Monday, October 24, 2016
I was among the participants in the inaugural meeting this past weekend of the Tradition Project sponsored by the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law (with thanks to the hard work and hospitality of Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami). It was a rich conversation over a couple of days on the place of tradition in law and politics, both in our formal sessions and in our social gatherings. A few initial thoughts about the project, with more to come as I continue to think about what we discussed.
One topic I kept coming back to was the supposed dichotomy (or at least tension) between “tradition” and “reason” one encounters in discussions of tradition (recalling Edmund Burke’s line about “wisdom without reflection”). On a crude formulation of this view, one either does “what has always been done” in a reflexively deferential way or subjects all decisions to a hard, calculating test of reason. That seems to me a poor way to understand the possible place of tradition in law.
The better view, I think, is to appreciate that rationality (including legal reasoning) is inescapably embedded in a tradition, even when the “tradition” is an emancipation from tradition itself. In the discussion I moderated on the American religious tradition, we read, among other things, pieces by Nathan Hatch and John McGreevy illustrating the ways in which American Christianity has a long tradition of rejecting certain forms of tradition (not least Catholicism) and placing an emphasis on “thinking for oneself.” This, in turn, has shaped in historically complex ways how the American religious, political, and legal traditions interact.
I’ve mentioned before (here) how much I think John Henry Newman’s treatment of tradition and argument might help us tackle some of these problems. Apart from straightforward demonstrations of, say, mathematics and logic, we come to arguments with a background constellation of beliefs and practices—a “tradition.” Achieving clarity about the traditions (even if one of emancipation from tradition) we bring to legal arguments is an important first step that the Tradition Project has undertaken.