

Stickhandling Tradition: Freedom and Constraint in Religious Life

      by Ron Kuipers

Freedom is constraint by norms (rules). This definition of freedom seems at first to fly in the face of modern notions of liberty, which are inherently negative. Freedom in this latter sense is freedom from rules. Rules are fetters to be escaped. As many philosophers have pointed out (and Jeffrey Stout does a great job of this in Democracy and Tradition), this negative conception of liberty occludes the productive role played by rules, the way normative constraints (rules) in fact create the space in which we are free to do anything at all. Very rare is the person who, without any lessons or other form of apprenticeship, can simply walk up to a piano or pick up a guitar and give a virtuoso performance. In this sense, I am not free to play the guitar simply because nothing prevents me from picking one up. Let’s look at another example from the world of sport: Obviously, one is not free to play hockey until one learns how to play hockey. But such learning is a form of apprenticeship to the rules and norms that guide and determine what it means to play hockey, and to do so skilfully. The initiate learns these rules and skills from authoritative predecessors (coaches), who have the authority (competence) to recognize when the initiate has successfully mastered these various skills, including the authority to determine to what extent she has done so. Learning this sport, then, involves seeking recognition for one’s performance; in particular one seeks recognition from the authoritative predecessors (coaches) to which one has apprenticed oneself. In this situation, the coach is the judge, and so decides when the player’s performance has reached a level of exemplarity, when it becomes an example of “going on in the same way” (to crib a phrase from Wittgenstein) as all the previous performances that set the precedents for this judgment.

If we think of hockey in this way, we can think of it as a tradition of virtue or excellence. Something excellent worth passing along (in this case, skill at playing hockey) is kept (in the sense of guarded and protected) by authoritative practitioners who have the responsibility to inculcate this skill in the lives of the initiates in their charge, and who also have the authority (in the sense of competence) to judge (recognize) when it has been so inculcated. It is important for us to recognize that without such guardianship, virtues and excellences may be lost. Nobody knows how to make a Stradivarius anymore. Knowledge does not grow on trees (as Barry Allen is fond of saying).

At the same time, initiates themselves are not simply (or at least they will not ever remain) mere passive receptacles for this prized knowledge or skill. They are themselves agent participants in this pattern of recognition. The point to grasp here is that any tradition of excellence has an ongoing history of donation and reception through which the norms that are passed along and inculcated are themselves subject to modification in their very transmission. The theologian Kevin Hector thus describes such traditions as embodying a “normative trajectory,” a trajectory that remains dynamic so long as the tradition remains alive. That is, every time the practice of an initiate receives recognition from competent authorities as “going on in the same way,” the tradition’s normative trajectory is modified a little bit. It now includes more examples of what it means to go on in the same way than it did before; and maybe, in some special cases, a particular novel performance even has the ability to modify significantly what the authorities think it means to go on in the same way.

One clearly sees such modification in the case of the former initiate who has become a virtuoso. In this case especially, we clearly see the ‘dialectical’ relationship between learning a skill and the evolution of normative constraints. The initiate learns the skill by abiding by the constraints, yet once the skill is mastered (once virtuosity is achieved) some constraints (but not all, and definitely not all at once) become available for modification in the practice itself. To continue with the hockey example: Wayne Gretzky “changed the way we play hockey.” From his position of virtuosity or mastery, he exploited areas of the ice that were formerly considered neutral (think of his “office” behind the net), and transformed them into dangerous areas in which to leave him unmarked. Virtuoso performances like Gretzky’s, even as they are constrained by the norms governing the sport of hockey, have a specific novelty and creativity to them, one might even say an “unpredictability.” (Keep in mind that “constraint by norms” still conditions the possibility of even such groundbreaking performance as Gretzky’s). So, while Gretzky’s transformative virtuoso hockey performances may have been unpredictable in prospect, those with authority in the sport could still recognize, in retrospect, that not only did they “go on in the same way,” but they did so in exemplary fashion. Gretzky thus became a model for others of how to play the sport, and opened up new possibilities for doing so. He changed the way the game is played, even if it remains recognizably the same game.

A living tradition, then, if it really cares for excellence (virtue), will not only be concerned to preserve continuity (going on in the same way), but will also be concerned to make space for novel and unpredictable performances that are still carried out in its spirit, guided by its ongoing normative trajectory (Gretzky was still trying to score goals and win hockey games; Christians are still trying to embody God’s love made manifest in Christ). On the account of the relationship between freedom and fealty to tradition being put forward here, a tradition exists both to bring forward a past spirit, and also to allow that spirit to be breathed anew into a different present, and thus open up possibilities for a transformed future. When traditions refuse to allow generous scope for their practitioners to experiment with novel, unpredictable forms of “going on in the same way,” when they refuse to recognize the (oftentimes small, but real) contribution that initiates make to the evolution of their tradition’s normative trajectory, they become authoritarian, and they kill the dynamism and sense of possibility that is crucial for any living tradition to maintain and embody. “Keepers” of authoritarian tradition (for they are really destroyers of it as a tradition of excellence) are like the obtuse coach who orders Gretzky not to set up camp behind the net because “hockey isn’t played that way.” Such a coach won’t last long, at least not if those with authority in the sport continue to concern themselves with its ability to achieve ever new forms of excellence. In the same way, authoritarian traditions obsess about their roots and become ignorant and unconcerned about the ongoing life of the tree they are meant to stabilize and nourish; such traditions contract archive fever, wither, and die. We can do greater things than Christ (John 14:12).

Ron Kuipers is the Director of the CPRSE and Associate Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at ICS.


  1. Nicely done Ron. Hockey, Wittgenstein, tradition all in just a few paragraphs. I have gotten to a very similar place but via a very different route. But I do borrow language from at least one of your intellectual "mentors" from times past. I like to speak of those who view tradition as discussion starter or as discussion stopper. Of course those who view tradition as discussion stopper break down into those who say what already is given in the tradition provides already every possible answer to any possible question and those who say that what is given in any tradition impedes the search for any answer to any question whatsoever. So traditionalists and anti-traditionalists are really joined at the hip; they just draw opposite conclusions about what they share--extant tradition as totality, whereas you and I, I am guessing, would prefer to speak of extant tradition as a pointer toward a future other than as well as in continuity with present experience.

    1. Thanks for this, Bob. I agree about the two groups you name being joined at the hip. Those like Rorty who bridle at tradition for its conversation-stopping potential are in fact reacting to those traditionalists who believe their tradition provides every answer to every possible question, and you are right to say that the former mistakenly allow the latter to define what tradition is or can be. Rorty should know better, though, because, as Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature shows, he has read and internalized a lot of Gadamer.