Starting (and Coming From) Traditions- Micah Tillman
On Monday, the new semester begins for us college people. Starting a new semester here in the new year. I’ll begin by teaching my students about Descartes, who thought of himself as starting philosophy over. Things were going to be new and different and better, Descartes hoped.
And things definitely were different because of Descartes. Philosophers before him thought you should start your explanations (of science, or theology, or art, or whatever) by beginning with God, or by beginning with the world. Descartes, on the other hand, thought you should begin your explanations with yourself. You’ve got to figure yourself out, and why you believe what you believe, before you can come to any firm conclusions about anything else. That’s what Descartes thought, anyway.
In many ways, all philosophy today comes from Descartes. It’s not that all philosophy today is Descartes’s philosophy, mind you. It’s that all philosophers have to respond to Descartes in one way or another. Even if you disagree with Descartes — even if you’ve left him behind — he is where you’re coming from. You only understand where you are and where you’re headed by pointing along the path back to Descartes, and ahead, away from him. As a philosopher today, you are part of a tradition, and that tradition, in many ways, begins with Descartes.
Before I get to Descartes, however, I’ll be starting a new Sunday School series for the adults at my church (and our sister congregation across the street) on the book of Genesis. What better way to start the new year than with the book that starts the Bible? Before getting to Descartes on Monday, then, I’ll be talking about Moses on Sunday.
Genesis, of course, has had a bigger impact on the world than even Descartes. While all philosophers (and scientists!) today have gotten to where they are by “coming from” Descartes, most of the planet’s general population has gotten to where they are by “coming from” Genesis. They’ve gotten to where they are by accepting Genesis, or rejecting Genesis, or by reading it in one way rather than another. They’ve gotten to where they are by growing up in a culture whose main historical figures thought about the world as coming from — or as explicitly not coming from — the Creation that Genesis describes.
Wherever you turn, the idea that God created the world and humans — and therefore the idea that God should have some kind of say in the world and human life — is lurking in thebackground. Many people accept the idea. Many people reject it. But either way, we’re all responding to it somehow. We’re all part of a tradition, and that tradition begins, in many ways, with Genesis.
What this means, of course, is that we’re all part of many different traditions all at once. I come from the Christian tradition, and within that, the Anabaptist tradition. But since I now study and teach at a Catholic university, I am in some important ways now part of the Catholic tradition within Christianity as well. I come from the American tradition, and within that, the “backwoods”/”country folk” tradition. But now that I work (and, for all intents and purposes, live) in our nation’s capital, I am also part of the city-living tradition.
And I could go on and on, naming the various traditions from which I come and of which I am now a part. For each of these traditions, I could ask, “Who started it, and where did it start?” In tracing the path of the tradition, back to its beginning, I might gain a little insight into the position I currently occupy. What does one have to do to get to where I am now, forming as I do a kind of intersection point of all these various traditions?
But I also might want to ask myself: What traditions do I want to start, here in this new year, and in what ways do I want people to be “coming from” me? That is, what kind of impact do I want to have on the people around me, such that they will have to respond to me? I mean, the people around me already do have to respond to me — but I have a choice about the occasions I provide for their responses. And I want to be the kind of person who provides good occasions (whether they be in the form of comments, or blog posts, or lectures, or smiles, or whatever).
Happy New Year!
[Micah is a Mt. Sophia graduate who is working on his doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America. He also gets to teach philosophy (as a "teaching fellow"), which he loves.]