Friday Five: 2

One of my goals in life is to see traditional patterns of living restored in some measure. I don’t have utopian dreams of a society-wide rediscovery of past wisdom; I’m pessimistic on that front. I do think, though, that it’s possible for some of us in small communities to resurrect aspects of our common Western heritage. To that end, this week Friday Five has something of a theme. One way in which we can learn from our ancestors is to consider how they crafted the built environment and the government they instituted to protect it. None of this is heavy reading, but I hope it is helpful in fleshing out what I’m after.

Home Rule

By Phillip Campbell at the Distributist Review. How have cities traditionally related to higher governments? Are there ways to devolve power back to local communities?

A Glorified Sidewalk, and the Path to Transform Atlanta

Written by Richard Fausset in the New York Times. If I had to call a (sort of) major city “home,” Atlanta would be the one. I go to university here, and it’s the closest one to my actual home. That being the case, I have a particular interest in seeing how the BeltLine project proceeds. It has the potential to be a great success, or a dismal failure. My hope is that the project leaders are able to resist the temptation to rely too much on government aid.

The Alpine Heart

From Stephen Heiner of Front Porch Republic. This one got me to wondering what local, communal traditions we have here. Has the ease of mobility erased them all?

Why Sprawl Is Not the Only Choice

By Matthew Robare, writing for The American Conservative. Urban sprawl is something of a cancer in the eyes of traditionalists and localists.

My Take on the Local Food Movement

By Rachel Quednau at Strong Towns. I think of a comment from Lewis in one of his letters:

“Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when the family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.”

A Syllogism

Note: I know this technically isn’t a syllogism.

1) We have moral duties to our blood relations, our church communities, and those who have directly blessed us, over and above those to mankind in general.
2) The aforementioned groups (we’ll call them one’s “tribe”) typically live in a particular location with more or less clear boundaries encompassing a reasonably small area.
3) A particular location with more or less clear boundaries encompassing a reasonably small area is a “place.”
4) Our moral duties to our tribe include, but aren’t limited to, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual care.
5) Our ability to provide physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual care is diminished with increasing physical distance from the subjects of our duties.
6) It is not good to diminish one’s ability to do one’s duty.
7) Leaving the place where one’s tribe resides is to diminish one’s ability to do one’s duty.
8) Therefore, it is not good to leave the place where one’s tribe resides.

A Non-Accident of Birth

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place… – Acts 17:26

“I can’t wait to get out of this rinky-dink little town!” How often have you heard some variation of this sentiment expressed? I know I’ve heard it too much, and I’m always saddened when I do. The attitude is one of dissatisfaction with and disdain for the place of one’s birth. Such an attitude might be alright1 if the proposition that “the place of a person’s birth is an ‘accident,'” is true. (“Accident” here means there isn’t a deliberate cause for the thing addressed.) In that case, a person was just unfortunately paired with a place that doesn’t match his personality, needs, or desires. Leaving is of no consequence, because there was never a reason to be there in the first place.

 A Christian, however, cannot hold that proposition as true. As the passage above says, the Lord fixes the “boundaries of our dwelling places.”2  He has “placed” us and given us a particular group of people to keep. If not even a sparrow can fall outside of God’s will, why do we think there are such things as “accidents of birth?”

This doesn’t mean providence should be read in an absolute sense. There may be very good reasons for moving from your home. What I want to highlight is simply this: If, in the course of deciding whether to leave or stay, you find yourself assuming that where you were born is an “accident,” start over. You may come to a different conclusion if you begin with the understanding that God is sovereign even over your birthplace.


[1] “Might” is the operative word here; I don’t think it is even if the truth of the proposition is granted.

[2] Yes, I know that is in reference to “nations.” How does God fix a nation’s dwelling place without fixing the dwelling places of individuals in the nation? Hint: He doesn’t. In this case, the proposed dichotomy between the “corporate” and “individual,” such as is often brought up in relation to election, is a false one.

A Few Definitions

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.)

Place

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.

Culture

Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio Journal has some short primers on culture, modernity, and the Church, one of which I’ll utilize:

“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

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

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.)

Providence

From the Westminster Confession, Chapter 5:

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.


[1] 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.

Roots

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.