You Have To Have Tradition To Overcome It

One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 52, quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.81

Properly, this post belongs on my other site.  Yet as I was reading Leppert’s interpretation of Adorno on tradition, I couldn’t help but find parallels to our on-going discussions in The United Methodist Church.  Precisely because Adorno insisted that all of us, including this author and Adorno himself, were inescapably involved in the compromises and contradictions of late modernity, the best he believed was ever possible was to highlight those contradictions without offering a resolution, precisely because that inferred some kind of clear-sightedness past our current dilemma that isn’t possible.  For Adorno, this offered at least the hope, the Utopian promise that, as commentator Richard Leppert says, things could be better than they are.

While dealing with aesthetics, specifically with music, the aphorism above applies in all areas of life.  For Adorno, tradition, like everything else, is no longer a living thing, a historical, social, political, human reality, but a commodity to be purchased.  We believe buying antiques, or listening to an older piece of music puts us “in touch with tradition” when in fact we are only consuming a product sold to us as fulfilling a need.  Late capitalism has stripped the living human world and reduced it to products to be packaged and sold.  We are no longer in touch with our past because it has become commodified.

Adorno was critiqued, in particular by Georg Lukacs, for living in what Lukacs called “the Grand Hotel Abyss”, never once disturbing the quiet of his thought or the pleasures of his retreat from the Abyss in to which he would gaze.  Yet, Adorno was always consistent that action, even in his youth, went against the historical realities, which Leppert described as fascist on the one side, Stalinist on the other, and neither attractive.  In the years of his American exile, Adorno didn’t so much come to despise the United States as he came to understand how it was the epitome of all that was both great and terrible about modernity in its dotage.  Even in his late years – the mid- to late-1960’s – Adorno refused to become involved in the student protest movements in Germany and elsewhere, because he believed the students had become far more enamored of praxis without thought, whereas for Adorno, thought either guided or reflected upon practical action or the action became little more than mob violence, serving the ends of modernity’s real goal – making even revolution a product to be sold.

For Adorno, the most difficult thing in late modernity was to think.  More precisely, whether it was fascism, Stalinism, or the totalizing tendencies of the Culture Industry in the United States all worked against thought.  Nothing was more revolutionary than to think, specifically to think about what is and more importantly what could be.  In order to do this, one has to be aware of the past in a way that late modernity’s political systems worked so hard to prevent: the past had to become a part of one’s life, a living thing against which one struggles in thought first.  You cannot overcome a past you do not know, but only own, offered to you at 20% off.

We United Methodists have an abundance of multiple traditions from which to draw.  Some of them overlap.  Some of them contradict.  All of them, however, need to become part of our marrow, part of our heart and life if we are to overcome them and become the United Methodist Church for the present and future.  Yesterday, I offered a Moltmannian approach to our problems, in which we dared to be a church that could stand before the cross, emptying ourselves of pride, of power, of our reliance upon doctrine and the Bible in order to be what God is calling us to be – those willing to die in order to follow God’s call.  Today, I’m insisting that there are things we need to do before we take this via Dolorosa.  We need to acknowledge that our traditions are, by and large, no longer a part of who we are.  Oh, we mouth platitudes toward John Wesley, toward Bishops Coke and Asbury.  We talk about the Holiness movement and how it changed and electrified our churches.  Do we also acknowledge the depth of Boston Personalism, a religious/philosophical system developed by United Methodist theologians to respond to the perils and problems of Gilded Age Christianity?  Do we even remember the multiple threads of tradition from what was the Evengelical United Brethren Church, its deep German pietism and commitment to congregational autonomy?  Are we willing to embrace the history of racism that still infects our church?

We are confronting not just our recent history of refusal to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of sexual minorities, and all they can and do offer our churches.  We are confronting our own forgetfulness, our own refusal to understand this as part of a real, living, human tradition called the  United Methodist Church that has always tried to overcome its worst demons while never doing so completely.  We cannot take the steps necessary unless we first acknowledge, and then repent, our forgetfulness, our traditions of discrimination, of bigotry and white supremacy that still exists, that these traditions are a living part of who we are.  We cannot become who we should be until and unless we are willing to acknowledge who we are.

I want to end with an apologia for Adorno’s overall philosophical project, written by Neil Lazarus, from an essay entitled “Hating Tradition Properly”, originally published in No. 38 of New Formations in the summer of 1999 and included by Leppert on pp. 81-82, at the close of his general introduction:

The point for Adorno . . . is that while the tradition of European bourgeois humanism has always insisted upon its civility , has always gestured toward – even made a promise of – a unversalistically conceived social freedom, it has never delivered on this promise, except, arguably, to the privileged few, and even then only on the basis of the domination of all the others.  To have tradition properly is in these terms very different from championing this exclusive (and often excluding . . .) tradition; on the contrary, it is to keep faith with true universality, with the idea of a radically transformed social order, and to oppose oneself implacably to the false universality of modern (bourgeois) sociality.  It is to use one’s relative class privilege to combat all privilege, to shoulder the responsibility of intellectualism by “mak[ing] the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom [one] say[s] it cannot see.

The man for whom the whole is the lie, desire only to save the spirit of the Enlightenment, from which the Methodist movement, arguably at least, was born, from its actual history.  Its tradition, you might say, a tradition with which Adorno was intimately familiar.  In the same way, I have no idea what the specifics of the future for the United Methodist Church will be.  I only know there is much in our past to overcome, to stand against, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit giving us the courage to set it all aside and stand at the foot of the cross and say, “Yes”.  Not only for ourselves, but for the whole Church and the world we are called to transform.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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