Democracy of the Dead

“Tradition is only democracy extended through time… Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. ” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

We often forget or devalue the ‘traditions’ of our forefathers, whether it be in family, institutional, or religious settings. In the church especially, mostly since the Reformation, we have tended to promote the autonomous individual as a self-actualization machine who can figure out anything for itself, not needing any help from anyone else concerning what is moral and true. For my Reformed readership, I realize that you and other denominations in Protestantism don’t have as much of a problem as us who grew up Southern Baptist or non-denominational… be patient, we learn things slowly.

Chesterton is right in saying that there is a “democracy of the dead”, for we must learn from the stories of our past and those who lived in the past, the vital questions they raised and the problems they could not solve, for that is what led us to this point in time and the issues we deal with now. Simply put, we must preserve their “good opinions” on life. Often, at least on my part, there is a certain arrogance I have when I read or reflect on history, many times believing that past generations were simply barbaric and overall just a bunch of simpletons. Yet my tradition (the Christian tradition) tells me that there is so much to learn about the past that concerns us on how we live in the present and how we will view the future, especially concerning the eschaton. Real tradition does not stay stagnant, vehemently preserving the exact practices and thought patterns of the past, instead it teaches us about living in a trajectory starting from the past and moving quickly into the present and to the future. The most truthful and good traditions tell us (from the dead) how to live faithfully and right in the future. Therefore, to listen to the dead is not to do exactly what they did and emulate their accomplishments. What tradition does is teach us the spirit and the way of truth and how it is to be acted out faithfully in the issues that we face today. For me, my Christian heritage is the tradition that I choose to listen to, so from those past voices I learn to live my life not in imitation, but in spirit. So to those dead and gone, whose words created a shelter from the storms of life, thank you for your help. Thank you for letting me see the horizon.

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