Bill Edelen leads quest to explore life’s mystery…

The Desert Sun

[I first learned of Bill Edelen on the pages of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat years ago. Bill lived in Santa Rosa at the time and wrote a weekly column for the paper. I purchased and read his books. Then the column disappeared and I lost track of him until recently when over at the posted a piece by Bill which I reposted here. One thing led to another and I was asked to take on producing Bill’s blogsite which I happily accepted. I think of Bill Edelen as “The Contrary Minister” similar to old friend Gene Logsdon’s “The Contrary Farmer” whose blogsite I have been producing from the start. I will be reposting some of Bill’s weekly Sunday posts here on Ukiah Blog and hope you enjoy his wisdom on a regular basis… -DS]

People say Bill Edelen is an atheist; an agnostic.

They say the former Desert Sun columnist and resident sage of the Sunday morning symposiums at the Palm Springs Tennis Club doesn’t believe in God.

But the truth is, the English language doesn’t have a word for the god Edelen believes in. If he were to describe himself as a disciple of any deity, it would probably be the Lakota Indians’ Wakan Tanka. In English, that name usually translates to “the great spirit.” But Edelen’s friend, Native American leader Russell Means, says a more accurate translation is “Great Mystery.”

“Joseph Campbell told me one day there’s practically no difference between the world view of the American Indian and Taoism,” Edelen said. “They don’t use anthropomorphic terms. The Lakota say Wakan Tanka. Wakan Tanka is the mystery.”

Edelen turns 90 years old today and for most of the past 60 years, or since he traded his wings as a Marine pilot for a ministry grounded in science, he has sought to guide his readers and listeners into the mystery.

He’s befriended some great scholars of his time, including Campbell, a leading authority on myths and comparative religion, futurist Buckminster Fuller, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Indian leader Vine Deloria. His patrons have included the late Ambassador Walter Annenberg, former Wells Fargo Mortgage Chairman Henry Trione, the late produce magnate Chuck Hodges and media magnate Harold Matzner, who provides space for Edelen’s symposiums on a seasonal basis in The Tennis Club.

Love of books

Edelen has been a self-described “bookworm” since growing up in west Texas. His father actually was embarrassed that Bill preferred reading to “normal” childhood activities.

“I never will forget when I resented him taking me to the fair,” Edelen recalled. “He thought it was going to be such a joy for me to ride things when I was 8 or 9, and I thought it was stupid to get on a horse and ride around in a circle. So my father was continually embarrassed by me until I became a Marine pilot. Then he was so proud of me he couldn’t stand it.”

Today, Edelen routinely sprinkles his conversation with quotations from heroes such as Einstein, Voltaire, Pascal, Carl Jung, Mark Twain, Albert Schweitzer and Campbell. He attended a Campbell seminar in Montana in 1974 that inspired a friendship.

“One morning when we were walking,” said Edelen, “I asked him, ‘If you were me standing at a pulpit every Sunday, what would you try to do?’ He said, ‘Keep pointing people toward the mystery.’ Einstein said, ‘He who can’t stand in awe and wonder before the mystery is dead!’”

Edelen calls himself a Taoist, a mystic or a deist — one who doesn’t believe in a personal god sitting on a heavenly throne making decisions that impact the course of human history.

“When people have asked me what is my theology,” he said, “I always quote Arthur Eddington, who was a Nobel Prize winner in physics. Eddington says, ‘Something unknown is doing. We know not what.’

“The truth of Taoism is there is no beginning, no end, it is just all creativity and it’s always been here. You don’t have to have a creator, it just is.”

Edelen may have been a reclusive bookworm in his youth because he was a stutterer. That changed when his parents sent him to the nationally recognized Oklahoma City speech and drama coach Mary Gray Thompson. Edelen developed into an orator under Thompson’s tutelage, winning national high school competitions for standard oratory and oral interpretation of poetry.

The anthology “Light From Many Lamps” and Huston Smith’s “World Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions” were guiding him toward spiritual studies when World War II broke out. He became a Marine flight instructor and stayed in service through the Korean War to become a decorated fighter and rescue pilot. He realized in Korea the fallacy of the cliché, there are no atheists in a foxhole.

Edelen evacuated wounded soldiers in a DC-3 “Gooney Bird” in Inje, just north of the 38th Parallel. He’d fly through a canyon low enough to get shot at by guerillas, pick up the wounded, turn around and fly back to Pusong or Pohang, South Korea.

“The dangerous part, besides the guerillas,” he said, “was the weather. There was no accurate weather reporting. You could be halfway up that canyon into Inje and all of a sudden you’re in a zero-zero fog situation. We had to go to Pusong by visual navigation and you could run into solid fog banks. And turning around in that little canyon and coming back out is no fun.”

Edelen said his study of Taoism taught him not to fear death. He never prayed for God to save him in heavy combat, he said.

“I had read a great deal about death in religious traditions,” he said, “and I realized it was only in Christianity that death is an enemy: ‘The last enemy that shall be overcome is death,’ said Paul. In Zen Buddhism and Taoism, death is just a natural part of life. There’s a planting season and a harvest. Death is not an enemy. How can anything be an enemy that is so natural? So I thought through all that.”

Growth period

After 12 years in the Marines, Edelen wanted to study, contemplate and write. He earned a degree in horticulture at Oklahoma State University and became involved in a First Presbyterian Church his professors attended. The church elders gave him a grant to study at the McCormick Seminary at the University of Chicago, where religious scholar Frank Cross said on his first day of class, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Bible. We’re stuck with it. Let’s make the best of it.”

Edelen studied anthropology at the University of Colorado and taught religion and anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. He also became a Congregational minister in Tacoma, where he was somewhat of a religious iconoclast.

“I had the senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma one day ask me who Zoroaster is,” Edelen recalled.

“I thought, ‘You dummy. You’ve been preaching it every Sunday — Zoroastrianism.’”

Edelen’s zealous pursuit of wisdom actually cost him his first marriage. The mother of his children told him, “I don’t want to be married to a 35-year-old school boy.” So they divorced and Bill married his current wife, Jerry, who followed him to Idaho, Santa Rosa and finally, at the request of Annenberg, to Palm Springs in 1994 to establish his symposium.

Edelen dedicated two collections of essays to Jerry, writing, “Long before my eyes saw you, my spirit knew you.”

Now, at 90, Edelen is embracing more changes, personally and professionally. He’ll place a greater emphasis on great books at his fall symposiums and feature more guest speakers.

Edelen is quite aware of his mortality. The longtime educator knows his final exam will test his belief that there is life after death in some unknown form.

“I think it’s going to be an extension of consciousness,” he said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with God or the Bible or Jesus. There is something beyond our understanding taking place in the universe that has to do with electricity and there is a place of consciousness.

“The American Indian, especially the people of the Lakota and the Cheyenne, refer to the spiritual world and use the expression ‘spirit guide.’ I believe there are spirit guides. I believe there are people in that other level of consciousness that influence our consciousness.”

Edelen doesn’t believe in Christian concepts of heaven or metaphysical ideas not rooted in science. But he looks forward to moving toward the mystery.

“I think there’s some kind of consciousness connection,” he said, “some kind of unknown, we know not what.”