Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Update your browser
Photo credit: Rodney Smith

Owning the Future: Between Genealogy and Tradition

Issue Two / 2021

Terence Sweeney

One may not expect to find a reflection on the future within a collection on the nature of tradition. The conceptual and narrative framework of tradition seems oriented to the past. However, if tradition is central to theological reflection and to the shape our lives, then tradition must have a word for the future. It must be able to speak of the future; otherwise, Christians will leave the future to others. To see this, I want to indicate a lacuna in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. MacIntyre, a prominent Catholic philosopher, advocates for a narrative account of ethics which allows for the shared cultivation of virtue. In this text, he sets up an argument between three modes of thinking about ethics and history: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. For MacIntyre, the superiority of any one of these versions of moral enquiry depends on its capacity for narrative. To determine if one view can prevail over the other entails considering their relative capacity to offer a narrative of the human condition. Ascertaining the superior narrative requires that we determine “which [narrative] is able to include its rivals within it, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its story, but to tell the story of the telling of their stories as such episodes.” Tradition, as MacIntyre shows, can do just that. Christian tradition narrates the human community better than either the naïve encyclopedic version (liberal modernity) or the more astute genealogical approach.

In a Christ-forgetting world, Christians need to counteract rival versions of human flourishing to create the conditions for evangelization. This necessitates better accounts of history, including out-narrating genealogical thinking. This is not simple, considering genealogies’ analyses of the contingencies and power dynamics operative in history. Genealogy unmasks practices in which dominant discourses present themselves as inevitable. It enables rich considerations of origins, events, ruptures, and transgressions in history. Despite my admiration for genealogy, MacIntyre shows the narrative superiority of Christian tradition regarding the past. And yet, this is an insufficient victory. If MacIntyre told Nietzsche how tradition can out-narrate genealogy, I think Nietzsche would scoff. The heart of genealogical thinking was never about the past: it is about the future. If tradition “wins” the past, genealogical thinking is quite happy to take second place, as long as it wins the future. MacIntyre does not offer a full enough account of tradition because his narrative remains overly situated in the past. If our work is to out-narrate genealogical inquiry, then we must find a way for tradition to articulate a better version of the future. In what follows, I will try to do just that. This requires considering why Nietzsche thinks genealogy is about the future, while studying the relative strength of his vision to learn from it. Tradition can prevail only if it learns from the intellectual traditions it prevails over. I will then indicate why tradition offers a superior account of the future in its capacity to foster new beginnings and in its openness to the God who comes.

History Is for the Future

In 1873, Friedrich Nietzsche began his Untimely Meditations. They were untimely because they were written against his time, written for the future that they were meant to prophesy and construct. His second meditation, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, seems to offer a narrative of the past in such a way as to claim a dominant account of moral inquiry (à la MacIntyre). But if we think the Untimely Meditations is about offering a “correct” version of the past, we miss the force of Nietzsche’s work. We transpose it into the fact-checking mode of thought that he so loathed. Such a mode of historical thought stands “guard over history to see that nothing comes out of it except more history, and certainly no real events!” For Nietzsche, the goal of the great is to craft such events, to ensure that history is not simply “one damn thing after another.” Liberal modernity—the modernity of the bourgeois purchaser of encyclopedias—offers the false veneer of newness, but only in the sense of prefabricated and so pre-determined newness. This enables “people to have some new thing to chatter about for a while, and then something newer still, and in the meantime go on doing what they have always done.” For such a progressivism, the future is here already precisely because the future—as difference—is never allowed to happen. As determined, the future is just the past with a new outfit.

Christian ethics is thus an ethics not of development or even of habits but of conversion—the moment of beginning in each life. What tradition carries and enables is the possibility of this conversion, this turning towards the future and to the God who comes.

Nietzsche wants a future that is not determined. He sees history as helpful for this because history (rightly understood) teaches us that the past was contingent. What is was once only possible. In contrast, whiggish moderns and Hegelians see history as a determinate unfolding. Nothing, it turns out, was ever possible. Since nothing was possible, nothing about the future is possible either. Genealogical thinking disrupts this sense of the past to show the networks of contingencies that lead what might have been to actually be. This is particularly the case with examples of human greatness. The Nietzschean learns from the past that “the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again.” By discovering the possibilities of the past, Nietzsche hopes to reestablish possibility for the future.

In disclosing the contingency of the past, genealogical thinking “re-possibilizes” the future. For Nietzsche, this means action in the form of overcoming is possible. The point of history is to reveal the greatness in the great while overlooking the muddling mediocrity of dwarves who stand between the great. What history allows us to see is the “great fighters against history… against the blind power of the actual.” These are the men who “bothered little with the ‘thus it is’ so as to follow ‘thus it shall be’ with a more cheerful pride.” Seeing the future as the open temporality of possibility, these great figures made history by transforming the future. This is the ground of Nietzsche’s core claim: “Only he who constructs the future has a right to judge the past.” Those who forge the future by their dynamic creating are the only ones who can truly judge the past.

Transforming the future transforms the past. History is of use inasmuch as it reminds us that another moment of greatness may yet be and that my task is to perform this great work. Nietzsche’s response to MacIntyre will be structured by his basic claim that even if tradition can out-narrate the genealogical, it is the genealogical which reorients us to the future, and the future will transform the past. Nietzsche rejects the progressive or Hegelian visions of history for their overdetermination of the past and so determination of the future. The point of genealogical thinking is to think the past as contingent and so restore the future as undetermined, as the space of possibility. In the third essay in Untimely Meditations, he explains that this is what allows for “the favorable conditions under which those great men can come into existence.” The goal of history as educative is to create “the conditions for the production of genius.” History is made by the great, by those who overcome their time by making a different future.

Tradition Is Futural

Can tradition offer a more compelling vision of the future, one that reestablishes possibility beyond the production of commodified difference in progressive or encyclopedic history but also surpasses the Nietzschean Übermensch? Tradition is grounded in the past. Looking to the past, receiving from the past, we hand on the past to the future. The future is, in part, determined by the past, in that what has been believed and done is what is to be believed and done. This seemingly leaves us with the choice between Nietzschean dynamism and traditional stasis. Even if tradition takes work and active reception, what is received as deposit is what is and will always be. We cannot, then, out-narrate Nietzsche when it comes to the future. However, this is to misread the nature of Christianity. Christian tradition is fundamentally about the future, has a more dynamic possibilizing force for the future, and is the only tradition that allows for the future not only to come from us but also to come from the future. In short, in McIntyrean terms, tradition provides a better “narration” of the future on Nietzschean grounds while also transcending Nietzsche.

Importantly, the past matters for both the genealogist and the Christian traditionalist. For the genealogical thinker, the past matters because it enables the dynamic creation of the future. Why does the past matter for the Christian traditionalist? The past matters as an expression of our fidelity to an event and a person. There is, then, a sense that the work of tradition is the work of memory. We want to hold in intimacy the event of Jesus’ presence on earth. This fidelity is expressed in a commitment to hand on faithfully what has been handed on about the event of Christ. The depositum fidei is a sacred and saving trust. Sacred because it is holy and the task of receiving it is sanctifying; saving because what is handed on is both the news of our salvation and the source of our salvation (particularly the sacraments). This fidelity structures the form of life that is Christianity, which manifests in the plurality of Christian lives. Fidelity forms a community. It is the rock of the community as guided by the apostolic constitution of the Church.

Tradition, in this sense, is deeply rooted in the past. But is this its exclusive temporal dimension? No, because fidelity is for the future. The task of tradition is not merely to receive but to hand on. Further, what we receive is what shapes our expectation. Consider the Apostles gazing up on the Ascension. They are told, “[T]his same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The task of tradition is to keep in our memory—and so in the heart of our being—the remembrance of this same Jesus and how He ascended. For it is how He ascended that this same Jesus will descend again. Our memory is an expectation for the future; tradition is fidelity to the future.

The word for this faithful expectation is hope. Tradition—if it is not to be malformed into a rigid attachment to a particular past—must be suffused with hope. Theological tradition is impossible without hope. Nietzsche tells the young man, “Draw about yourself the fence of a great and comprehensive hope, of a hope-filled striving.” His genealogical work is meant to be an overcoming of despair, which is the sense that what has been will ever be. For the Christian, tradition is marked by a similar hope. The Apostle Peter writes, “We have the firm prophetical word: whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the day star arises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). The prophetical word that we carry is the light that prepares us for the day star. This hope guarantees for us that the sordidness of the past will not forever mar the future.

Even if Christian tradition is futural because eschatological, can it provide a counter-narrative to equal Nietzschean genealogy’s vision of the future? For Nietzsche, the disadvantage of history arises when its orientation towards the past makes the newness of the future impossible. Too much history for a man forms the “great and ever greater pressure of what is past,” the weight of which “pushes him down or bends him sideways.” Nietzsche sees Christian tradition as just such a weight. A stultifying past that necessitates what the future has is all the past gives to the present.

However, Christian tradition—while faithful to its Founder and its work of handing on the deposit of faith—is about beginnings. Augustine writes of God’s intention in creating humans, “So that beginnings would be, humans were created.” This principle—what Hannah Arendt calls natality—is a core claim of any robust Christian anthropology. While Nietzsche might see such beginnings as features of the vanishingly rare Übermenschen, Augustine sees this radical inbreaking of the new in each person and her deeds. Each of us can overcome the old man and put on the new. Our natality images God’s newness. God declares in delight, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). God is the God of newness, man the creature of beginnings. Christian ethics is thus an ethics not of development or even of habits but of conversion—the moment of beginning in each life. What tradition carries and enables is the possibility of this conversion, this turning towards the future and to the God who comes.

In Schopenhauer as Educator, Nietzsche wisely claims that the goodness of a culture and education depends on its “production of the philosopher, the artist, and the saint.” For this is the ever-present hope of the Nietzschean future: that the great man will arise. If this is the measure, then I submit that Christian tradition—ever ancient, ever new—most certainly is the seedbed of the future. If it can be said that no one can fully anticipate the Nietzschean Übermensch, then certainly it can be said that no one could have anticipated St. Francis, or St. Dominic, who was described as “stupefyingly free.” Consider the wide diversity of the saints, their startling newness, their world-transforming presence. Who could have anticipated Augustine preaching in Hippo, Francis Xavier evangelizing in Japan, Dorothy Day advocating in the bowery, Mother Teresa nurturing in the gutters of Calcutta? Who could anticipate the quiet saints of family life, small parishes, and forgotten monasteries? Nietzsche, so captivated by the great man, cannot see the stupefying originality of the saints whom none of us have even heard of, nor of the saints that are yet to be. To paraphrase MacIntyre, to live in the Christian tradition is to promote many new, doubtless very different, St. Benedicts. These saints of the future, these new beginnings, are testimonies of the future focus of tradition.

This is echoed in art and philosophy. Christian creativity, rich in tradition and originality, is the source of musicians from Prudentius to Arvo Pärt, artists from Fra Angelico to George Roualt, and writers from Chaucer to Marilynne Robinson. Our philosophy stretches from the clarity of Thomas to the rich enigmas of Pascal, from the boldness of Catherine dialoguing with God to the fortitude of philosopher-martyr Edith Stein. And as the Christian tradition enters the fullness of its global reality, the whole world sends up saints, philosophers, and artists faithful to a tradition that opens up a future beyond any of our expectations. Yes, Nietzsche, draw about yourself a great and comprehensive hope! Draw about yourself the tradition of Christianity!

Christ Is Coming

Christian tradition is futural and can provide a vision for the future that at the very least rivals the Nietzschean vision. Beyond these two claims is the truth that only the Christian tradition allows the future to come to us instead of coming from us. Nietzsche’s great hope is that the future is open to possibility; however, Nietzsche insists that the future is forged by us from the present. He tells the young and the great to “form within yourself an image to which the future shall correspond.” The Übermensch is to be “the architect of the future.” The future always comes from us.

Christian tradition holds this view to some extent as well; we have the work of forming a culture that raises saints out of our hope-filled fidelity. But the Christian tradition is centered on hope as our memory of the future. To be a Christian is to live in the season of Advent, to await the future that comes. What comes—the Advent we hope for—is not constructed by us. It is neither grown from the soil of the past nor forged in the moment of the present. It is the truly futural because it alone comes from the future. Nietzsche, who so dearly wanted to clear the future of determination, ends up substituting determinism with self-determinism. This still means that the future is determined. There is, then, a genealogical connection between Nietzsche’s hope for an undetermined history and his later doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same. The diversity and freedom of the future, if it always comes from us, ends with us being not particularly diverse.

Beyond any determination of the future, Christ tells us that we know neither the hour nor the day, and that eye has not seen, nor ear heard. Why is this so important? Because for the Christian the future is not made by us. It is beyond determination, overdeterminate in the richness of the dynamizing possibility of the God for whom all things are possible. The future does not simply arise from the past, nor the present as it does for Nietzsche (and the encyclopedists, Hegelians, Marxists, and Progressives). Each denies a future that is wholly futural, that comes from God to us. The Christian alone allows the future to be the future, and so lives in hope. Nietzschean hope is constructed just as his future is constructed. It ends up being despair in the form of his amor fati. Nietzsche helps us restore our sense of the futural nature of tradition, reminds us that the test of our fidelity is its raising up of saints, artists, and philosophers, and reconnects tradition to the startling newness of God. But beyond Nietzschean genealogy, we find that Christian tradition is the openness in our life to the God who comes. Christian tradition—rooted in the past—holds open the space for the future. This is the space of prayer, of hope, of fidelity, of saintly deeds, and of a vigil that prays, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Terence Sweeney has a doctorate in philosophy from Villanova University, where he is an adjunct professor. He is theologian-in-residence at the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also editor and associate director of the Genealogies of Modernity Project. He attends St. Francis de Sales in West Philly, where he is a sacristan. He and his wife are raising two girls. You can find him on Twitter @TerenceJSweeney.

Recommended Reading

Our Lady Queen of Poland Church, often called "old St. John's," Montgomery County, Maryland

The Great Things of God

Mark Milosch

On a weekday morning I walk up the steps of a small church, open the door and step from dim morning light into a dark antechamber, then through another set of doors into the nave. There some light comes through the stained-glass windows; behind the altar, sun rises into an old rose window with an image of St. John. The church is on the site of one of the first Catholic churches in the Chesapeake colony though this building dates from the 1890s. I love this church, with its stone walls and timbered roof, set atop a hill, surrounded by its cemetery and giant maples, today on a quiet suburban street...

Read Full Article
Thomas Cole, "The Course of Empire"

What Does It Take To Be "A People"?

Augustine of Hippo

The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 left a once-proud and powerful empire reeling. How could “the Eternal City” fall to barbarian invaders, ransacking her ancient streets, plundering her priceless treasures? Some Romans blamed Christianity: had Rome not abandoned her ancestral gods, she would have been spared. St. Augustine of Hippo argued otherwise. In The City of God (426), he mounts a spirited defense of Christianity and its salutary effects on Rome.

Read Full Article
L'Osservatore Romano, Second Vatican Council

Properly Seeing the Past in Order to Imagine a Better Future

Conor Dugan

A common theme of many postliberal thinkers is that we are too often hemmed in by the boundaries and limits of contemporary thinking. As David Schindler, D.C. Schindler, Michael Hanby, Patrick Deneen, and others have been arguing, new political and social forms are not possible without imagination. By limiting ourselves to liberalism’s categories, we necessarily limit what may come next. But we cannot expand our imaginations without viewing history properly.

Read Full Article
Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
620 Michigan Ave. N.E. (McGivney Hall)
Washington, DC 20064