Tradition as DNA

There is almost nothing right or wrong which does not alter with a change in clime. A shift of three degrees of latitude is enough to overthrow all jurisprudence. One’s location on the meridian decides the truth, that or a change in territorial possession. Fundamental laws alter. What is right changes with the times. Strange justice that is bounded by a river or a mountain! The truth on this side of the Pyrénées, error on the other. —Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. —Hebrews 13:8,9a, NLT

dna-quiltThe American and French revolutions had much in common. They were fought in close historical proximity to each other. They were each a revolt against the despotism of kings and a system of governance devoid of individual representation. They were both inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially a belief in a fundamental human right to liberty, equality, and justice.

Fast-forward to the year 2005. Modern-day America and France each have mature democracies, human rights guaranteed by law, robust economies, and technological sophistication. Apart from language, our two nations look for all the world to be twins separated at birth.

Except for religion. France has become a secular paradise, with most of the French identifying themselves as either agnostic or deist. America, of course, has the opposite reputation. (Church attendance in the US has been falling for some time, of course, and America is clearly becoming more secular. But it is interesting to note that in France and the US, evangelical Christian congregations are experiencing steady growth.)

One of the driving goals of the French Revolution was to rid the nation of its attachment to “religious mythology.” The Revolution zealously pursued the Enlightenment’s promise of a secular utopia. Churches were burned or rededicated as “houses of reason.” Priests were guillotined, imprisoned, or driven out of the country. Government and law were constructed on secular, scientific principles, and in the chambers of democracy, religion was made unwelcome.

Give scientists a chance to remake the world, and who knows what will be left standing when they are done? What human habit can survive the blade of logic? What social institution can justify its ways to mathematics? What ancient custom can be assayed with precision? Thus did the savants of the French Revolution see their chance to eradicate myth and tradition and rebuild their nation on a foundation of reason and “right thinking. —Historian Ken Alder, The Measure of All Things.

The calendar was changed, not merely renaming the months in honor of the seasons of the year, but creating a new 10-day work week with no “Sundays.” The metric system was introduced, and with it came a base-10 clock, decimal currency, and a system for measuring angles based on a circle of 400 degrees instead of 360.

These reforms touched every facet of society, with unforeseen results. With new currency and new measures for weight and volume, how could one be certain that the baker was charging a fair price for a loaf of bread? Land had always been measured in human units: this parcel will produce so many bushels of wheat; that parcel will take four men two days to harvest. Under the reforms of the Revolution, buying and selling, labor and wages were completely destabilized. The intelligentsia applauded the rationality of the changes; the laboring and mercantile classes found them totally unsuited to the real world.

Ultimately, most of these reforms were repealed. The intellectual classes had to admit that they had failed to foresee the social consequences of their utopian tinkering.

In America, the Enlightenment did not produce the extremism seen in France. The Christian and Deist fathers of the American revolution were just as zealous about building a progressive society, but it did not occur to them that religion might be a hindrance to their efforts.

Far from it. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights openly took cues from Christianity, and often argued that the natural rights of men were best assured in a society that viewed all human rights, and all just government, as ultimately guaranteed by the highest authority—not human reason, but a just and loving God.

Where France purged religion from its soil, America attempted a blending of the best insights of the Enlightenment and religious tradition. America created legal protections for religion and welcomed faith as a wholesome and stabilizing element in human society.

In America, faith and tradition were deemed compatible with reason. Modern man could study the world and uncover its secrets precisely because it had been created by a rational God in an orderly fashion.

In fact, a strong case can be made that the blood lust of the French revolution was due precisely to its abandonment of the faith-based moral strictures that everywhere succeed in keeping men’s worst passions in check.

The Committee for Public Safety knew nothing of grace, mercy and love, only cold justice and the speedy drop of Dr. Guillotine’s blade.

To many American progressives, this cold European rationalism is a thing of beauty. They are dismayed by America’s religious traditionalism and its resistance to Europe’s social experimentation with euthanasia, infanticide, same-sex marriage and drug legalization. They want to create a permissive, laissez-faire culture, unrestrained by religious dogma, and to do so, they are moving on many fronts to marginalize the influence of religion over law and culture.

The difficulty for traditionalists, according to a recent article by Lee Harris for Policy Review, is that “tradition” can never withstand the assaults of “reason.” Tradition, according to Harris, is not a set of logical propositions that can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. It has more in common with our DNA. He calls tradition our “visceral code,” by which he means a set of internalized social rules that have been formed by thousands of years of selective social adaptation, in much the same way that our DNA has mutated and adapted to be what it is today.

In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified…
[I]sn’t it permissible for a community to wish to guard its own cherished habits of the heart against [this] endless skeptical interrogation, especially when the intent of the interrogators is to subvert the visceral code that embodies these habits of the heart? The visceral code is like the DNA of the community: It tells us what behavior must be passed on through the social emotions of shame, honor and pride. …
We cannot ask whether the visceral code is useful to the community when it is in fact constitutive of the community: It is the foundation on which the community is built. It is a necessary precondition of achieving community at all, and hence it is improper to evaluate it in terms of its mere utility. —Lee Harris, The Future of Tradition

In Harris’ view, it makes as much sense to debate the traditional view of marriage as to debate whether humans would be better off with eyes in the back of their heads. Tradition, like DNA, is beyond questioning. It has been formed by the whole course of human history. It deserves our respect because it has survived the test of time. It survives because it has outperformed the alternatives.

If Harris is right, what progressives are attempting is a genetic experiment on our community DNA. If environmentalists can have qualms about genetically modified corn, shouldn’t we be all the more cautious about experimenting with the human family? If we have moral questions about cloning sheep, shouldn’t we be even more cautious about experimenting with thousands of years of human social development?

For Christians, of course, Harris’ “visceral code” is the revealed wisdom of the Creator God. God himself is unchanging, and human nature, despite our modern belief in our own sophistication, has not changed since the beginning of time. The sin of Adam and Eve was choosing to follow their own hearts, their own desires, rather than the wisdom of the God who had created them.

And so it is today. Progressivism has done much good for human society. Our quest for knowledge has led to a better understanding of human disease, the extension of life and real relief for human suffering. The spread of democracy has increased the spread of justice and human rights.

But progressivism does a great disservice when it declares war on the ancient social traditions that have grown out of the visceral code of our community DNA. Progressives are quick to assure us that their genetic tinkering will have no adverse social consequences. They ask us to trust them. To traditionalists, those promises are not reassurring.

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  1. Cooper Gillan says

    Hey Charlie, I enjoyed this entry. I have thought over this kind of stuff before and it is sometimes hard to know where the good and the bad in progressivism is.

    Anyway, the online social justice magazine published at my school can be found at Hands On Magazine. The most recent issue is about Housing. Take care.

  2. Great post. This is what I love about blogs. I get exposed to thinking I would have otherwise missed. I especially think the duplicity of the progressives in worrying about genetically altered produce but being willing to genetically alter our cultural foundations is very insightful.

  3. Hi Charlie,

    Very thought provoking post. I’m thinking you are referring to General Revelation. The “DNA” metaphor caught my attention. I see the point and am figuring you are meaning that the knowledge of God is being suppressed or opposed. I don’t think we have a “tradition” that has progressed – I guess I’d say we have a knowledge of God – which we suppress in many ways.

    Mentioned this post in my latest Scene and Herd.

  4. I was a bit jumbled as I commented in a bit of a hurry – I see that you are talking about General Revelation and tying in the secular “traditional DNA” thoughts with that – or perhaps I should say putting them in framwork. Great post.

  5. Featured your post at Blog Watch

  6. Textile Enthusiast says

    Thanks for your post! Do you happen to know the name of the artist who made the beautiful DNA quilt you posted here? Thanks

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