At this time of year—when Passover, Easter and Earth Day are upon us—we tend toward reflection on rebirth, resurrection, the passion for freedom, and the hope for preservation and continuity of our species. Some do this reflection through religion; some do so through nature; others do so through an honest belief in the triumph of reason and the power of knowledge.
William Edelen is one of the latter.
Born in West Texas, Edelen was originally ordained as a Presbyterian minister after studies at the University of Chicago, but he migrated to the Congregational church more than 30 years ago. Why the shift?
“The Presbyterians were always looking over my shoulder, listening to what I was preaching to make sure I was doing the dogma,” he says.
He has ultimately come to see himself as a humanist. How did that come about? “Just through thinking.”
Edelen taught comparative religion at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and has published several books.
I first met “Bill” Edelen here in the desert about 20 years ago, when our paths crossed during public events. I was impressed by him, especially since I had read his syndicated newspaper columns and found his views candid and refreshing. He eschewed traditional dogma and always seemed to be attempting to find the core connections that could transcend differences and bind us together as human beings. He preaches the beauty of uncertainty.
“I was made a brother by the Lakota Sioux,” he explains, “and they say, ‘You must embrace the mystery.’ Everything is relative to the mind that entertains it.”
Edelen describes his approach to philosophical and faith questions as anthropological in nature, asking: “Is it constructive or destructive to human evolution? Things are always changing; there are no absolutes.” He embraces the Unitarian credo: “To question is the answer.”
“The letters to the editor about my columns have been hilarious,” says Edelen. “I especially remember the guy who said, ‘You’re destroying Christianity. I hope you’ll burn in hell forever.’ And he signed it, ‘In the love of Christ.’
“And then there was my very favorite: ‘We consider you a termite in the woodwork of civilization.’ Isn’t that great? People say, ‘I don’t want to learn something that goes against my faith.’ I say there is nothing more interesting than learning, questioning, thinking.”
An early influence on Edelen was Frank Cross, one of the interpreters of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“He stood in front of a class I attended,” says Edelen, “and he said, ‘This is the Bible. We’re stuck with it. Please let’s make the best of it.’ And I knew then that this was someone I wanted to hear.”
In the words of Buckminster Fuller: “William Edelen is an original thinker in the oldest of thinking worlds, that is, thinking about God. He’s in love with the truth. Edelen dares to do his own thinking. He has wide experience to enrich that thinking.”
Edelen settled in the desert at the behest of Rancho Mirage-based publishing magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg,who had read Edelen’s newspaper columns and sponsored him to start a symposium in the desert.
“He sent me a letter,” says Edelen, “and said, ‘I’ve been reading your columns. I consider them monumental in raising the levels of religious literacy.’”
Edelen’s weekly symposium began more than 25 years ago and is still held on alternate Sundays at the old Tennis Club in Palm Springs.
At 92 years old, and despite physical challenges within the past several years, Edelen is still going strong. His symposiums are a wonderful place to meet interesting people here in the desert. I have often attended, and had the privilege of interviewing Edelen on my radio show. You can get on his weekly e-blast list and find out when the next gathering will be held by sending a request to email@example.com.
I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve had the experience of meeting two living beings with visible auras—and I don’t even believe in that stuff. The first was Cesar Chavez, with whom I was privileged to share a stage in Coachella many years ago. I couldn’t believe it at first when I saw his aura. I thought it must surely be a trick of the sun. I looked away, and then looked at him again, and there it was: a visible halo of light around this ordinary man. Well, maybe not so ordinary after all.
There is another man whose aura I have seen. His name is William Edelen, and he is a preacher—a man of great wisdom, humor, depth and intelligence. I am privileged to be counted among his friends.