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Why true ‘progress’ demands that we go back and start again when we’ve made a mistake

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter
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November 13, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Too many people today think and speak and act as if past greatness—be it in the realm of religious practice or in the realm of fine art—cannot be carried into and continued in the present. The architecture, sculpture, painting, the big public processions and solemn liturgies are written off as belonging to a former age, an era dead and gone. Admittedly, some of the relics of that age remain among us (and even attract a lot of tourists), but surely we ourselves cannot be making and doing those things. Those who try are accused of trying to “turn back the clock.”

This accusation is based on a completely flawed way of thinking about directionality, velocity, and time, all of which are, for spiritual beings, much more complicated and paradoxical than they are for the simple projectiles studied by physics. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis makes the following observation: 

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

The philosopher Dennis McInerny expresses the same thought:

There are times in life when the only responsible and rational way we can go forward is by going back, returning to the point where we became disoriented and started going in the wrong direction.

Obviously, one cannot “go back” in the sense of re-living or re-creating the past as past, but one can and must always be reaching into the past for inspiration, for tried and true models, for a trustworthy way of life. One looks to the past in order to bring something of its fire and spirit into the present moment and into every future generation. What we call “past” is present in the heart and mind of the one in whom it lives, even as what is “present” is unreal for those who are unaware of it or incapable of sharing it. Ultimately the past can remain alive in the present and the future can already begin to have some existence of its own because of the rational soul, to whom all metaphysical possibilities lie open, ready to be known and, if they are within our powers, actualized.

The Benedictine monks of Norcia, whose chant CD was featured last week, provide a marvelous example of peaceful and fruitful continuity with past tradition, indeed of an intentionally-embraced unity of past, present, and future in the stability of the Holy Rule and the bedrock of the classical Roman liturgy. As Rod Dreher narrates in his book The Benedict Option:

Father Martin flashed a broad grin from beneath his black beard and said that all Christians can have this if they are willing to do what it takes to mount the recovery, “to pick up what we have lost and to make it real again.” “There’s something here that’s very ancient, but it’s also new,” Father Martin said. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock.’ That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.” 

To think, then, that we moderns are uniquely stranded in our age, cut off from the beneficent and fertilizing influence of tradition and incapable of reaching its glories again, is a peculiarly modern form of pride; even, perhaps, a subtle form of vanity. We want to view ourselves as different from every former age and therefore as freed from our obligations to our predecessors—the fundamental obligation of grateful receptivity that every generation owes to its ancestors and to the works they have left for us to admire, to emulate, and to surpass, if we can. 

To think that we must forge ahead on a new path that is not in continuity with the past is a pernicious error, actually a denial of our creaturely dependence on all the causes that made us what we are and continue to make us what we are. A certain vision of modernity—one, namely, that emphasizes how different we are from our predecessors and how good it is that we be as different as possible—becomes, in reality, a kind of excuse for giving up on the arduous labor of acquiring the knowledge and craftsmanship that enable artists to produce their very best work.

I was thinking of all these things this past weekend at the Catholic Art Guild Conference, as I listened to my fellow lecturers, the sculptor Alexander Stoddart, the painter Juliette Aristides, and the architect Ethan Anthony, all working in “classical” traditions and all responsible for magnificent works of art that speak powerfully to us today. The conference was full of artists and artisans. I met architects, renovators, decorators, iconographers, musicians, teachers at ateliers, and a stone carver, not to mention clergy who understand the primacy of the beautiful and the importance of the arts in service of the Gospel.

This primacy and importance were demonstrated with unanswerable awesomeness on the evening of Friday, November 2nd, when Bishop Perry and the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius offered a traditional solemn pontifical Requiem Mass for All Souls’ Day, with Mozart’s Requiem performed by a full chorus and orchestra: an offering to God of the very best of every fine art known to man, appealing to every human sense while it made appeal to the mercy of God. The church was packed, every seat taken, standing room only.

The Conference was truly a blessed occasion—one that filled me with great hope for the future of traditional and ecclesiastical fine art in this nation. I would encourage artists and craftsmen who work in traditional styles to read more about the Catholic Art Guild, to become members, and to attend next year the annual Conference in Chicago.

To repeat the words of Dennis McInerny: “There are times in life when the only responsible and rational way we can go forward is by going back.”

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.