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Monday, July 18, 2005

Alfred North Whitehead watch, Pete Seeger edition.

It's not every day that my favorite philosopher shows up in a daily newspaper — much less in an interview with a folk singer! The Dallas Morning News interviewed Pete Seeger in connection with the 86-year-old political activist and folk legend's visit to Fort Worth for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Seeger says he's a Unitarian "[i]n the sense of thinking of Jesus as surely one of the most wonderful and extraordinary human beings that God ever put on earth. And taking a dim view of how his words are twisted and misused." He invokes Whitehead in his definition of God and religion:

It doesn't make sense to think that something can come out of nothing. I frequently use, "God only knows what the future may be." In fact, I put that in another song.

I'd say my definition goes more to Alfred North Whitehead, the British philosopher. He says: "A religious education is one that inculcates duty and reverence." Now, isn't that a good definition of religion? There's hardly a religion in the world that doesn't have duty and reverence as part of it.

Here's his definition, though: "Duty results from our potential control over the course of events." We have within us the ability to change the future in some little way.

Of course, some religions say your duty is to pray 10 times a day. But I think, for Unitarians, your duty is to do something right to help make this a better country, to make this a better world.

Whitehead goes on: "The source of reverence lies in this perception. That the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, forwards and backwards. That great amplitude of time which is eternity."

In other words, I snap my fingers; that's because of cause and effect for all eternity. And snapping my fingers will disturb molecules that will disturb molecules that will disturb molecules for all eternity to come.

I think that can make you reverent.

("Q. & A. with Pete Seeger," Jeffrey Weiss, Dallas Morning News 7.16.05, reg req'd)

On Sunday, the newspaper published portions of the interview that focused on Seeger's politics and his appearance fifty years ago this summer before the House Un-American Activities Committee: "Life from the Left" (Jeffrey Weiss, Dallas Morning News 7.17.05, reg req'd). Thanks to Philocrites correspondent Eric Posa for the tip!

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 18 July 2005 at 8:03 AM

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Eric Posa:

July 18, 2005 01:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Glad to pass along the references. The Morning News is (sometimes) a very good paper, but I'm certainly not used to it being quite as relevant to my own life.

And as wonderful as it was to see Pete quoting Whitehead, my favorite quote from him was about UU hymnody:

"The point I wanted to make to Unitarians is, too often you ask your congregations to sing, and they're supposed to open the hymnbook and turn to page such-and-such. With their noses buried in their hymnbook, they aren't really singing. They're kind of mumbling. I want them to start doing what some evangelical churches do they project the words on the wall and everybody has their face up and they're singing out!

"Also I've tried to persuade them to have songs with more repetition. This is the great thing about spirituals and gospel songs. More repetition."

Eric Posa:

July 18, 2005 01:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oh, and there was another story on Pete, which ties in with another running thread on this blog. Though, of course, it's not so much Middle English as American folk:

The all-American dessert from folk singer Pete Seeger (Again, registration required.)


July 18, 2005 05:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

The GetReligion blog also reflects sections of that interview. According to the author, Seeger's Unitarianism is only "nominal". Does this come out of the interview itself? And anyway, is it true that Seeger is a, let's say, "lapsed" Unitarian?


July 18, 2005 05:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

We could have a new website: Famous Nominal Unitarians. I hope I qualify!

Seeger doesn't regularly attend church -- but that's true of a surprising number of 86-year-olds, not to mention many Unitarian Universalists of all ages. I'm under the impression that Seeger is a member of the Community Church of New York. But, like many UUs, he qualifies the extent and nature of his identification with whatever dogmas happen to constitute "Unitarianism." That's hardly unique. If there's an Ism to Unitarian Universalism, I probably don't identify with it, either.

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