By Andrew Pyatt
Central to the contemporary classical education movement is a profound appreciation and indebtedness to the past. This devotion to tradition contrasts with the progressivism of modern pedagogy, which views history in terms of an upward climb, an inevitable march of progress. Author and publisher for SLANT books, Gregory Wolfe, however, warns that an equally severe mistake threatens classical education. Wolfe (2017) argues that, in fighting against progressivism, classical educators can easily fall into what he calls declinism, “I believe that those who oppose progressivism can become so alienated from, and antagonistic to, the present moment (and the very recent past) that they end up distorting and caricaturing the past.” Declinists reject most (if not all) forms of modern literature and art, seeing history as a continual fall from former glory.
Wolfe points out that this denial of the present actually blinds one from understanding and applying the past properly – in other words, one can only receive a tradition fully if he sees and actualizes it through the lens of his present situation. Wolfe engages with the work of Russel Kirk, founder of the modern conservatism movement, and T. S. Elliot, one of the great literary masters of the 20th century, to illustrate this profound point. Kirk, argues Wolfe, held a strong value for prudence, “the classical virtue … that attempts to figure out how grand ideas and principles need to become embodied in the concrete laws, customs, artworks, and culture of any time and place.” Kirk saw this virtue embodied in the work of T. S. Elliot, an Anglican Christian who also worked within the literary style of High Modernism. “Elliot,” writes Wolfe, “continued to employ literary techniques like fragmentation and obscure allusions, along with themes and motifs that seemed straight out of existentialism and other forms of modern despair and alienation.” Wolfe then recounts how Kirk brought him to appreciate Elliot’s work; through the themes of High Modernists, Elliot sought to represent the pervasive brokenness and nihilism of the modern world in order to suggest that the world could regain its sense of wholeness and meaning through the Gospel.
Further exploring the work of Elliot, Wolfe references Elliot’s famous essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. For Elliot, “the addition of every new work not only adds something to the tradition but actually changes the past – or at the very least enables us to see facets of the past that we’ve never seen before.” The only way to grasp a tradition is to join it, to enter into the great conversation from the perspective of the present. Rather than only passively receiving wisdom from the past, the classical education movement must actively engage with the great thinkers of the western tradition and challenge students to do the same in order to live faithfully within the present. Wolfe concludes his article with a distinction coined by the Eastern Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition:
“The idol (think golden calf) pretends to be an embodiment of the divine truth it represents, but it really just ends up pointing back to itself. … The icon, by contrast, not only embodies what it represents but also sends us to the transcendent source of that image.”
Thus, tradition is not itself divine truth; rather, tradition is a particular embodiment of divine truth in space and time. In order to continue the tradition, one has to continue this process of embodiment and engage with the tradition in light of one’s own contemporary context.
As a theology student, I find Wolfe’s words both helpful and stimulating. In order to receive the great tradition of Christian theology in the present, the Christian thinker must participate in an on-going conversation and speak from his or her own contemporary situation. G. K. Chesterton, in his marvelous book Orthodoxy, provides a helpful illustration:
“We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”
For Chesterton, adherence to orthodoxy and tradition is the very thing that allows for theological ingenuity and critical thinking. Without the protection of tradition, the practice of Christian theology would either drift off into heresy, aimlessly wandering around from one ideology to another with no sense of direction, or stagnate, allowing for no creativity or questioning. One sees both of these tendencies represented in the protestant mainline and protestant fundamentalist churches. With tradition, however, the work of theology is grounded in truth, and theologians can boldly pursue difficult questions, relying on the wisdom of those that have come before.
 Ibid., §38.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2013), 155-156.