On Sunday mornings, after the rustle of the people in the pews quiets down and an expectant hush has fallen over everyone, a minister walks up the aisle between the pews behind one of the elders of the church. At the front of the sanctuary, they stop and turn toward one another, smile. They shake hands. Then the minister climbs the three or four steps to the pulpit, while the elder takes a seat in the pews. I’ve watched this happen every Sunday, every service, without fail. And for a long time, it never occurred to me to ask why.
Many of the rituals and rhythms of life are like this, whether within the walls of a church or without. We talk about our habits and our practices as though we’ve consciously chosen each one of them, like groceries from the shelves of our local supermarket, deciding what’s best for ourselves. But the reality is less straightforward. Most of our traditions are passed down from one generation to the next, inherited and absorbed without much conscious thought. In a time when ministers were sparse and travelled from town to town, elders shook an itinerant preacher’s hand to affirm to the congregation his authority to preach God’s Word. Centuries later, this act of establishing trust has become the way every church service begins. And with each re-enactment of these traditions, we embody the history that came before us.
This is true of our institutions too—and so lately I’ve been thinking about Cardus. What history does it embody, and how? What history should it embody?
I can understand the confusion, and I see your raised eyebrows. How can a think tank be embodied? After all, the contradiction is there in the designation. And yet we’re not a collection of brains on sticks. We come to our labours as whole people.
It’s easier to answer the prescriptive question about the history we should embody. In fact, Cardus already does in its mission statement: We’re an organization rooted in two thousand years of Christian social thought. We’ve inherited a long tradition of faith and philosophy, one that engages the human being as a whole: heart and mind, body and soul.
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the poet T.S. Eliot describes what it means to be part of a tradition:
The historical sense involves perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.
Decades don’t stack on one another like building blocks. Time does not move along a straight line. It grows outward, expanding, containing within it all that came before, like the rings of an old and deep-rooted tree. Today, we’re the new growth; tomorrow, we will be part of the sapwood, at once firm and yet lively, life coursing through us. But are we part of the tree we think we are?
This is the difficult question. What history do we embody? It’s challenging to peel back the layers of what we’re already doing, to examine what lies beneath the mundane daily tasks that go into the running of any organization, the projects that we discuss and develop. But it’s important to try. Because the rituals that we practice shape us, whether we’re aware of them or not. As former Comment editor-in-chief James K.A. Smith writes in his book You Are What You Love, “These [rituals] aren’t just things we do; they do something to us.” So when we look at the question of what history we embody, we need to ask this question in light of the other one: Which history should we embody? And do we? Are we there?
In circling these questions, I kept trying to pinpoint a practice that exemplifies the tradition of two thousand years of Christian social thought within Cardus. Is it in the way we celebrate one another’s birthdays and babies and achievements (and anything else we can use as an excuse to come together and eat)? Can it be found in senior editor Brian Dijkema’s custom of standing on chairs and reading poetry when we all gather together (a tradition some delight in and others bemoan)? Is it in the way we respond to our ideological opponents with grace, no matter their vitriol, and seek to understand those who disagree with us? Is it in Cardus’s recognition that its staff participate in a larger social and civic life, with the needs and responsibilities that come with that? Is it in our individual rhythms of work and prayer and reflection?
It’s hard to point to one single practice, for as much as we’re not brains on sticks, we are a think tank, and our main work is knowledge work: We read, we reflect, we write. And the truth is, traditions can never be distilled to one single ritual. It’s the accumulation over time—rings of a tree—that grow together and sustain each other.
But the embodiment of two thousand years of Christian social thought goes beyond all that. Because ultimately, of course, it’s about the incarnation. About the person of Jesus, Word made flesh among us, the branch of David. When we ask ourselves what tradition we embody, we’re really holding ourselves up to his example and examining how we fall short. We’re remembering our roots and reorienting ourselves. That’s why it’s important to ask these questions—and to keep asking them for the next two thousand years.