21st century thinking: Tradition and Context

It is a bit ironic that we often think of “traditions” as a set of things that our parents did. In the larger scope of man’s history on the planet, one or two generations is a very short period of time. Even our inter-connecting “traditions” and “civilization” would apply to only around roughly 2% of our time here. The other 98% was spent in a pre-civilized setting  — before mankind had developed written language or abstract reasoning or had started settling down into permanent settlements. In other words our real traditions are conveniently forgotten in favor of more recent radical innovations that look traditional to us at present, with our rather myopic view of where we came from.

Indeed, one might argue that tradition has no more value than as one organizing principle of a story that motivates us to come together in a group. We think in terms of stories, and stories of our traditions are important in that sense.

But stories of tradition are but one type of story line. We do not live only in the past. One of the more radical innovations of the last 300 years was to invent the idea of a future story. We call that “progress”. And if we believe in progress, our stories of the past should not dominate our stories of what progress should look like,

Consider, for example, our view of how the universe works. We take it pretty much from Newton. The universe is alike an enormous clock. A machine. Of course to Newton this was a radical step forward — after all, the machine age was just getting started. And the idea the universe was a like a machine and operated according to predictable standards (that we call gravity) radically changed how we viewed what was going on around us. We lived in a machine, and we can use the resources that we find to upgrade our machine – the earth. This is now our traditional view, even if it is only a few hundred years old.

We are just starting to see where this leads us. Einstein and others refuted the idea that the universe is a machine like a clock. And now our experience on the earth refutes the idea that we can just use its resources as we wish without damaging the ecology that supports our lives. This is not tradition yet. But it has a good chance to become tradition in the next several hundred years.

My point — we should be suspicious of tradition as a motivator unless we are prepared to ask where the tradition came from and why it has value in the present. this is a thought that took root in the 20th century as mankind radically transformed how he lived, embracing “non-traditional” life styles using technologies in ways that few would have dreamed of before. But we have not moved very far from traditions that shape our values. We still don’t see them as suspect. We are still naive in our believe in a beautiful past.


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