My turn: The wisdom of our predecessors

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010

We all grow up and come to respect the ideas and beliefs of our parents, ancestors and the people around us. Since the invention of writing systems, we have come to rely on documents as a further source in our quest for knowledge and truth. Sometimes we call it the wisdom of our ancestors, but perhaps we forget that the writers of these documents or stories all lived at a certain time and place in the past, spoke and at times wrote in a specific language possessing all the limitations of any language.

They were passing on what their predecessors knew, said and believed. At the same time, we see immense changes taking place in our environment, technology, social relations and knowledge. At times, all this change may become frightening and we want to hold on to something that we think never changes, like a ship in a storm, hanging on to an anchor. We become afraid that if we break free from that anchor we will perish. Is that really true, or must we adapt and re-think things as the world around us changes?

There are many sacred texts in the world. We have the Old Testament, which is the Hebrew account of their past, their oral history, rules, literature and views of the world. Our New Testament tells of a revolution from the past and gives a new message. Then in India, the Hindu people have their sacred texts. Meanwhile the Japanese have the Kojiki and Nihongi and later Buddhist writings. Millions of people accept the Quran as a direct message from the Creator. Native Americans have their own stories of the way Raven, Coyote or Beaver created the world as we know it today.

All of these divine teachings have been passed on and recorded by individuals - people living in a specific place and time - speaking a particular language. They were passing on the best answers to what they knew at the time. Some hold these documents as the sole and final teachings for all time.

Then we have modern scientists and historians, for whom the only direct message from the creator is creation. They too, in their own language and tradition, try to understand and translate the information they find into a unified explanation.

In the past, people thought their local world was the universe. Later, others thought the Earth was flat and the center of the universe. Then with Galileo, we learned that the sun didn't revolve around Earth. We now know there are billions of galaxies in the universe. The Greeks coined the term atom, meaning that which could not be divided. Now we know, dramatically through the development and use of nuclear weapons, that indeed the atom can be divided.

Our human ancestors had to make quick decisions. Humans had to divide things into a dual form - yes/no, black/white, male/female/ up/down, right/wrong, friend/enemy, good/bad, either/or, body/spirit, or yin/yang! Our biological ancestors had to make quick decisions if they were to survive. We continue to do that, but do we have to?

There are scientists with religious beliefs and there are scholars of religious studies who rely on scientists for information. Does it have to be my way or no way? Is there no middle ground, no sharing of beliefs and tested scientific knowledge that is possible? Could it be that the wisdom of our predecessors was merely the wisdom of their particular time and place? We are the ancestors of future generations, and need to pass on not only understandings from a distant time but the understandings we now have.

Such a revolution or reformation would upset many of those with a vested interest in preserving the dichotomy of either/or, one or the other, but not both. Perhaps it might be a choice we have to make if we are to survive as a species.

• Wally Olson is a professor of anthropology (Emeritus) at the University of Alaska Southeast. Over the years, he has also taught philosophy, logic, linguistics and history. He has been a resident of Alaska since 1962 and lives in Auke Bay.

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