For me the most important cultural divide is not between east and west or north and south, but between premodern and modern. In a premodern culture people live for the most part in a 'given' world and in a modern culture in a chosen world--or at least in a world where choices are forced upon them in a way they are not in premodern societies.
The zombie traditionalist who haunts modern societies is in effect a premodern wannabe. Such a one longs to live in an earlier era when the world would have been delivered to him as an indisputable given with a universally accepted cosmic order. No choices, no confusion; no fuss, no muss. In a genuinely premodern traditional society, there are no alternative cultures or "value systems" recognized as valid--we in our tribe are the "human beings"; everyone else is the "barbarian" Other. Authority lies only in that which has been given by the ancestors.
It's no longer possible or appropriate to live in such a given world. There is no going back to it. But this kind of nostalgia for something that once was alive is the ghostly spirit than animates zombie traditionalism. This kind of traditionalism clings to the dead form of the old thing thinking that it preserves something valuable. It's like propping up the corpse of the heirless king in his throne for fear of the chaos that will ensue when it becomes known that the old regime has ended and no clear successor has emerged.
This plays out in dozens of different ways. For instance, I believe the objection of the zombie traditionalist to homosexual marriage/civil unions is not primarily a religious or spiritual issue. It has more to do with propping up the dead king. It's about their fear of moral and cultural chaos if the old order is no longer something they can rely on. The issue for them is not whether these "sodomites" are all going to hell, but whether the society is going to hell. Because if society goes to hell, then everybody goes to hell. For them the social order has to mirror the cosmic moral order. That's how it is in premodern societies. So the zombie traditionalist sees gays and lesbians as the latest agents of modernity’s campaign to destroy what remains of the social/cosmic order given to them by the ancestors.
They fear that the whole society is being dragged into hell, which is for them tabooless, normless chaos. Zombie traditionalists don't really care about the tradition; they care about social order--an order with as little real freedom in it as possible. For without a strictly normed social order, they don’t know who they are or how they should act. All of that has to be given or prescribed for them. So whenever you hear a right winger talk about freedom, you can assume that all it means to him is the freedom to go hunting, to go out and play at being an aborigine, a hunter, and not the nine-to-five drone he otherwise feels himself to be.
The zombie traditionalists feel like cornered animals whose territory in that corner is continuously shrinking. They see themselves as an endangered species, and now they are lashing back, fighting for their survival. On the subrational level, the backlash that began with the Reagan presidency represented the revenge of the zombies. And they have taken the mainstream culture by surprise because the mainstream never took them and their worldview seriously. They've been for them a laughing stock since the Scopes trial.
For the past five hundred years, especially in the West, humans have been struggling to find the balance between the individual, his freedom, and his rights on the one hand, and society, its norms, rituals, and obligations on the the other. But when forced to choose one or the other when the two conflicted, the more interesting and creative people, the culture shapers, chose the former, and so the scale in the West has always tipped toward freedom and the individual. The Catholic, premodern, group-centered or tribal mentality lingered into the modern era, but the individualist spirit of Protestantism dominated.
The cultural historical dynamic that drove the conflict between Catholics and Protestants 500 years ago is the same dynamic that characterizes the conflict between the premodern tribalism of Islamist radicals and the individualism of the West now. It's been often pointed out that Islamist extremism has little to do with Islam and almost everything to do with the preservation of tribal and cultural identity. The same dynamic is at work in the conflict between the mentality of the red and blue-districts. The second group in each of these pairings is, relative to the first, more individual and choice oriented. The first group in relation to the second is more group, authority, and ritual oriented.
Those in the second, modernist group see themselves as heroic, cosmopolitan individualists and see the premoderns as frightened, naive bumpkins. Those in the traditionalist group, insofar as they have retained some sense of the living tradition, see modernists as the American Indians saw the white man--as people who have no understanding, people who have become crazy and disoriented, people who have lost their souls because in their uprooted individualism they have lost any experiential connection to the sacred cosmos. Those few who have managed to maintain connection to a truly living tradition see themselves as people who understand the deeper interrelatedness of things, an interrelatedness that is celebrated in the rituals that the modernists judge to be irrational and meaningless. The living traditionalists see the modernists as having shriveled souls, as people who have been rendered incapable of responding to a mystery in things that is to them self-evident, beyond proving or disproving.
But living traditionalists are hard to find these days; the zombie traditionalists are more common, and they are as incapable or responding to the mystery in things as the modernists are. I'm not saying that there is no one who is a genuine living traditionalist today, even in America. But there is no future in this kind of traditionalism. It's drying up wherever in the world it might still live. We have to find another way to the sacred; it's no longer something that is just given by the culture as a gift. It's gone into hiding, and we have to search it out. The mystery in things is still there, but it's something we all as individuals have to discover for ourselves. It's not something that can be found in the traditional forms. But that isn't to say that the traditional forms have to be swept away; they have to be resurrected from the dead. But first we have to recognize that they are dead.
So there's a part of me that connects with the traditionalism of the first group because it points to something that we must retrieve, but it's not something we can pretend to have by imitating the traditional practices that celebrate it--that only leads to zombie traditionalism. A living traditionalism is supple, adaptive, sacramental; a zombie traditionalism is brittle, rigid, non-adaptive--all mechanics and form, no life.
The point is that in the U.S., and increasingly in the other developed countries, living traditionalism is increasingly rare because the social institutions--the cultural habitats--in which these traditions flourished are being destroyed. Those traditions have not been able to adapt quickly enough to the onslaught of changes that have accompanied advancements in technology and the the disorienting effects of affluence with its dizzying array of choices that increase exponentially with each passing decade.
So sure, there are still lots of people with traditional values, but they are disembodied traditional values. I consider myself to be a traditionalist in the sense of someone who knows that what premoderns know (or knew) is real and immensely valuable, even if it is for the most part inaccessible to me. But when I am with zombie traditionalists, I feel suffocated and depressed, and I look for any excuse to get away from them.
I am amused when people talk about creating “new” traditions. I know what they mean, but probably the word ‘ritual’ would be more accurate. And I think that creating new rituals is really what needs to be done. We need rituals that will en-soul our life together again. But if a ritual is eventually to become a culture-wide tradition, it cannot be arbitrary. It has to resonate deeply. It has to have a kind of “authority,” or it’s just cast to the side as soon as people tire of it or as some other behavior presents itself as more compelling.
In other words effective rituals arise in response to deeply felt needs, and they have to work. They have to satisfy the need, and they have to be more satisfying than the “unhealthy” behaviors people are inclined toward without them. So the question for me is whether in this fragmented social environment in this time in our history the creation of such “new traditions” is even remotely possible. I doubt it.
I don't know for sure, but for me the ideas of retrieval and second naiveté offers a clue as to what must be done. Both ideas come from Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher of religion that I read years ago as an undergraduate. I’m not sure I’m using these terms precisely in the way he does, but I want to use them to point to an important distinction between the reality of living in a premodern traditionalist society and the development of the kind of second-naivete traditionalism that I think must emerge in a post-secular future.
In premodern societies where everything is a given, you have “first naiveté.” You simply accept uncritically the world as the ancestors have passed it on to you. With the coming of critical consciousness, (Socrates being its first significant practitioner) you start questioning the assumptions on which naive consciousness is based and inevitably you lose your naive faith that the way things are defined as “given” is more of a social construction than what the things are in themselves. We begin to understand to what degree our experience of the world as a whole is a social construction.
And some have concluded that it is therefore a groundless construction hovering over a meaningless void. That's not too far from the Hindu understanding of maya and what I think Christians mean by original sin. The difference between postmodernist nihilism and the post-secularist understanding of the world I'm trying to work with is that the post secularist believes that there is something behind the social construction. There is a There there, even if our perception of it is severely obstructed. And it's to that There that we all must find our way. It is no longer something given to us, we must choose to search it out.
Modern critical consciousness is good at saying No, and Nihilism is the No taken to its extreme. But I will not accept No for an answer. This No masquerades as existential courage, but I see it as laziness, a refusal to keep looking. And so in order for it to be possible to say a deeply resounding Yes, one finds that he must go back and revisit the world as it was presented to naive consciousness, but now with “second naiveté.” This does not mean 'going native', i.e., reverting to first naiveté. It does mean opening up to or becoming vulnerable to the There, that was self-evidently "given" to the kind of consciousness that possessed first-naivete. The trick is to do it in freedom and without losing critical consciousness. This is the postmodern cultural challenge--rediscovering what has been lost, remembering what has been forgotten.
My hunch is, and that’s all it is, a hunch—that if “new traditions” are to be created, they will not have enough ballast or resonance unless they are in one way or another the retrieval of older, previously rejected traditions and rituals, but now adapted to our very different circumstances.