What is the fate of tradition in the modern world? Once a vital source of social cohesion and continuity, many traditions in the West today seem to have been undermined or to have disappeared altogether. Some observers regard this erosion of past values and practices as a disaster, the root cause of contemporary spiritual and social decay. Others see the same phenomenon as emancipatory, making possible new ways of living and new modes of cultural expression.
The Past in Ruins engages and extends this debate beyond these two perspectives. Neither a nostalgic lament for a "world we have lost" nor a celebration of the decline of tradition, the book offers a description of what has disappeared and why, an appraisal of what has survived and how, and a discussion of what to do with tradition now that it no longer serves the integrative function it once did.
In David Gross's view, the collapse of tradition, though real, can easily be exaggerated. Many traditions have survived at the margins of social life; others have been reconstituted in new forms, or have persisted as "fragments" or "residues".
Yet, though vestiges of tradition remain, they have come to represent something strange or "other". According to Gross, it is precisely this quality of otherness that makes tradition especially valuable, for today tradition can do what it has rarely done before. It can disturb and unsettle, it can force us to rethink the "givens" of modern life, and it can reconnect us with many of the past's "lost" or undeveloped possibilities.