The recent passing of baseball legend Yogi Berra called up a lifetime of memories of the Yankee catcher and his post-retirement career as a statesman for the sport.
He became a kind of unwitting philosopher as well with his famous “Yogi-isms” – clever and humorous turns of phrase that stated the obvious in amusing and sometimes head-scratching ways.
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there” will be a part of his legacy, which will also include his own disclaimer: “I didn’t really say all the things I said.”
One in particular came to mind recently in response to a discussion of, and reflection on, the general dysfunction of much of our collective life: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
The discussion was in the context of a church committee that was thinking about the responsibility of financial stewardship.
The observation was made that inherited financial resources are typically squandered by subsequent generations rather than managed and built upon.
The reflection included thoughts about the many areas of life in which we are inheritors of legacies.
Intellectually, scientifically, politically, economically, socially, theologically – we stand on the shoulders of rigorous work and often hard-fought struggles of generations before us as we enjoy the benefits of their work and seek to build upon them for those who will follow us.
Much in our collective life and public discourse leads me to wonder if we face the same challenge with our many legacies as heirs of family fortunes do – we can be stewards of inherited resources or we can squander them on superficial things.
We are beneficiaries of generations of thought and scientific discovery, and yet we tend to make ignorance a virtue and to give pre-scientific thinking about our world the sanctity of religious truth.
We have inherited a rich tradition of representative governance that maintains the delicate balance between the tyranny of oligarchy (rule by the few) and the chaos of open democracy (to use Plato’s categories).
Yet, we allow ourselves to sink in the mire of partisan dysfunction to the point of being not only an embarrassment but also of failing those our heritage is famous for pledging to help.
We honor and celebrate those heroes who fought sacrificially to dismantle the structures of oppression and racism, and yet we harbor the subtle forms of that injustice in carefully disguised attitudes and policies that seek to protect corners of privilege still enjoyed at the expense of others.
We travel a theological path that has the advantage of guidance from centuries of earlier pilgrims who have refined for us understandings of a covenant faith and who have continually pointed beyond their words and understandings to the light that continues to dawn on the horizons of the future.
Yet, we feel the pull to fundamentalisms of various kinds that reduce the profound mystery of faith to creeds, doctrines and beliefs that become for us containers of truth rather than lenses through which to see its continuing disclosure.
It may well have been an unwitting implication of Berra’s insight, but it seems that we stand at a perpetual “fork in the road” of our personal and collective journeys.
One of the forks is marked “stewardship,” and the other is marked “squander.”
One path involves a careful management and application of the intellectual, political and religious resources we have inherited in the service of the common good.
The other invites us to exploit those elements of our heritage to solidify more comfortable ways of thinking, to preserve places of privilege and to reduce faith to its legalistic and doctrinal expressions.
A cynical perspective might observe that once the path of squander is taken, it is impossible to get back to the other one.
A more hopeful perspective might call us to see that the fork appears at every step of the way, and at every point it can and must be taken.
Yogi was right: “When you come to a fork in the road, (you don’t have any choice but to) take it.” Which one will we choose?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.