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Guestwords: Turning 90

Wed, 05/15/2024 - 18:36

While it is not unusual today for someone to turn 90, I find that the number itself is surreal. Who, me? And given my education starting decades ago, I realize in a parenthesis of grammar that it should be written, Who, I?

I make a point of the parenthesis to illustrate the arc not only of my life but of its time. I was educated with rules of grammar in writing, of speaking, and living within personal and social boundaries. Not that such things are lacking today, but they are different in expression. Or, maybe they are lacking. Rules. Boundaries.

It’s a characteristic of age that a person looks back with nostalgia and critique to say it’s too bad everything today has gone to hell. It’s tempting to say so. But while most of my life is in fact behind me, I look forward. Life ongoing. Such optimism is also a characteristic of the time when I came of age, after the war. That war, people age 90 will say of World War II.

We are very much influenced by the frame of reference of our adolescence and young adulthood. To which I add my personal history, a stable family defined by love, and an inherited faith mediated through the church. Methodist and Presbyterian, with some Baptist thrown in, also Mormon history in the 19th century. But I don’t intend this to be a historical review. I’m prone to such things, I admit.

Nor do I offer secrets on longevity. I don’t have such secrets. Genetics count, of course, and then what we do with that counts. How we care for

ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. A Scout is “to keep himself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” I was an Eagle Scout, or in present tense, I am an Eagle Scout. Those values remain with me.

To speak of my Protestant frame of reference, values, and my time coming of age is to speak also of what is derisively called by some European ethnocentrism. An inherited moral and political structure from the Enlightenment. That’s another bad word in some current arenas of social and political thought. All those dead white men, many of whom had slaves, who also did not admit women into decision-making. Out with them all!

I’m going to write a brief apologia here for those dead white men. Among whom I will one day be one.

I recently read about the 300th anniversary of the birth of Immanuel Kant, who was born on April 22, 1724. The article was in the Arts section of The New York Times, May 2, by Susan Neiman. Always credit a reference, or the omission may come back to bite you in a future academic interview. I’m not worried.

Shades of Philosophy 101 when an undergraduate, on Immanuel Kant, or his adversary in thought, David Hume. But not to get into that, nor like students in my time who took lecture notes by pencil or pen and may have fallen asleep in the process. Except I didn’t — fall asleep. I awakened with Kant’s categorical imperative. You’re not familiar with that? It is to say that we should act in life how we would want every other person to act in the same circumstance.

The imperative is a universal moral law. It gives dignity to every person in every time, place, and culture. It leads to freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Moral law, political law. Along with other thinkers in that 18th century of the Enlightenment, it leads to our Constitution of 1789.

If you doze off here, you can doodle with your pen in the margins. But I think it’s important.

My education progressed through a graduate degree in American history to seminary with a degree in theology. I augmented Enlightenment thought with theology from John Calvin to Karl Barth to liberation theology of the 1960s forward.

Philosophy 101, Theology 101, or Political Science 101 does not stop at 101. It evolves in understanding and application. It’s not necessary to throw out those old guys because they were old guys with limitations in reference to their time. We live in our time and can draw the best of their thinking to apply to the common good as we see it today.

There is never a time when moral imperative is not required. We lose it and we descend into spiritual chaos with political ramifications. Of course we see, think, and act differently on the interpretations. But to throw out the argument because the actors of the time were flawed is to throw out the moral core at the center of it. It’s not necessary to be Christian, or Jewish, to see that. It’s to be human, and see it.

Turning 90, I am grateful. Grateful for what I have been given, for what I have witnessed and am witness to, for family and friends. Yes, good health, inherited and nourished. I do have trouble at times remembering names of people. That seems to be a common complaint. But with forward-looking faith, joy in the everyday of things, humor at the contradictions, including my own, I am pleased to share my musings with you, dear reader. We are all contemporaries in living thought.

The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.


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