Since the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.
I grew up in the southern part of central Kansas, a strip of fertile lowland wedged between the southern reaches of the once vast tallgrass prairie to the east and the wilder, more arid, rolling plains to the west. Nearly all of Kansas is open prairie, or was once. Trees grow mostly along creek beds and near other sources of water. The hot summer wind can blow up from the south at forty miles an hour or more. The gusts kick dust up into the air, cake it onto your sweaty skin, suck the moisture right out of your mouth. I hated the wind growing up.
Nobody much likes this place at first. Most people in the nineteenth century, after the United States obtained the land from the French in the Louisiana Purchase, called these prairie regions the great American desert. But no sooner have you left a place like this than you find that the land has bent you to itself, that despite yourself you are beholden to it, that it commands a complex, unanticipated loyalty.
My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1893, not so long ago as these things go. My great-grandmother came from Russia the same year. They met and married in Kansas. They were both Mennonites, Anabaptists who sought lives free from government conscription in war or in worship. My great-grandmother’s family had come to Russia from Germany, and their forebears to Germany from the Netherlands, always in search of good land to farm and the good pleasure of the local magistrates to leave them to their ways. Having lived in the Low Countries, the Mennonites were adept at converting watery lowlands into arable land, and so were happy to occupy regions considered uninhabitable. Through their industry, the swampland they occupied eventually became rich, tilled soil, making many of them prosperous. Prosperity seldom escapes the notice of magistrates, who invariably intervened, leading the Mennonites to seek new places free from the intrusions of well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) government agents.
But no sooner have you left a place like this than you find that the land has bent you to itself, that despite yourself you are beholden to it, that it commands a complex, unanticipated loyalty.
These Old World immigrants got exactly what they wanted in central Kansas, where they farmed the turkey red wheat brought with them from Russia. Largely left alone in a rural area of a state far from the centers of power, bloody Kansas and the Civil War already a memory, and not a fight they had a dog in anyway, they continued to farm, worship, eat, and commune much as they had done in Europe. They slowly assimilated, but only as necessary and to keep a low profile. They had big families and worked hard and educated their children according to their own beliefs. My particular clan did not totally sequester themselves from the modern world; they did not reject the combustion engine or telephone; they merely kept to themselves, lived simply, and tried to be decent, generous, and godly people. Largely they succeeded.
This is the tradition to which I belong. It is a tradition, however, that does not recognize itself as a tradition, which makes it a strange tradition, an anti-tradition tradition. It is at once intensely conservative and unknowingly modern, a hybrid of the old ways of our ancestors and the vicissitudes of American fundamentalism, an old tradition filtered through distinctly modern habits of thought, its longevity perhaps attributable to geographical and ethnic isolation as much as commitment to the ways of our forebears.
Despite my family’s commitments to the contrary, I experience their religion and their way of life as a powerful tradition. One of the curious things about tradition is that it is most purely experienced in complete immediacy. To inhabit a tradition fully is to be unaware of it as a tradition. A tradition that understands itself only as fidelity to its source—to not in fact be a tradition—is in a sense a highly rarefied form of tradition. Knowledge is received and given as truth without qualification.
It is impossible to choose or join a tradition and ever participate in it in the same way as you do the tradition you find yourself a part of. Your second language can never become your first language. There is no undoing the grammars of consciousness you inherit from childhood. Your inherited tradition will never leave you, even if you leave it.
After my great-grandparents died, their children, now grown, wanted to hold the family orbit together and began the annual family reunion. My grandfather was the third of seven children. Altogether those seven children had forty children of their own. One of them is my mother.
Every year, a day or two after Christmas, my family piled into our gray conversion van and drove in the early winter dark to the reunion, the darkness parting like a veil before the van, then closing back in behind us. We ate potluck dinners, sang Christmas carols, visited. The reunion always culminated in a sharing time, an update from each family about where they were living and what they were doing. I have attended this family reunion for most of my life.
I am not a Mennonite, really. Or, at least, I did not grow up on the farm. My grandfather farmed, most of my mom’s relatives farmed, and my mother married another Mennonite, but a preacher not a farmer. A preacher is one set apart.
My mom and dad met at Bible college in a big landlocked city. After they were married, they motored off to seminary in another big landlocked city, where my siblings and I were all born.
When I was six, my family relocated to central Kansas, near where my mother grew up. We moved there to start a new church. My mother’s aging parents lived outside town on the same land and in the same house my great-grandparents had lived in.
My brother and sister and I grew up “in town,” population sixteen thousand, making us, in the reckoning of our extended family, “city people.” I spent my summers, not helping bring in the harvest or filling silos, but riding my bike to the baseball card shop and swimming at the city pool with my friends. I dreaded family reunions.
As we arrived at the reunions, it always struck me that my great-grandparents and my grandparents belonged more to these people than I did. Mom was always upbeat, deliberately uninterested in our lack of enthusiasm. Upon arrival we waded into a sea of Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, plaid shirts and bolo ties, the smell of sweat and grain and livestock washing over us. The women, industrious and talkative, prepared the potluck and chatted at tables. Mom immediately disappeared among them, lost to us, and soon enough Dad was engaged in the uneasy truce of adult male conversation. The kids regarded me with a contempt equalled only by my own for them. My siblings and I stuck together. We were an island of city kids in a sea of farmers.
It was an unstated rule in my family that we didn’t criticize the reunion or the people in it. If you uttered a discouraging word, you were in danger of a well-meaning lecture from Mom about the importance of family. So we kids consoled ourselves with ironic comments and asides, significant looks and pokes in the ribs. Occasionally we could coax a wry expression from Dad.
As years went by, however, my older sister began to disrupt this routine. She took an active interest in these near strangers. She talked with second cousins once removed, asked engaging questions, nodded her head slowly and knowingly in response to what others were saying. I was bewildered at this betrayal of our shared sense of alienation.
I grew up and moved away, eager to put as many hundreds of miles between me and my hometown as possible. But skidding across the continent, exploring new territories where none of my kin had sunk a plow in the earth, living in very big cities in very different places, I experienced a different and more profound sense of alienation. The liberation I had experienced upon escaping the so-called provincial life I now experienced as loss as well. Back at our reunions over the holidays I found myself talking with cousins, asking questions, and nodding as my sister had. At home I asked Mom if I could borrow and read the old family history books.
In separating myself from my tradition I became aware of it, and the moment of separation is indelible. To know and be aware of one’s tradition is to be at least one degree removed from it—to have a knowledge apart from it rather than knowledge as a part of it. It is in fact to be in possession of two modes of knowledge with different objects: tradition as such and the truth that the tradition hands down. Knowledge apart from tradition can be experienced as either liberation or loss, or both at once, but the knowledge cannot be expunged. Knowledge apart from tradition is a knowledge that comes at the price of pure inhabitation. It breaks the enchantment, makes visible the invisible.
Once visible, aspects of traditions and the forms of knowledge they represent can be distinguished, categorized, and classified—religious, ethnic, intellectual, familial. But the various knowledges of tradition are abstractions. They all share the common elements of remembering, reconstituting, repetition, identity, belonging, preservation, handing on. In the shape of a human life the lines between them cannot be easily drawn. Even if theoretically distinguishable, they are near inextricable in experience. It might be the work of a life to sort them out.
It is my suspicion that this untangling was not always so difficult—nor particularly necessary. Prior to the advent of what we too easily call modernity, one could examine a tradition and inhabit it in a way that is now impossible. Or, at least, what our ancient forebears did with native intelligence we achieve only with great effort. Our distance from ourselves is a historical novelty. In the modern world, to examine a tradition is to assume a sort of objectivity, a mastery over it that precludes inhabitation. In the pursuit of absolute knowledge, some things that should not have been separated were separated, and thereafter it became necessary, in a sense, to choose. Once knowledge as a part of its object has been separated from knowledge apart from it, it is impossible to reintegrate them, even if you want to.
To inhabit a tradition fully is to be unaware of it as a tradition.
The old country church where most of my relatives attend is where my great-grandparents worshipped and are buried, and it is the church where my grandparents worshipped and are buried. My mother grew up here. My grandfather, her dad, farmed just down the road. You could see the steeple from his kitchen window. My parents were married in the church, but after that the orbit of our family spins outward.
That church burned down a little over a decade ago, and they built a new facility just down the road. All that remains at the old property is the cemetery, hallowed by the ghosts of my ancestors. Many of the gravestones are in German. The new building is large and accommodating. There is a spacious fellowship hall with a large, gas-powered hearth.
Photo by Jeff Reimer
A few years ago the invitation arrived for the annual family reunion. It came with the announcement that this would be the last one. Of the seven brothers and sisters, only one, my grandfather’s youngest brother, Walter, was still alive. He was eighty-nine at the time. The reunion had been dwindling in any case. The forty sons and daughters of those seven siblings are now largely in their retirement. Some have died. Their children—my generation—have moved further afield, or just choose not to come anymore. Most of us, especially those of us who are younger, find it difficult to apprehend what it is that connects us to each other. This is our parents’ gig, not ours. The family mythologies and narrative threads that bind us have become tattered and thin. None of us have any memory of the man and woman three generations back who pull us together out of the past.
At the reunion I sit in front of the gas hearth with my dad and my sister eating apple pie and peppernuts. It is just us at the table. I say to them that in a sort of therapy group I was part of once we described our families of origin. I tell them that as we talked the therapist drew a map of our relationships on a giant Post-it pad. He used all kinds of symbols and lines to denote the different aspects of relation. As I described my mother’s extended family, he paused, picked up a chunky red permanent marker, and scrawled in heavy letters across the squares and boxes and lines of my family, “Thick Culture.”
When I finish telling this story to my sister and my dad, they nod knowingly.
After dinner we shuffle over to the sanctuary to sing together, have sharing time, and listen to the devotional. We file into an expansive, unfrivolous space. It does not carry the sense of history that imbued the old country church, but that church is gone and what can you do? They did manage pews instead of chairs. And there is a lot of nice woodwork.
Since this is the last family reunion, our group is larger than it has been in a while. We fill the first several rows. There are maybe a hundred of us, kids included.
After a few Christmas carols, we have the sharing time, which has in the past few years been an occasion for my great-uncle Walter to remember the past to us. One of his daughters—my mom’s first cousin, which makes her my first cousin once removed, and her kids my second cousins—moves the piano bench in front of the stage and guides Uncle Walter to it. She tells him to sit down. He objects mildly but she insists.
Uncle Walter still lives on his own. His kids who still live close check in on him regularly. He is a widower, has been for many years. He makes as if to begin his talk, but he has forgotten to sit down and is precariously close to backing into the bench. Lord help us, he will tip over backward and die before our eyes. His daughter, who has just sat down, jumps up and is at his side again. Please, sit down. It will ease our minds. He sits down and begins talking.
He begins at “500 AD,” a date he repeats several times. It becomes clear that he means 1500, because he has started at the Reformation. He is telling the story of our family beginning at the Reformation. He follows his ancestors in his mind from the Netherlands, to Germany, to Prussia, to Russia, and back west as they crisscrossed northern Europe in their peregrinations, a wandering people. And then across the Atlantic to the New World, to the United States, to Kansas, to the ground we now sit on. While he is talking, I receive a text message, which I ignore. A few people hold up their phones recording on video. One or two wipe away tears. Uncle Walter is the last living link to a vanished world.
Uncle Walter’s son gets up to say a few words. He is a confident, plain-spoken man, a farmer like most of his listeners. He wears a plaid shirt with faux-pearl snaps. The first thing he says is this: “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition is the living faith of the dead.”
This is not, let us say, how I expected the talk to begin. The quotation is from Jaroslav Pelikan, eminent Yale historian of religion, a Lutheran who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy late in life. He made this statement in the 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, delivered in Washington, DC. The lectures were published as a book called The Vindication of Tradition.
I am fairly certain Uncle Walter’s son had not been reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The aphorism has become famous and has been quoted far more times than the book has been read.
Even so, it is an astonishing start to a devotional delivered to a group of fundamentalist Mennonite farmers. Uncle Walter’s son is in fact apologetic for broaching the subject at all. He reminds us that tradition is held for naught as to Scripture. But still, he wants to make a case for tradition. In good Protestant fashion he makes his case through Scripture.
He quotes Genesis—“Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence”—and traces this thread through all of Scripture. The book of Exodus tells us that as Moses and the Israelites were fleeing Egypt at the Passover, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.” And the book of Joshua tells us that when they entered the promised land many years later, “the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem . . . and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.”
The thread is picked up in the New Testament by the author of the book of Hebrews, in his long rehearsal of the great cloud of witnesses: “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” Uncle Walter’s son tells us to carry the bones of Joseph.
The story of Genesis is the story of an ancient, wandering family. A family that must not forget who it is, or where it came from. The bones of Joseph are the catch at the end of a thread that pulls the fabric of the narrative onto itself, drawing it together as the past is folded onto the present. Carry the tradition, carry Joseph’s bones. Do not forget this thing. It will tell you who you are, and where you came from. It will become for you an inheritance.
Uncle Walter’s son sits down. I look at my phone. The text is from my sister, who is sitting down the row from me. It says, “Thick Culture.”
Uncle Walter died six months later.
A friend of mine likes to half-jokingly refer to my mom’s family as the last true bastion of community left in the United States. But it’s clear that, whether owing to the effects of the modern world or just the natural life cycles of families over time, that cohesiveness is slowly disintegrating. This part of our family’s life dissolved almost simultaneously to the first time it was identified and addressed as a tradition, an ancient manuscript disintegrating the first time it is exposed to light and air.
I have spent the better part of my adult life trying without success to extricate myself from my tradition, arranging and rearranging my mental furniture, trundling it from one space to the next in the many-roomed mansion of the Christian faith. But I am mired and immobilized by a tradition of blood and piety deeper than intellect or assent, one I know and sense and react to below the threshold of consciousness. I can only try to catch up to it in my waking mind. And so it betrays my attempts to leave.
Thirteen years ago I moved back to my hometown in Kansas, seeking out the stabilizing forces of this tradition. I came home in order to be shaped by this place and to know the people who have given me my past. It is a decision that has brought me many consolations, and I have no wish ever to leave again. But it is a severe trade-off. The means of my stability is at the same time the mechanism that sets in motion a different, more interior kind of peregrination within me. The only tradition I am a part of I simultaneously find myself apart from. With one hand I push it away; with the other I grasp it all the more tightly.
As a child riding with my parents out to my grandparents’ farm, I noticed that the trees which manage to grow in open land, away from other trees or from a water source, often stoop permanently northward, shaped by the relentless summer wind. The branches and leaves on the northern side, away from the hot blasts of air, grow lush and full and green. The southern side languishes, pale and sparse. These trees have a kind of desolate beauty, setting themselves up in defiance of the very forces that give them their character and their form. I could never really decide whether I liked them.