Opinion: Finding Meaning


The Crooked Timber of Mankind

The proof of a religion is found in its ability to help people improve, to make the bad good and the good better. It’s my privilege to attend Laguna’s churches and with all their differences I’m most intrigued by one measure—how they help people improve, to become more like God.

We all have room for improvement. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke of the “crooked timber of mankind” with resignation. Yet he saw self-improvement, mending our crookedness, as our primary duty. Kant thought that to improve the world, we first improve ourselves. This growth, more than our wealth or status, gives meaning to our lives.

The Beautiful Wife and I listened to three speakers in a recent church service. It was interesting because each addressed this challenge of personal improvement. The first, a young woman once a college athlete, now married, told of her grandfather’s journey. He had been a life-long smoker since the tender age of 13 and struggled to quit. More than an addiction, it was a coping mechanism. Now he had cancer and quitting could extend an abbreviated life. In his extremis, he turned to religion and began attending church. Including God in his life enabled him to quit smoking.

The next speaker, a former college professor, spoke to the difficult process of personal change, and suggested four aids. The first was prayer, the regular expression of blessings and the asking for help. The second aid spoke to the power of covenants made in religious rites to strengthen resolve. The third told of the grace available through Christ’s atonement. The fourth was personal, that we make our best efforts to continually improve in whatever way we felt inspired.

The last speaker told of a friend with a successful business protecting Hollywood stars. It was a busy, heady life, mixing with celebrities most people only see in the movies. Then he was diagnosed with cancer. A wise doctor advised that in his experience, those who dedicated their lives to survival did best. He followed the doctor’s advice, sold his business, and retired to a rural life. Now he had time for family and faith and life grew richer. With these improvements he is happier, healthier, and survival seems possible. 

There have been churches in Laguna from the beginning; the first was founded in 1879. As the town grew the number increased. Our first town hall, donated by Riverside visitors so they could have a Sunday School, grew into Laguna Presbyterian. The old Mormon schoolhouse in the Canyon was later the first home of today’s St. Catherine of Sienna Catholic Church, and then Little Church by the Sea. Rev. Percy Clarkson built two churches, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and then St. Francis by the Sea, our cutest chapel. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, met at the Arch Beach Tavern. Others followed and their collective contributions over the years changed our citizens and our town for the better. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of Loving Laguna: A Local’s guide to Laguna Beach. Email: [email protected]

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