Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures

April 8, 2016

In 1970 when I was a young professor at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, I preached a sermon in the chapel entitled “Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures.” This week I came across a copy in the seminary archives and have prepared a lightly edited version to post online. Although many of the important issues have changed, people around the world are at an even more critical crossroads today. A sequel to the sermon preached forty-five years ago would describe the generational divisions of our time, outline the role of faith traditions in such a time, and suggest ways for all of us to move forward.   


I am the father of three daughters, each of whom has in her time been ten years old and a Girl Scout. That may be the reason I was moved nearly to tears by a picture in a recent news story showing a national celebrity with ribbons in her hair, smiling sweetly in her Girl Scout uniform back when she was ten years old.

She went on from those simple days to study at New York’s Elizabeth Irwin High School, Brandeis University, the Sorbonne, the Institute of Social Research at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfort, and the University of California at San Diego. There she began her doctoral dissertation on the topic of Kant’s analysis of violence in the French Revolution.

She was hired as an instructor in the department of philosophy at UCLA for two reasons: she was Black, and she was well schooled in the Continental European philosophical tradition of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and the existentialists, whereas the other members of that department were under the influence of British empirical philosophy.

Step by step this little Girl Scout and budding philosopher became identified with movements and efforts that were increasingly hostile to the established patterns of American society, especially those that affected Black people and other disinherited Americans. It is a long and complicated story that has led Angela Davis to be on the FBI’s list of the ten most wanted.

Of her, the Newsweek editors wrote recently: “For she has made her home at the crossroads of two cultures, and somehow she managed to inhabit both, declining the rewards that either would have bestowed on her if she had been willing to live within its rules alone” (10/26/70, p. 20).

My purpose in referring to Angela Davis is neither to explore her two worlds nor to praise her, although both tasks are well worth doing. Rather, it is to let the example of her life help us to see more clearly the condition experienced by the whole human family, for all of us are migrating from an old world into a new one.

My advance scout in this migration is Margaret Mead who has just published a slender volume in which she states her understanding of what is taking place. Her title is significant—Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap.

 Most of the time, Mead writes, the human community has depended upon the presence of three generations. Adults who are rearing their own family have at the same time continued to see their own parents who a few years earlier had reared them. In this old pattern of things, children become committed to the values and structures of the past.

There never is any question raised. The steady presence of the generations provides a continuing pathway for commitment. And what is most important: the old always teach the young.

To read more, click Angela Davis and Margaret Mead.


Worshipping God in a Woodstock World

March 20, 2011

Changing the Culture of Protestant Worship: Third in a Series

In the summer of 1969, 400,000 music lovers created “the most celebrated rock festival of all time. Despite food shortages, overflowing port-a-potties and torrential rain,” writes Susan Donaldson James, “Woodstock became a symbol for an entire generation—peace, love, beads and a lot of good music and drugs.”

Most of the Woodstock generation are now “old geezers,” surrounded by children and grandchildren. Some of the extravagances of the festival have gone away, but the attitudes, mood, values, and patterns of that life remain in place.

The question for leaders of classic Protestant churches is this: How can churches with the religious DNA that make us what we are adapt to the Woodstock world in which we live?

Two years prior to the festival, sociologist Thomas Luckmann published The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society, a book which explores the deeper transformation that the festival portrayed. The religious process, Luckmann proposes, is essential to human life. It leads to “the individuation of consciousness and permits the construction of interpretive schemes, ultimately, of systems of meaning.” The religious process leads to the forming of a workable worldview, which includes elements of life and death that seem describable only by referring to a sacred domain with appropriate rituals, meaning-laden stories, and rites of passage.

In most societies, the religious process is entrusted to institutions, such as churches, that embody the society’s central values and meanings. When Luckmann published this book, sociologists of religion were documenting the rapid decline of churches in Europe and America and concluding that religion was disappearing.

Not so, says Luckmann. Instead, religion was taking a new social form in which the sacred cosmos is “directly accessible to potential consumers.”

Rather than being “mediated by primary public institutions,” the religious process is mediated in the private sphere, and through secondary institutions like syndicated advice columns, inspirational literature, and the lyrics of popular songs. “The manufacture, the packaging and the sale of models of ‘ultimate’ significance are, therefore, determined by consumer preference, and the manufacturer must remain sensitive to the needs and requirements of ‘autonomous’ individuals and their existence in the ‘private sphere.’”

Woodstock, according to this way of thinking, was a religious revival in the making, an event that in the twentieth century demonstrated some of the same powers and passions that the Cane Ridge Revival had manifested one hundred fifty years earlier.

The year following Woodstock, the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead published Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap in which she described a radical change that was taking place around the world in every kind of human society from the most primitive to the most advanced. Suddenly people everywhere had become immigrants into a world that was dramatically different from those that any of them had previously known. As is the case in every immigrant generation, Mead concludes, the young must teach the old. She describes three relationships between the generations.

Postfigurative cultures, well-known forebears: children learn the meaning, patterns, and values of life from parents and grandparents. They know how the world will turn out. This is how most societies have operated most of the time.

Cofigurative cultures and familiar peers: instead of one’s elders, one’s contemporaries shape values, patterns, and meanings. In immigrant societies, children learn from other children and the parents of those children rather than from their own parents. Adults today (or so it was when Mead wrote this book) could tell their children that they had been young once and the children had never been old, but the children could say that these parents had never been young in the world they were living in. The parental generation knew only a few of the skills that would be needed in the new world that is dawning.

Prefigurative cultures and unknown children: We live in a new world community. People have lost their faith in religion, political ideology, and science and as a result are deprived of every kind of security. Youth are noncompliant, because the old rules seem nonsensical and unproductive. All are aware of the sense that there is no place where “they can learn what the next steps should be.” In this new culture, Mead declares, ‘it will be the child—and not the parent and grandparent that represents what is to come.”

Our hope, says Mead, is to build prefigurative cultures in which “the past is instrumental rather than coercive.” By being sensitive to the religious dimensions of the Woodstock World, these churches with the old DNA can learn to thrive again.

Together, the older and newer generations can generate a new future—and this can happen in our churches. “We must place the future,” says Mead, “like the unborn child in the womb of a woman, within a community of men, women, and children” where it can be nourished and succored and protected.

This kind of community is what classic Protestant churches can aspire to be.