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.
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 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.)
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.
 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.