This gives me a way to think about [what I] have written, for it does indeed look back at our ancestral roots in the hope that doing so can help us understand the confusions of our present period. Cultural critics have been taking this approach for a century or more, so I owe it to the reader to explain why I have taken it upon myself to add to the library. In short, what is new here?

In a word, what is new is simplification. The danger it risks, of course, is oversimplification, and I take that risk. If it be wondered where I get the courage to take on that risk, the answer is from the example of Irving Berlin. Do not laugh, for in philosophy I am he.

I will explain.

I happened to catch the Today show the morning after Irving Berlin died (at the age of 101, as I recall), and I was surprised to find that Today had invited a world-class musician, Isaac Stern, to reflect on the lifework of this tunesmith. The host of the show wanted to learn from Stern the secret of Irving Berlin's success.

As a musician, Berlin was so mediocre that he could play only in the key of C, and to modulate to other keys he had to build a piano that transposed by pulling levers. Yet this run-of-the-mill musician became the most successful songwriter of the 20th century, composing over 100 hits, many of which will continue into the new millennium. How did Stern account for the discrepancy between Berlin's modest musical talent and his achievements?

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  • Stern's answer was so direct that it was breathtaking. Berlin's philosophy of life (Stern proceeded to explain) was simple. He saw life as composed of a few basic elements: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat--not many more. In making our way through these givens, affirmation is better than complaint, hope more viable than despair, kindness nobler than its opposite. That was about it. But because Berlin believed those platitudes implicitly, he helped people cut through the ambiguities and complexities of a confusing century.

    So, piggybacking on Irving Berlin, what is obvious to me?

    First, that the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a "more" that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air. Sunflowers bend in the direction of light because light exists, and people seek food because food exists. Individuals may starve, but bodies would not experience hunger if food did not exist to assuage it.

    The reality that excites and fulfills the soul's longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God's nature, we do well to follow Rainer Maria Rilke's suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.

    That direction is always toward the best that we can conceive, as the formula of theology's Principle of Analogical Predication indicates: When we use objects and concepts from the natural world to symbolize God, the first step is to affirm what is positive in them; the second step is to deny to God what is limiting in them; and the third step is to elevate their positive features to super-eminent degree (which is to say, to the highest point that our imaginings can carry us). With God and the world categorically distinguished but nowhere disjoined, other things fall into place in the way that this book indicates.

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  • Profile: At 81, Smith continues exploring all the world's religions.