"The average ministerial output is correctly heard as a parade of outworn phrases. It is generally unimaginative and often trivial. As public rhetoric, it is boring and irrelevant. As private belief, it is without passion."

Those words might have been written today by critics of mainline Christianity, including some Christians themselves. They were, however, spoken nearly half a century ago to a conclave of Protestant clergy by a leading social critic who, in the heyday of the Cold War, was invited to address them "On Religion and War, or Moral Insensibility."

The evangelical board of the United Churches of Canada may have got more than they bargained for when they invited C. Wright Mills, the maverick sociologist whose books, like "White Collar" and "The Power Elite," shook up the complacency of the 1950s and served as inspiration for the student radicals of the '60s.

Mills called his talk to the ministers "A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy," and it became the basis for another of his controversial books, "The Causes of World War III." At a time when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were engaged in a nuclear arms race that threatened to blow up not only each other but the whole world, Mills was calling on Christian ministers to speak out against the madness, "to serve as a moral conscience and to articulate that conscience."

Mills followed the Quaker dictum to "speak truth to power," and although he admired their nonviolent protests against the arms race and their willingness to take political stands, he did not join them or any other religious group, just as he did not join any political party or movement, preferring to "go it alone."

A visitor who couldn't fit him into a political pigeonhole once asked what he believed in. At that moment, Mills, who was tinkering with his beloved BMW motorcycle (he rode it from his home in Nyack to his office at Columbia on 116th and Broadway), answered without hesitation: "German motors."

In his "Pagan Sermon," Mills said that according to their belief he was "among the damned," for he was "secular, prideful, agnostic, and all the rest of it."

He was also, I believe, a spiritual man in the broadest and deepest sense of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "spirit" as "the animating or vital principle in men (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life."

Mills' "sermon" was a plea for life, an argument against the death of the race and the planet through nuclear holocaust that in the Cold War era was seen as the inevitable outcome of the political policy. The thrust of his work was toward the fullness of life, the goal of what he called "taking it big" in all aspects of experience, from work to play.

I knew Mills first as a professor when I took a seminar he gave at Columbia, then later as employer when I served as his research assistant for a book he was working on, and finally as friend until his untimely death in 1962 at the age of 45. In the past year, I renewed and deepened my appreciation of Mills and his work when I wrote the introduction to a book of his letters, published last spring, "C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings," edited by Kathryn Mills, with Pamela Mills. The letters, personal and vulnerable, are the eloquent testimony of a seeker whose spirituality emerges not in religious terms but in his caring for his friends and fellow human beings, and his passion for learning and perfecting one's craft, for enjoying and appreciating the gifts of everyday experience, and finding in them the inspiration for living more fully.
A fellow intellectual friend who was depressed wrote to Mills asking him what there was to get excited about in life anymore, and this was Mills' answer:

"You ask for what one should be keyed up? My god, for long weekends in the country, and snow and the feel of an idea and New York streets early in the morning and late at night and the camera eye always working whether you want or not and yes by god how the earth feels when it's been plowed deep and the new chartreuse wall in the study and wine before dinner and if you can afford it Irish whiskey afterwards and sawdust in your pants cuff and sometimes at evening the dusky pink sky to the northwest, and books to read never touched and all that stuff the Greeks wrote and have you ever read Macauley's speeches to hear the English language? And to revise your mode of talk and what you talk about and yes by god the world of music which we just now discover and there`s still hot jazz and getting a car out of the mud when nobody else can. That's what the hell to get keyed up about."

In his letters, as in his books, this "pagan" agnostic leaves us a true sense of spirit, that "animating or vital principle.the breath of life."

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