Our Culture’s Sacred Stories

I can’t help but like Kathy Shaidle
, the scrappy author of a Canadian blog called Five Feet of Fury. I’ve always had a weakness for people who tell you exactly what they think and never bother to mince words, and Shaidle is all that.

One of the most forthright critics of Canada’s Tyranny of Nice and a courageous proponent of free speech in the face of a Nanny State, she’s had her share of suffering, as have we all, but she is not the sort of person to demand that everybody Observe the Pieties on her behalf, and she can often be screamingly funny when it comes to the sort of hushed silences we are expected to observe on behalf of the sundry movements that batten on human suffering as a way of drumming up support for cash, power, reverence, etc. I often disagree with her sometimes overwhelmingly libertarian outlook, but her — I can’t help but like her. She’s so bloody blunt, so . . . not whiny, and so willing to take life head-on that I’ve always found her refreshing even when she says things with which I strongly disagree.

Here she is, holding forth on “breast cancer awareness” campaigns and the like:

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Shut up about breast cancer awareness. We are so frickin aware I’m gonna vomit. People are always “raising awareness” about things everybody knows about. It is the activism of cowards. Especially women, who are so desperate for safety and approval.

When I got lupus there was this big pull to “get involved” with what I call the “bourgeois disease complex”: the annual “months” and ribbons and in the case of lupus, really corny mascots like butterflies. I think I willed myself into remission just to avoid it. It was all so . . . female. Ugh.

As a citizen of the Soviet of Washington, I must attest a certain resonance with this. There are certain pieties that must be observed here in the Land of the Green and the Home of the Gay. So we are perpetually being made aware of things that we would have to be in a coma not to be aware of. Did you know that AIDS is a deadly disease we must defeat? News to me. Also, it turns out that we need to fight it, not by keeping our pants zipped and not swapping body fluids with complete strangers, but by wearing red ribbons and attending Pride Parades.

Also, were you aware that care for the environment is important and that we should respect the Earth by wearing green ribbons and recycling? Total news flash to me. If I didn’t have Seattle media making me aware of the fact 24/7/365, my short-term memory loss would have completely erased that knowledge from my mind.

Indeed, if it were not for ribbons, I would be totally unaware of lots of things only a victim of massive brain hemorrhage could be unaware of. How could we possibly remember that gender violence, suicide, prostate cancer, slavery, sex trafficking, autism, child abuse, lupus, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, stomach cancer, racism, diabetes, brain cancer, sexual assault, childhood cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and congenital cytomegaloviruses are bad without ribbons to remind us? (Actually, I really wasn’t aware of congenital cytomegaloviruses, but I would assume that anything with “congenital” in the name is probably bad.) Some things, like brain cancer and brain disorders, have two separate ribbons, one silver and one gray, which is confusing and redundant. Other ribbons are to make us aware of unspecified things like “targeted individuals” (which, I suppose, means something like “Save Ferris”). But at the end of the day, the vast majority of these ribbons are designed to make you aware of things you’ve been aware of practically since the day you manifested a brain wave.

And that got me thinking. One of the things a culture seems to do naturally is establish a sort of liturgical litany of Sacred Truths, which it then repeats over and over and over. Which Sacred Truths get repeated more or less seems to determine what that culture is actually about. So, for instance, we go to Mass to hear, well, basically the same thing repeated to us again and again, often in identical words (the Creed and, most especially, the Words of the Institution of the Eucharist, for instance). Exactly what we don’t want — what would be a very bad thing indeed — is to hear something new: to stop reading from the Scriptures we’ve heard a million times and start reading from the latest bit of New Age twaddle from some book recommended by Oprah. The core and essence of what we do at Mass is make ourselves aware of what we already know or believe.

Other structures of belief do the same thing, so you go to your favorite political or cultural group in order to hear, yet again, that liberals are evil jackasses and we good guys value freedom and the little guy, or to hear that conservatives are corporate-stooge jackasses and we good guys value freedom and the little guy, or that Breast Cancer Awareness must be promoted because evil males have minimized this dread disease and we must raise the consciousness of the public, and so on.

In short, for each culture and subculture, there’s a Sacred Story that must be spoken again and again and that gives each group its cohesion. Such stories may or may not be true. They may be true but trivial. They may be some mixture of true and false. They may be outright lies. They may be (and often are) recognized by the adherents of the group as “sacred” only in the sense of an emphatically small “s”: the moment when two people looked at each other and said, “You like keeping aquarium fish too? Wow! I thought I was the only one! Hey! We should start a little group to talk about keeping tropical fish!”

But whatever the sacred story is that keeps a group of people together to discuss their passion, such stories are the things that hold together that gathering of Cub Scouts, or lesbians for choice, or model railroad enthusiasts, or KKK members, or MAD Magazine collectors. This is all quite normal and human and is the basis of every private association on the planet.

Now sometimes that sacred story gets seized by enthusiasts and raised to the level of what Catholics call Sacred Tradition. When the sacred story is something relatively minor and gets this inflationary treatment, people usually laugh (as, for instance, in this classic essay by G. K. Chesterton, in which he addresses a lawn tennis enthusiast who took the game way too seriously).

But when the Sacred Human Story elevated to the status of Sacred Tradition is about some of the bigger issues in human existence — nations, blood, race, economics, sex, family, etc. — these things can often loom so large in our minds that we are tempted to elevate them to the altar and confuse them with the Word of God Himself. When that happens, it is almost a certainty that somebody is going to get hurt or killed as a result.

That’s what Paul is really warning about when he tells the Colossians:
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ (Col 2:8).
This passage, one of the most misunderstood in Scripture, is not a denunciation of the Catholic idea of Sacred Tradition. It has not a word to say against the basic Catholic idea that apostolic Tradition comes down to us in written and unwritten form and constitutes the common life, teaching, and worship of the Church. It doesn’t even have anything particularly hostile to say about human traditions, which are the lifeblood of normal human society and constitute the way in which civilizations function. (Imagine, if it’s even possible, a world with no human traditions: no birthdays, anniversaries, special meals, toasts, wedding rings, rites of passage, funerals, retirement parties, favorite games, favorite songs, or any other repeated group actions. You may as well try to imagine a world without human beings. Tradition is how we remember who we are.)

No, the only thing Paul warns about here — the only thing Scripture ever warns about human tradition — is the elevation of mere human tradition to the status of Sacred Tradition: the confusion of your own Favorite Human Thing with the essence of the gospel Jesus Christ entrusted to His Church. Against that, Paul and the Church warn us with great force, and it has ever been the task of the Magisterium to help us distinguish between mere human tradition and Sacred Tradition.

Every time we are tempted to make our views about some ideology, or prudential judgment, or hot-button issue into Sacred Tradition, or to minimize some aspect of the Tradition in order to get away with excusing our favorite ideological sins, the teaching of the Church is there to check us. We can love our girlfriend all we like, just so long as we do not love her more than the command not to commit fornication. We can love our country all we like, just so long as we do not place the love of country higher than the love of God and the command, “You shall not do evil that good may come of it.” Tribal allegiances are fine, as are such requirements for loyalty to one’s own flesh and blood. But such allegiances, exalted to a theory of race superiority or genocidal war against the impure are sins against the two greatest commandments. Love of science is fine. Love of science divorced from love of God and neighbor is toxic.

The paradox is that the warning against such confusion is based exactly on the fact that the human things we love and want to exalt are not bad but very, very good. It’s because our family, our country, our life, our children, our property and our work, our art and our science are great and good things that we must keep them in their proper places, lest they so easily become idols that we place them on the altar instead of the Eucharist, where they inevitably become demons. And yet, paradoxically, the Church is the strongest defender of those who savor their particular human traditions, yet remember they are merely human and not divine.

So the Church loves the flourishing of local cultures and has been the Mother and patron of thousands of different human cultures. She likewise encourages all sorts of investigation and experimentation in disciplines like science, philosophy, politics, and art. The only point where she draws the line is when somebody attempts to claim that “All true Catholics must adhere solely and entirely to [capitalism, liberation theology, Impressionism, the Republican Party, Obamacare, Thomism, America, Saving the Children, Predestination, Darwinism, etc.].” The Faith is not a human ideology or tradition and therefore cannot be whittled down to fit any of these human traditions, however good and useful they may be.

  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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