Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #017. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 23, 2008

Among the many wise and witty remarks made by (or attributed to) baseball great Yogi Berra, my favorite is this: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Of course you can't do that, but there are times when, at a fork in the road, you're well-advised to ponder Yogi's advice for a while.

With an economy in shambles, two wars, terror in India, cholera in Zimbabwe, and on and on, we're at one of those forks in the road, and I am much encouraged by the way President-elect Barack Obama is showing a Berra-style imagination in the formation of his administration and early decisions about policy.

He welcomes strong views and competing opinions. Such adherence to the ancient legal principle, "let the other side also be heard," could result in paralysis, but Obama clearly can make up his mind and act decisively. It's just that he does it after considering carefully the nature of the fork in the road he's at.

It may never have happened before that Berra and the great philosopher of liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), have appeared in the same sentence, but "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" is a shorthand version of one of Mill's deepest insights. Obama is demonstrating an understanding of what Mill wrote in two companion essays, "On Bentham" and "On Coleridge."

Mill's father was a devotee of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism (the moral worth of an action is directly proportional to its contribution to happiness), and the son was brought up to be a true believer.

But John Stuart Mill found Bentham's view too narrow, or rather, incomplete, and discovered in the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge the necessary balance.

Mill's essays are rich in detail and nuance. The gist of his argument is this: "In the main, Bentham was a Progressive philosopher, Coleridge a Conservative one." Neither was an ideologue: "The writings of both contain severe lessons to their own side, on many of the errors and faults they are addicted to." But each had an angle: "To Bentham it was given to discern more particularly those truths with which existing doctrines and institutions were at variance; to Coleridge, the neglected truths which lay in them."

There are a hundred ways to characterize the challenges facing our new president. Here is a way more comprehensive than most: How can he restore some confidence among us all in the usefulness, trustworthiness, indeed the necessity, of institutions?

It is tempting to go all the way with Bentham: our economic structures, our political establishments (just look at the current scandal in Illinois), our religious bodies — in short, "our existing doctrines and institutions" — seem so at variance with truths of human nature and community renewal that we might figure the only hope is to clean house, start over.

But this is where the Coleridge branch of the fork in the road commands our attention. We cannot start from scratch, even though the "self-made," "go-it-alone" person is an abiding American myth. Most institutions were created for a worthwhile purpose, and underlying all these purposes is the fundamental truth that we are social creatures.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who had plenty of reason to distrust institutions, said it best, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." King was a true prophet when he called on Americans to reconnect with the neglected truths which are embedded in our institutions.

A frequent refrain I hear in conversations these days is this: "I'm more hopeful than I've been in years, even when there's so much to worry about." That's true for me, and this column has been an attempt to explain this hope to myself. When Obama talks about perfecting our union, about getting beyond blue states and red states to the United States of America, I see him at a fork in the road, preparing to take it.