Sunday, November 19, 2006

For the Aymara, the Future is "Then"

Here's a quick and dirty way of describing the difference between the premodern and modern/postmodern worldviews:

According to Ken Olson, for one South American tribe, the future is behind you, the past is in front of you. This is a distinctly teleological understanding of the world: premodernism in a nutshell. We do not lead the way, but follow in a shared pilgrimage toward some End. This is the path of faith and reason within the bounds of religion: it is the way of the faithful, toward the City of God.

The Enlightenment reversed the story, so that it is now second nature to speak of the future laying ahead of us, and the past behind us. Where there is no common goal, anyone can press to the front of the line by dint of wit or muscle, while others are left to follow in their wake. It is up to the Leader to determine the direction, so that it becomes at best an expedition and at worst a death march. This is the path of rhetoric and unbridled reason. It is the way of the State.

Weekend Edition Saturday, August 12, 2006 ·

Most cultures see the future as something ahead. The past is behind. The Aymara of the Andean highlands reverse the perspective, and they're not alone. Ken Olson, a linguistics professor at the University of North Dakota, fills Scott Simon in on the details.

Someone might protest: this is too pessimistic! Why can't the Enlightenment be read as a pilgrimage toward an End, which is the truth of life, liberty and happiness? But to do this,it seems to me that:

1) you cannot reject the premodern notion of an end, and so are dependent upon a concept beyond the bounds of (or even contradicting ) modernist thought; and

2) You must face the fact that modernist autonomy dictates that each individual should be free to dictate his/her own End, which may or may not be life, liberty and happiness, for that individual or for the group. Indeed, the Truth is much more than just life, liberty and happiness.

3) Finally, history shows that human leaders alone are not up to the tasks of creating heavenly cities on earth. The French and the Russian Revolutions stand as stark reminders of what happens when the past is seen as something to be overcome.

But perhaps I am being too harsh. T.S.Eliot's verse, "Little Gidding," from his Four Quartets affirms how Christ stands at the start and end of all our wanderings, and that ultimately, what matters is Him, not us. Pilgrims and genuine explorers: both will find rest with Him who is the Alpha and Omega.

"With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one."


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