Conversations with Tradition (June 2015)

For the June 2015 issue of Modern Horizons we invite essays on the theme of ‘Conversations with Tradition’.

The question of tradition is the question of personal and communal meaning in time. Tradition, ‘that which is lived and handed down,’ is part of our everyday lives, whether we recognise it or not. In our own habits and dreams, in our conversations with others or with ourselves, in our communities and institutions, in our cultural heritage and religions, in the public square and in our living rooms, various traditions give depth and texture to our sense of being and to our various ways of understanding the world. Whether accepted, rejected, or lived unconsciously, tradition saturates our notions of self, friend, and community. Nonetheless, in our time—which, on the surface, is often hostile to notions of tradition—the question of tradition is frequently met with feelings of vulnerability and insecurity (finding tradition too large a responsibility to bear) or with a sense of self-importance that leads to self-assertion (finding tradition a threat to one’s perceived identity, one’s sense of self). In this way, the question of tradition is one of confrontation, rather than conversation.

To be in conversation with tradition means to attend to it, to come face to face with it, in one’s own life and in the lives of others. To be in conversation with tradition means neither to blindly accept nor fearfully reject it, but rather to work to perceive and understand its contours, how it may thicken or weaken communal and personal life. This understanding must be critical, for the potential rich benefits of tradition are all-too-often mistaken and misused, in which case tradition turns into an ideology that has neither room nor capacity for difference. When this happens, instead of being a fructifying landscape of meaning, tradition becomes a weapon of colonisation, a way of avoiding or overturning ethical presence to the other person or community to which one relates. Rather than an openness and responsibility to other people and cultures, it becomes a force of insularity, a way of dismissing the world insofar as the world is not made in one’s own image. To a large extent, this way of construing and living tradition has its grounds in personal fear and neuroses.

This negative misunderstanding of tradition, and the dangers it poses, frequently and lamentably overshadow the positive, enriching character of tradition. For to have one’s life deepened, to see how and to what degree one may participate in a larger, grander continuum of meaning, is both heartening and thought-provoking. It is heartening because it shows one is not alone, that one is rather part of a larger struggle or search for meaning in life; it is thought-provoking, for the work involved in accepting and affirming for oneself meaning that arises from elsewhere is an involved task—one that requires balancing between what is valuable in a tradition and one’s own integrity and identity in time and place. In this way, tradition is not necessarily something to be rejected either as an overwhelming presence or a threat to one’s identity; rather, tradition may become part of our familiar world, part of the way in which we navigate our everyday lives and work through our sense of past, present, and future. To see tradition in this way is to affirm how it is a dialogic partner to one’s own experience, a ‘friend’ that helps deepen, rather than diminish, how one lives and relates in the world in time. Instead of a difficult burden to be confronted, tradition becomes a meaningful environment for working through questions of life, and becomes an edifying presence in the life of a person and community. Indeed, realising the truth of a tradition personally is an ongoing responsibility, and done ethically, it is the primary way in which tradition avoids devolving into ideology. To realise the truth of a tradition personally means to bring into one’s own, to note and address and integrate what is essential across time and difference, to integrate it into our own person and not to lose but rather enrich our own integrity in this process—integrity both in the sense of the internal coherence of our person and also in the sense of ethical decency and humaneness, of acting aright. This involves a cultivation of a certain ethos—a way of comporting ourselves when we think and act—that tends towards what one considers good and what is present in time and space.

This ethos or comportment is primarily prosaic: it realises and manifests itself in ordinary ways on ordinary days, and it is here—rather than in exceptional or ‘memorable’ moments—that we find the beauty and truth of tradition come across strongest. As we’ve noted, traditions saturate all parts of life, and arguably it’s when we’re not deliberately engaged with it or enacting it that it proves most important. And in these small, ‘lesser’, prosaic moments, we may discern hints of how tradition informs and clarifies our sense of self and other, of community and culture, of our responsibility or thralldom to the past, and our hopes, expectations, idols concerning the future.

Considering the question of tradition now involves a particular set of issues and difficulties; for we live in a time when the public face of religions—most pressing for us in this part of the world, Islamic and American-style fundamentalism—has assumed not just a threatening and ugly countenance, but has affected so many lives to the point of anticipated and realised war; and we live in a time when the so-called guardians of the humanities—universities—have often narrowed their focus to the point of merely asserting various forms of wounded or resentful critique, critique which is so lacking in openness and hospitality to the great works of the distant and near past that one might with some justification name this way of thinking about literature and ideas as non-thinking (and when this happens, as Bakhtin warns, we impoverish the past and do not enrich ourselves); and we live in a time when the public guardians of culture—our museums—often have become limited to a form of deadened and deadening preservation—that is, objects and artefacts in our museums are presented as and understood to be confined in time, indices (perhaps) of another era or place, often presented exotically, but not as elements in time of the continuity and converges involved in our ongoing shared and different stories, as living parts of our cultural, communal, and personal past and present.

If we think about these ideas—and if may agree with Gadamer when he says that thinking is essentially dialogic, an opening up and dwelling with certain fundamental questions necessitated by the subject matter—then three significant matters stand before us to be addressed: the question of the past and identity in time; the question of authority; and the question of appropriation, or, put differently, the question of ‘one’s own’.

With these ideas in mind, we welcome submissions of essays, dialogues, interviews, and critical reviews to do with the theme of tradition. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

-tradition and heritage
-questions of meaning in time
-time, place, identity
-forms of community
-religious tradition and the public sphere
-tradition and personhood
-what is appropriate?
-artistic tradition and creation
-the ontology of the festival
-authority in or against tradition
-tradition as dialogue
-tradition as ideology
-traditional meaning and openness to the other/difference
-contemporary questions of community
-traditions and trends
-responsibility and the past
-how do we face the future?
-hope, idolatry, and the future

Submissions of approximately 1000-5000 words will be considered for publication. Please direct submissions to as an attachment in .doc format and in accordance with the Submission Guidelines found on the CFP page on our website.

Deadline for submissions is 1 February, 2015.

Modern Horizons