A little over a year ago, Ellen Coyne wrote her personal spiritual memoir, Are you there, my God? This’it’s me, Ellen. A Irish Independent A campaign correspondent and journalist, Coyne held strong pro-choice views and wrote articles in support of the repeal of the pro-life Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution.
Her book stems from an epiphany in the dizzying aftermath of the abortion referendum — that the Christian tradition in which she was raised may still have things to say to her. As the blurb of his book asks, why should the Church “keep all its good things, like rituals, community, a guide to living a better life, and the comfort of believing that it’s not the end when someone dies?”
Coyne’s shocking realization that the death of Catholic Ireland means the loss of centuries of tradition offers a telling glimpse of what lies ahead.
Tim Stanley’s timely book steps into the breach here, its title countering Coyne’s question with another question – “What happened to tradition?” The book invites readers, whatever their conviction, to question modern history, the uses and value of tradition and nostalgia in Western culture.
The book’s defense of tradition in an increasingly iconoclastic, atomized and divided culture echoes similar concerns raised by Iranian-American journalist Sohrab Ahmari in The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in a Time of Chaos, also released last year. Stanley’s book differs in that it is particularly geared towards an audience on this side of the Atlantic (Stanley is British) and is therefore in some ways more relevant to an Irish readership.
Tim Stanley is a published academic historian turned columnist for the The telegraph of the day. Raised a Baptist, he converted to Catholicism in his twenties. A former Marxist and former unsuccessful Labor Party candidate, Stanley now identifies with conservatism in small c. The book contains occasional anecdotes about the author’s personal, family, and religious life.
Just as its author has traversed the religious and political spectrum, the book presents a rich array of sources in its analysis and defense of tradition. Nor is he afraid to articulate in a measured and unbiased way traditional and long-held views on contemporary (and often controversial) moral issues.
The book’s argument is framed by the events surrounding the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019.
Stanley reflects on the variety of responses to the tragedy, from dignified mourning to far-right conspiracy theories, as well as the ensuing inconsistent proposals about what to rebuild there — from faithful restoration to, variously , a zoo and a swimming pool. Even more troubling was media confusion and discomfort about how to cover the story: Is Notre Dame a tourist attraction, a national icon, or a sacred space? For Stanley, the inconsistency of coverage and aftermath of the event characterizes in a very tangible way the dissonant values of the modern West, the ignorance of its own history and the caustic disregard for tradition.
The book consists of two parts.
In the first half, he analyzes tradition in Western culture, the adaptability and refinement of tradition when it encounters an apparent obstacle or “rival” to its influence, and an exploration of the attractiveness and contradictions of nostalgia.
In the second half of the book, he offers deeper analyzes of the battlegrounds of tradition in the 21st century, such as economics, freedom, and religion. While Stanley posits and defends a Christian perspective, his careful analysis of each topic reveals surprising points of agreement on some issues.
For example, in the chapter on “Tradition and Equality”, he explores the tensions of tradition and conservatism at the two poles of economic thought and practice – capitalism and socialism. An insightful and well-argued exploration of early socialism, the chapter may make uncomfortable reading for those in small government, unconditionally pro-capitalist.
Stanley makes the interesting point that the working class, who are often viewed (or romanticized) as revolutionaries and iconoclasts of the old order, are, on the contrary, deeply conservative and resistant to change. He draws his inspiration from the most eminent historian of the English working class, EP Thompson, who once observed that “the conservative culture of the plebs most often resists, in the name of custom, these economic rationalizations and innovations … which rulers, merchants, or employers seek to impose… Thus, plebeian culture is rebellious, but rebellious in defense of custom.
Thus the 1984 miners’ strike reveals what Stanley calls an “instinctive conservatism” of people who wanted to preserve their way of life, pitting them against the big-C Tories of the Thatcher government far away in London. Stanley argues that 21st century leftist thought fails to recognize the “subtly conservative” slant of early working class movements.
Conversely, for those who advocate smaller, less invasive government, or who look to the 1950s rather than the 1960s for their nostalgia, Stanley warns that taxes were significantly higher back then and government more redistributive: “The kind of world the conservatives want has to be paid for, probably by wealthy conservatives.
A danger with a book like this is that instead of challenging and uplifting, it will sink into leaden sentimentality, confirming the comfortable assumptions of its complacent reader who sees decline everywhere and longs for a rose-tinted bygone era. .
Stanley avoids the trap of complacent nostalgia. At the beginning of the book, he confronts the relationship between tradition and nostalgia, a word that derives from the Greek for “nostalgia”. Acknowledging that nostalgia gone wrong can be tearful, he argues that it can also help us question our history, draw on reliable accounts from the past, and make moral sense of current activity. Tradition, when its breadth and depth are truly understood, is eschatological. Helping us trace the roots and purpose of our present existence, Stanley observes that ultimately “many traditions are designed, basically, to prepare us for the end.” Tradition helps us to face the oldest beginning and the most distant end, the origin and the goal of our existence.
The last chapter of the book deals with tradition and religion. Stanley is not afraid to share his own Catholic faith. However, he realizes that many of his readers will have a different faith, if any at all, and the book is aimed at a general, secular audience.
Stanley focuses on funerals to explore the hollowing out of religious tradition in the West, particularly his native England. People want the trappings of religious tradition for important life events, but don’t seem to fully understand them or want to commit much to learning more about them.
For Stanley, funerals “define for me the cultural confusion of the West – of a society living uncomfortably with the folk memory of a lost order, haunted by an idea of what it should do but not sure you know how to put it into practice”. The book blames institutions as much as individual apathy, the timid acquiescence of Christian churches to the The spirit of the timesleaving them “without authority” in matters of doctrine and training.
The interplay between tradition and freedom occupies its own chapter, although this complex relationship is considered throughout. When it comes to religion, Stanley acknowledges that many in the secularized West see it as a constraint on freedom. Morality and tradition can seem stiflingly prescriptive.
However, as Stanley points out, Christianity also promises forgiveness and redemption—enormously generous freedoms far greater than any narrow view of human effort can conceive. For Stanley, the duties of faith are “not a severe burden or compulsion but a release, for the great revelation of many religious teachings is that we need not be evil.”
Stanley’s language is conversational and his tone is easygoing. Don’t let that fool you, though. The book delves into the intertwined and ever-changing relationship of tradition with economics, politics, culture and religion. Stanley skillfully weaves personal anecdote with anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics and history. It is therefore difficult to limit the book to a single genre. Is it philosophy? The story of an idea? In fact, this ambiguity suits the subject very well, since tradition itself is a nebulous but powerful force, indefinable but always present in our lives.