The links below are from a series that appeared on Front Porch Republic recently. Susannah Black contributes to the argument for an older understanding of politics, the common good, and order. (Plus, there are references to Althusius, so it has to be good.)
To continue the conversation on rootedness and place, I’d like to define a few of the terms I’m using. If any reader would like to contest the usage of a term or request the further explanation of one not defined here, please leave your critique in the comment section, and I’ll consider making any appropriate changes. (Also, this post is in the interest of clarity; I don’t mean it to sound patronizing.)
Even though much of my writing on the topic is/will be against a near wholesale exchange of concrete goods for abstractions, abstractions are still good and useful things. Indeed, when I talk about “place” in these posts, I am using the term in an abstract way. A place, in this sense, is a particular location with more or less clear boundaries encompassing a reasonably small area. Places have particular, stable populations and local cultures. Importantly, by “place” I don’t want it thought that I am advocating only for a sort of semi-rural lifestyle, such as that of my upbringing. No, there are a variety of types of places: some rural, some urban.1 Each kind of place will have its own challenges and rewards.
“Most anthropologists and sociologists define a culture as a way of life informed by and perpetuating a set of assumptions or beliefs concerning life’s meaning…
A culture is a system or network of abstractions (beliefs or attitudes) as well as specific things (e.g., books, songs, buildings, schools), which are sustained by conventional practices and institutions…”
I encourage you to read or listen to this in its entirety; it isn’t long.
The important thing I want to point out is that, according to the above definition, a culture preserves beliefs and ideas through its tangible goods.
Modernity is our current, Western culture. Again, from Ken Myers:
“One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is that its artifacts, practices, and institutions convey the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe.”
This leads directly to a radical individualism. As Myers indicates:
“The reigning belief of modern culture is that each individual is the sovereign maker of meaning…
This organizing idea of modernity has several prominent cultural consequences. The most dramatic of these is the radical reorientation of the purpose of cultural institutions. Historically, cultural forms served to establish boundaries for belief and behavior based on assumptions about the nature of things. But since there is, for modern culture, no nature of things to guide us, cultural institutions now serve to equip each individual with as much freedom and power as possible so as to assert his or her own account of meaning. Premodern cultures were systems of restraint; modern culture is a system of liberation.”
Rod Dreher, summarizing anthropologist Paul Connerton, says that “modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present.” If one is the maker of one’s own meaning, the past has nothing to teach. In fact, there is nothing which has the ability or right to teach. There is only consumption. (This begins to sound startlingly like Sauron and Saruman, no?)
Tradition: it’s what keeps us from falling off roofs.
Tevye’s analogy really is apt; we’re all fiddlers on the roof. Life is complicated, it is unpredictable, and it is hard. It is also glorious. How do we make sense of the mix of the pleasant and the repugnant, the good and the evil, the joyful and the sad? Lest I descend into a digital soliloquy on its virtues, let me just say that I think tradition is a large part of how we make sense of life.
In the broad sense, G.K. Chesterton says that “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” In a singular sense, it is a belief or custom handed down to us from our fathers and mothers. As such it is the practical wisdom that our ancestors have developed in dealing with life’s complexities.
(I’m not so sure this section was actually helpful, so much as it was an opportunity to post the Fiddler on the Roof video.)
1. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
This is the backbone of the Reformed doctrine of providence. I’ll be making use of it later, but even if you aren’t Reformed, don’t let this turn you from my larger argument.
Those are the major terms I wanted defined. Unless I note otherwise, when I use these going forward, these are the basic definitions I have in mind. I imagine I will expand upon these, so do follow.
If you are interested in what I’m fleshing out here, please follow and like my blog. If you do, you’ll shave a week off your time in purgatory.
 That said, some development patterns, like the one which produces sprawling suburbs, do seem to actively militate against against a rooted and “placed” life. I’ll address this later, though.
Since I’ve already departed from my original plan by not posting in a while, I’m going to postpone the completion of my series on Desiring the Kingdom and write a tangentially related ramble of a piece.
For Christmas I received a few nice additions to my library, among them an anthology of essays entitled Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. (A review of this is at Fare Forward.) The goal of this collection is to give an apologia for “place” (i.e. a particular location with a particular culture) and rootedness. Unfortunately, modern America’s obsession with mobility and autonomy means having a strong sense of place and rootedness is seen as an oppressive burden, rather than a pillar of human flourishing. Though I have not finished reading the volume, I believe it will be a help to those of us who understand the danger of that sentiment and see the necessity of reestablishing our roots and revitalizing our places.
Indeed, it has already been a help to me. After reading a few of the first essays last night, I woke up this morning and read the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes. Verse 11 of the first chapter says, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Given that I had just been reading an essay on how we’ve largely lost our places and that I’ve been thinking about Evangelicals’ lack of respect for church tradition, this verse leapt at me from the page. (The aforementioned circumstances, and the fact that it is an overcast, rainy day, also put me in a melancholy mood.)
My thoughts centered around questions like: “What is the relationship between our rootlessness and our forgetfulness? Will a rootless people be able to stand for goodness or truth, or will they be tossed about by every cultural wave that breaks against them?”
I’ll put my cards on the table: I think losing our roots in a place will mean losing our cultural memory, and a rootless people will not have the strength of character to stand up to evil and falsehood. In this post I’ll mainly be addressing the latter concern, and in order to begin making the case that love for a particular place is a necessary trait for a person who would stand for the good, the true, and the beautiful, I turn to The Lord of the Rings.
In this grand epic, Tolkien addresses the importance of place and rootedness with his characteristic depth of insight. The story is, hopefully, familiar. Bilbo Baggins finds a magic ring that turns out to be the One Ring, the Dark Lord Sauron’s terrible weapon. Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, inherits the Ring and must set out for Mount Doom on a quest to destroy it. He is joined by a menagerie of companions: three hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard. At a point on the journey, this Fellowship is split, and each smaller company must continue to do its part to defeat Sauron and save what they love.
Those things that they love are what keep the members of the Fellowship resolved to fight in the face of certain death. What is that they love so much that death is not too high a price to pay for its preservation? Well:
Though this exact scene is not in the book, it is certainly in the spirit of Tolkien’s thought. I imagine the following excerpt from The Return of the King served to inspire the cinematic adaptation:
‘So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,’ thought Sam: ‘to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all. I can’t think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn’t a’ been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things went all wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn’t. He would have done something.’
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
At one of the most difficult parts of the journey, when Frodo is weakened by the trials through which he has gone to the point where he can’t even walk, Sam finds the strength to continue, both for himself and for Frodo. Sam’s manner of doing so may seem strange to modern ears, but it springs from an ancient well of wisdom. He doesn’t turn to abstract principles of Right, or Good, or Liberty, as important as those are. Rather, he relies on his memories of particular places and humble happenings which embody those grand ideas.
For Sam and Frodo (and Merry and Pippin), those places are the lands of the Shire. It is their love of the Shire, with its quaint, little people and quaint, quiet ways, that leads them to dare great deeds. Blossoming orchards, Rosie Cotton, fields of summer barley, Bywater, and strawberries and cream are the memories to which Sam turns to stave off fear and weariness. Nearer the beginning of their journey, Frodo relied on similar recollections to get him through tough times. It’s notable that, as Frodo’s memory of his home is clouded by visions of the Eye, he becomes unable to complete his task alone. He must be carried by one who remains spiritually connected to the Shire.
To briefly address the other members of the Fellowship, though the scope may differ, they are driven by comparable affections: Legolas for woodland realms, Gimli for stone halls, Boromir for shining towers. Aragorn and, even more so, Gandalf certainly have a greater number of particular places in mind, but they are still particular places. Attachment to a particular place is what Saruman is mocking when he tells Gandalf that “love of the Halfling’s leaf” has clouded his judgment. More could be about these characters on this subject, but I’ll leave it there for now.
To reiterate and conclude: rootedness in a place, while perhaps not essential in an absolute sense, is yet an important trait for one who would be good, true, and beautiful. This theme runs throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, coming through especially strong in the person of Samwise Gamgee. In subsequent posts I’ll attempt to explain more fully why I think that in order to be as true a friend as Sam we must give up our attachment to mobility and settle down in our places.
I mentioned in my introduction that I recently finished reading James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. This is the first volume in his Cultural Liturgies project, which aims to show that the secular cultural practices in which we engage are the major shapers of our identities. These practices affect us whether we are conscious of them or not, and they are largely antithetical to the Christian understanding of the world. In this and the next several posts, I will analyze and comment on Dr. Smith’s work, beginning with Desiring the Kingdom.
In the introduction, Dr. Smith asks,
What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? What if we begin by appreciating how education not only gets into our head but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut – what the New Testament refers to as kardia, ‘the heart’? What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions – our visions of the ‘good life’ – and not merely the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect? And what if this has as much to do with our bodies as with our minds?
What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?
Dr. Smith believes it is about shaping our loves. He tells us that the primary goal of this book is to get us (the Church) to rethink our approach to Christian education. In his view, we have instituted programs that aim merely towards informing minds with Christian ideas and beliefs, whereas we ought to be forming hearts to love Christ, virtue, truth, and beauty. If he is right, if education is chiefly formative, not informative, then two things follow: first, we need to examine the methods utilized in Christian educational settings to see whether or not they reflect this view of human learning, and second, we must expand our understanding of what constitutes education.
To help us understand his view, Dr. Smith asks us to imagine, for a moment, that we are “Martian anthropologists” on a mission to earth, where we will study one of the religious institutions of the natives. He begins guiding us through this experience, describing the surroundings of the earthling temple, the interior design, the rituals which are performed therein, when it dawns on us that he isn’t talking about a temple at all, but the mall. I won’t try to recreate the experience here. (I strongly encourage you to buy the book from your local, independent bookstore.) Suffice it to say that I, as someone who is a part of the worldview crowd that Dr. Smith is constructively critiquing, am convinced by his analogy. He illustrates that the method of the mall’s education, its “pedagogy of desire,” is not to capture our mind. It aims for our heart, our “gut,” and gets our mind in the process. Images of models in front of the clothing boutiques, scents from the perfumery, and other stimuli don’t register on the cognitive level, at least, not in the same way a lecture does. Rather, these sensory inputs help us imagine ourselves in an ostensibly better state. We sense a shortcoming on our part, that we don’t look as good as that model, and then seek to remedy it by purchasing absolution in the form of a nifty sweater. Each time we perform this ritual, we build more of an identity, a set of appetites, a series of desires, that has its living, moving, and being in consumption.
Part of the genius of this system is that we aren’t conscious that we are being formed into a certain kind of person. Because it bypasses our head and goes straight for the heart, our mind isn’t on guard. This sort of education is by no means unique to the mall. (The “mall” is shorthand for the entire consumer economy, by the way.) The university, the State, the entertainment industry, and the Church all educate in the same manner. That is not to say those institutions are equivalent or that they don’t operate didactically, as well. Simply, each institution has a set of practices and rituals that helps shape participants’ imaginations and desires toward a particular understanding of human flourishing. This sort of understanding is intuition, not cognition.
I will admit that at the end of my reading of the introduction, I was conflicted about the content. On the one hand, Dr. Smith’s argument was compelling, even in its abbreviated form. Indeed, it was an idea that my family held in an unsophisticated, only partially realized way, so I had an intuitive predilection towards it. On the other, because I owe an awful lot to it, I wasn’t pleased by the tossing aside of worldview thinking. I’m a Summit alumnus, and vice president of the apologetics club at my university. Reflecting on worldview is why I picked up Dr. Smith’s book in the first place. However, though he sounds disparaging of “worldview talk” in the introduction (and first few chapters, admittedly), by the end of the book I saw that his wasn’t so much a tossing aside of worldview as it was a reordering. He has built a better foundation for it, I think.
I hope that at this point you are interested in this work. If you have a general idea of where this could go, but still have a lot of questions, then I have done well. In the next post I will begin discussing part one, which is titled “Desiring, Imaginative Animals: We Are What We Love.” The first chapter is concerned with anthropology; it proposes a model of human being that undergirds this whole enterprise.
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.