Apostates and Romantics: Further Thoughts on Modern Traditionalism

by Kyle M. Nicholas

In a recent post, Aristotle Papanikolaou argues that the terms “traditionalism,” “traditionalist,” and “Orthodox morality” are unhelpful identifiers. For Papanikolaou, these terms construct a false traditional/non-traditional dichotomy that conceals the fact that everybody belongs to some tradition. The real question is what the presuppositions of one’s tradition are, and consequently “the implications of presuppositions or beliefs held in common by those who adhere to [that] tradition.” The logic of purity that underlies attempts to constrict “tradition” to narrowly-defined doctrinal and moral positions animates much of Papanikolaou’s essay. I want to extend Papanikolaou’s argument further by introducing two spiritual temptations of those who claim “tradition” for their own side as part of the culture wars, especially in the US.

The philosopher Max Scheler once called those who hold their deepest beliefs from a place of “intrinsic meaning and worth” the “resurrected.” Particularly apt examples of the “resurrected” are the saints, who love God for God’s own sake. Yet, in addition to this “resurrected” type, there are today a considerable amount of what Scheler calls the “apostate” and “romantic” types. For Scheler, to be either an apostate or a romantic is a particular form of spiritual resentment. Rather than occurring among the workers of his time, Scheler found these types primarily among middle class people.

The apostate for Scheler is not someone who changes their religious or other deeply held beliefs, either suddenly or through a long process. The apostate is also not someone committed first and foremost to their newfound belief. Rather, the apostate is “motivated by the struggle against the old belief and lives only for its negation.” The apostate holds his or her new belief primarily as a frame from which to launch “a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past”: the apostate remains “captive” to his or her past.

So the apostate is the opposite of the resurrected. The resurrected holds her beliefs deeply as well, but she holds them as someone “whose life is transformed by a new faith which is full of intrinsic meaning and value.” Because of the visibility of American Catholic converts in much dialogue about religion and public life today, one might think this temptation is particularly strong for them. It is, in fact, as evidenced in the debate over the zeal of these converts breaking out in different publications. But we might also consider the “exvangelicals”; with singular attention, some former evangelicals remain determined to demolish American evangelicalism long after they leave those communities.

But this is only one temptation. The second is the romantic type. Scheler says romantics are those who harbor nostalgia for some past age as a negation of the present age. They do not value Ancient Greece or the Middle Ages intrinsically, but for the “implied purpose of downgrading present-day reality.” The past (or future) can always act strictly as a negation of the present moment. The more issues one finds with the world around them, the stronger the temptation to negate it through the idealization of a different time.

This temptation saturates two recent popular books—Patrick Deneen, a Catholic, on why liberalism has failed and Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox convert, on the need for “traditional” Christians to develop an “Option” that creates space for faithful practice in a hostile world. Deneen’s book on liberalism was reviewed no less than three times in the New York Times alone, which suggests that it has struck a cultural nerve in the way Dreher’s book struck an ecclesial nerve the year before. Yet, the lack of specific alternatives to modern life in these two works illustrates Scheler’s point about the intuitive power we can feel in jeremiads against the present and idealized constructions of the past or future.

Now certainly these two types must remain broad. After all, it is difficult not only for others but even for ourselves to know exactly why we value what we do. But the general form of resentment is easily understood. Whether one is a convert to a new tradition, or from a lukewarm position from within a community to a more serious outlook, one should ask if one is driven by the intrinsic value of that new space, or if that space constitutes little more than a launch pad for the next offensive against one’s past or the beliefs of others.

Earlier in his book, Scheler argued that resentment is different from revenge, not least because of the primacy of a feeling of impotence in the resentful. An animal takes revenge when it is cornered and strikes; a resentful person feels powerless to do anything in the present, and so internalizes their powerlessness for more generalized forms of revenge against certain classes of people and objects.

Part of what animates those who police the traditional/non-traditional boundaries is a powerlessness that arises from the fact that their interpretation of “tradition” is just one among many livable options today. This pluralism of genuine life paths is how Charles Taylor, with good reason, starts his winding, brilliant book, A Secular Age. We live in an age, according to another sociologist, characterized by high contingency and increased action options; we see more people in a day than many in the past saw in their life.

Many of our deepest beliefs, especially if we came to them recently, are therefore precarious. We make choices about our “tradition,” but because tradition was once the opposite of choice, we feel as if we must double down and hold our beliefs as if they are in fact the only beliefs. The fact that we now “choose” our tradition is what Peter Berger called the “heretical imperative” of the modern age. While some, including myself, argue this is on the whole a positive development, it also brings with it its own unique challenges to orthodox ecclesial communities. One challenge is the sense of powerlessness that we can feel when we don’t see our values reflected back to us, either by society or our own co-religionists. Therefore the temptation toward apostasy and romanticism is ever present for those who view pluralism as a problem to be solved rather than a value to be held.

Thus, Scheler makes the profound point that often the most resentful critic of other traditions today is frequently the apostate who must launch “a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past.” I’ve found this rings true to my own experience, both with regard to my own beliefs and in many conversations around “tradition” I see today. Against both apostasy and romanticism, as Scheler defines them, Papanikolaou’s is a call to be “resurrected,” even in our deepest disagreements.

Kyle Nicholas is a PhD student in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.