I’ve mentioned ‘discontinuity’ a few times in recent weeks. This is what happens when a tradition like monastic life or liturgical music suddenly takes on a strikingly different form than what came immediately before. Why does this interest (or concern) me? If you are allergic to long quotations, you probably can read the first and last sentence of what follows, and still get the gist:
“[The Second Vatican] Council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era.
This relationship had a somewhat stormy beginning with the Galileo case. It was then totally interrupted when Kant described “religion within pure reason” and when, in the radical phase of the French Revolution, an image of the State and the human being that practically no longer wanted to allow the Church any room was disseminated.
In the 19th century under Pius IX, the clash between the Church’s faith and a radical liberalism and the natural sciences, which also claimed to embrace with their knowledge the whole of reality to its limit, stubbornly proposing to make the “hypothesis of God” superfluous, had elicited from the Church a bitter and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age. Thus, it seemed that there was no longer any milieu open to a positive and fruitful understanding, and the rejection by those who felt they were the representatives of the modern era was also drastic.
In the meantime, however, the modern age had also experienced developments. People came to realize that the American Revolution was offering a model of a modern State that differed from the theoretical model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution.
The natural sciences were beginning to reflect more and more clearly their own limitations imposed by their own method, which, despite achieving great things, was nevertheless unable to grasp the global nature of reality.
So it was that both parties were gradually beginning to open up to each other.”
–Pope Benedict XVI, December 22, 2005
Thus the Holy Father already is noting some discontinuity between, let’s say, ‘Christendom’ or medieval Europe and ‘modernity’. Galileo marks a symbolic revolutionary moment. But there is clearly a parting of the ways.
What is modernity? How would we characterize it? Proponents of modernity like to imagine two positive qualities: a break from the restrictions of morbid tradition and the decision to pursue empirical, objective truth fearlessly.
The Church, from this perspective, appears hidebound in the traditions of men, relying on revelation instead of looking hard at the real world. The long struggle between Catholicism and modernism tends to revolve around a disagreement over how to characterize the Church’s dependence on tradition (and therefore with a sense of continuity with tradition).
Important questions arise, however, when we examine the claims of modernism. What happens when we examine modernist claims openly and fearlessly rather than taking them as revelatory? When we apply a certain level of suspicion to the claim that the modernist’s view of the world is objective? Or for another example, can one really, truly leave tradition behind and launch out into a new and unbiased examination of facts? This turns out to be much more complicated than it sounds. Well, maybe not complicated at all, just difficult to see because most of us are pretty thoroughly modern at this point.
When Descartes set out to establish a new set of first principles that were utterly certain, he imagined that he was leaving tradition behind. He wanted to examine the world ‘objectively’, free of any preconceived notions. But when he put quill to paper, of necessity, he wrote in French. That is to say, he adopted French conventions of grammar, vocabulary (especially technical philosophical vocabulary). Students of Descartes have no difficulty identifying the influences of late Scholasticism (the school of Aquinas and Scotus) on his expression. So Descartes was not actually leaving tradition or preconceived notions behind at all. But he told us he was, and he seemed to believe it, and many who followed him believed it.
What is the effect of this blindness to the actual, but now hidden, influence of tradition? How might we be affected by pretending that we are not shaped by a tradition of language, of philosophical learning, of social habits, and so on? Here’s what I think.
Remember that one of the claims of modernity is that mankind now examines the world ‘as it is’. That we now view ‘facts’ ‘objectively’. It turns out that the facts that we see are not fundamental in any sense. They often turn out to be the arbitrary conventions of European tradition, but now interpreted as ‘how things really are’. By pretending not to be influenced by tradition, the tradition lingers on as a set of facts to be explained…but we no longer have the key that makes sense of the facts, that is, we blind ourselves to the tradition that makes the facts hang together.
We need an example here. Let me use music. When you look at a piano keyboard, you will notice that the pattern of the shapes of the keys repeats after every twelve keys (in a series that uses seven white keys and five black keys). Because the patterns starts over every eighth white note, musicians call this series an octave. In any case, the distance in pitch between every two adjacent keys is exactly the same. It is tempting to observe this ‘objective fact’ and conclude, “Music works like this: there are twelve equal intervals to the octave…”
But in fact, this division of the octave into twelve notes is entirely conventional and only understandable as an outgrowth of concerns in Western music since the Renaissance. In fact, until recently, no other culture had this habit of tuning notes within the octave this way. In fact, the standardization of this ‘equal temperament’ between adjacent keys only took place definitively about a hundred years ago in Europe. In the seventeenth century, there were many theories about how best to tune the notes of the octave, and keyboard manufacturers sometimes produced keyboards that had thirty-nine or forty-three keys to the octave! Equal tuning causes certain other intervals, for example the distance between eight keys on the piano (what is called a perfect fifth, an interval whose ratio Pythagoras discovered), to be out of tune. It’s just that we no longer notice that all of our music is slightly out of tune because we’ve gotten used to it.
I might even say that we as a culture have forgotten what it means to be in tune. And that what sounds ‘objectively’ in tune to us…is not! At least we can say that what it means to be ‘in tune’ turns out not to depend merely on acoustical, physical properties of sound, but also on the particular cultural tradition that forms the listener.
Now, if I pretend that my culture’s idea of being in tune is not dependent on a tradition, but simply is a ‘cold, hard fact’, what do I make of Indian music or other types of music that use different tuning systems? The temptation is to think of them as simply wrong, maybe primitive, probably irrational. And voila, this cultural chauvinism is strongly reminiscent of the criticism that modernists often use against the Church. But it turns out that the person who ignorant of being shaped by a tradition will have a difficult time separating out “what seems to be in tune to me” from “what is in tune.” More generally, he will struggle to make a distinction between “what seems objective to me,” from”what is objective.”
So-called ‘postmodernism’ is modern philosophy’s way of acknowledging this problem. As postmodernism has become more sophisticated, the possibility of a kind of rapprochement between the Church and the modern world has seemed more plausible. Unfortunately, Vatican II took place before postmodernism had matured. This led, in some ways, to the adoption of modernist habits of thought into the reform that followed the Council. Unpacking that will have to wait for another day.
Bonus for the musically inclined!
From 1989 until 1994, I studied on and off with composer Easley Blackwood. We considered collaborating on a composition for a guitar that had been tuned with 15 notes to the octave. I was not able to be a part of the project, so he composed this without my help (not that he needed it…):
His experiments with odd microtones (tones smaller than those intervals we find on modern pianos) have found surprising popularity on the internet. If you are in the mood for music from some totally alien culture, keep listening: