Rooting unsteady trees
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently offered a striking image to describe our cultural moment. The image was that of an unsteady tree.
A tree depends upon a strong root system to support its “branching out” into the world.
In the same way, Brooks argued, we flourish as individuals and communities when our lives are a “series of excursions from a secure base.” That base is made up of the things that bind us together – faith, family, community, and citizenship. It is from these secure places of common identity and obligation that we exercise our freedom.
Put simply, you can’t have healthy branches without well-developed roots.
Brooks’ image can be easily applied to the experience of young adults.
Young adulthood, after all, is a time of extending into the world. Ideally, it’s a time for leaving the secure base of home and discovering how one’s unique gifting and calling can be lived out in the world.
Sometimes the term “differentiation” is used to describe the concrete steps young adults take in order to establish an independent sense of self as distinct from their family or community of origin. This is a healthy, normal part of our development. But only if the tree is balanced.
Brooks worries that contemporary society neglects the roots while celebrating the branches. The result is an unsteady tree with sprawling individual rights and unquestioned notions of personal sovereignty resting upon withered roots of shared identity and obligations.
Brooks concludes that we have become a culture that relies on a kind of individual that we can no longer create.
We need people who are rooted enough to set aside self-interest and instead work toward shared goals. But with a radically diminished sense of shared identity and obligations, there is no remaining logic for this level of self-sacrifice.
Brooks’ insight maps directly onto the question of young adults and faith. We take it as obvious that early adulthood is about self-discovery, identity formation, and individual expression. We quickly point to these as the branches we’d expect to see on a healthy tree.
But we are less inclined to focus on the roots that enable the branches. It may even be that these roots have become difficult to articulate, perhaps even invisible.
As the identities of tribe and nation have weakened at a cultural level, so too has our shared sense of belonging and commitment within the church.
We sometimes struggle to find a reason for the church that goes beyond individual self-interest – as if the church were a supporting actor in the individual’s quest for meaning and purpose. But without roots, early adulthood can feel like an anxious scramble for identity and meaning with few fixed points to guide the journey.
As churches, we need to nurture the developing autonomy of young adults, so that they can “branch out” into the world. We need to walk with them as they discover their gifts, embrace their callings, and find their place in the church and world. We must affirm the normal and healthy need to differentiate.
But we must remind ourselves that these “branches” are sustained by a deep root system – our identity in Christ, our commitment to Scripture, our embeddedness within the church and guidance under the Spirit, our vision of the Kingdom of God. Without these roots, the individual quest, like the unsteady tree, can collapse under the weight of its own branches.
The image of a healthy tree did not originate in the New York Times, after all. Long ago, the Psalmist applied this image to personal development, promising that healthy roots produce faithful people. “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:3).
is academic dean at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C. His PhD dissertation was on emerging adult faith development.