WHAT A JOY to have been able to talk at length with Oscar E. Bonny and to have introduced him to thousands of people on the radio!
His impact was enormous because of his spiritual maturity, the ease of his manner, the gentleness of his voice, the scope of his experience.
Mr. Bonny came to Baltimore in 1968 to become executive secretary of the Homewood Friends Meeting, a Quaker organization, after 25 years as a Congregational minister. He was a social activist, a crusader for civil rights, a "modern" clergyman in that he was absorbed in trying to make things better for people in this temporal existence.
Yet paradoxically he was a man obsessed with what he called "the question of God." In the end he rejected the idea of a personalized God, since he agreed with Albert Einstein that he couldn't imagine a God who was a mere reflection of human frailty. He maintained that there was no need for a symbol of a deity in order to worship. Like Goethe, he came to believe that a sense of wonder was the highest enlightenment to which one could aspire. He thought it was entirely possible to find a "religion without God."
Mr. Bonny's story was gripping. Born in Poland, exiled to Siberia with his entire village when he was 5, he and his family endured one calamity after another, fleeing civil war and famine, escaping to Latvia and eventually to Canada. Never schooled, he was illiterate until an adult, yet through hard work and perseverance he won a master's degree from Oberlin College and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1943.
There is much, much more to the story of Oscar Bonny. You can read about it in his autobiography, "At Home in the Universe," published by Icarus Books of Baltimore.
Two quotes close the book, one of them from Voltaire:
"I die loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition."
And Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand.
Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I would know what God and man is.
Oscar Bonny died last Wednesday. He was 81. He did not believe that the individual survives death. But that's a complicated question whose answer lies beyond the known.
Still, I'd wager that somewhere, somehow, Oscar Bonny is as much at home now as when we had the pleasure of his company.
Ron Smith is a talk-show host on WBAL radio.