Deepening the American Dream: Reflections on the Inner Life and Spirit of Democracy

Where to begin to share about our exciting trip to set up at the National Press Club in Washington DC? What was more special, the prestigious and rare inside look at the halls of this important journalistic headquarters or meeting the wonderful folks from the Fetzer Institute that sponsored this excellent event? The grace shown as we struggled to make our way through this complex city (and complex building—don’t even ask about Beth being lost in the freight elevators and labyrinth of underground service halls) or the gift of meeting long-time heroes such as Parker Palmer? I admit that it is not usual for our little mom & pop efforts to be noticed by events coordinators of fabulous organizations like Fetzer*, and it is uncommon for us to hob-nob with editors like the wonderful woman who edited some of our favorite recent titles from Jossey-Bass (yes, like Brian McLaren’s triology of novels; and Diane Butler Bass, Deb Reinstra, Debra Farrington, David Batstone, Kent Groft and the whole set of wonderful Faith & Practices series based on the spectacular Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People which was compiled by Dorothy Bass. ) It was good for us, after we sweated out the heavy loading at 2 am, to be refreshed the next Big Day by selling books to such a good and caring group. The final late night ride back to Pennsylvania felt good for many reasons.
Enough about our hard jobs and good times and vocational renewal. The book that set off this whole conference, this gig that we were honored to be asked into, recently came out on the publishing house Wiley/Jossey Bass and, as we said in my previous post, is called Deepening the American Dream: Reflections on the Inner Life and Spirit of Democracy. It was gracefully edited by Mark Nepo, a delightful gentleman, a poet and seeker, the guy who MC-ed the entire event. He has been active in similiar days of dialogue that Fetzer has put together at their retreat center and has great concerns about public life and spiritual renewal. His new book, The Exquisite Risk : Daring to Live an Authentic Life (Harmony; $22.00) has gotten rave reviews from some quarters, and is an admirably motivational work. Although this book, and, more importantly, the American Dream collection does not, by “inner life” mean the same thing that most evangelicals mean, it is clear that there is a huge similiarity between Christian conversion and the sort of renewal dreamt up and reflected upon at this gathering and in this book.
There is something about our inner character that will give shape to our public virtues, and those of us who desire social and political change must necessarily attend to these personal, spiritual matters. As Parker Palmer quipped, his academic mentor for his own dissertation was Bob Bellah, whose famous Habits of the Heart title was plagarized from De Toqueville. And it was Lincoln who famously said we must seek the “Better Angels of Our Nature” as we rebuild a nation torn by ideology, injustice, war. Palmer had a sweet spirit, a subdued sense of kind humor, and yet spoke very powerfully. He summarized his very important chapter in Deepening… which is about the politics of the broken-hearted. His gentle probing and inviting us to take seriously the grief of this world and to make room for deep pain in our body politick was just stunning. It seemed like a good pastoral response to a heavy day–even though packed with political implications, even as he told of Quaker John Woolman’s campaign against slavery–and especially to Vincent Harding’s heart cry to face the American Nightmare (racism, classim, poverty, genocide of Native peoples, etc.) as part of our recommitment to the American Dream.
I really commend this book. Some chapters are a bit less fulfilling—Elaine Pagels suggesting that the gnostic gospels can fund a greater sense of tolerance than traditional, historic Christian orthodoxy. (Hmmm. I wonder why there are no hospitals, orphanages, anti-war campaigns, underground railroads or universities named after gnostic dreamers? [Few are named after secularists, either, for that matter—ever hear of a Voltaire Home for the Disadvantaged?] Perhaps this is for the same reason that Ghandi observed that the ethereal spiritual worldview of Hinduism could not energize his anti-caste campaign; to do his human rights work, he needed to borrow from the vision of the dignity of the human person found only in the gospels. As Os Guinness insightfully explains in The Long Journey Home, “differences make a difference.” Some views really do offer a better foundation for cultural health than others. We need not embrace a mushy relativism to achieve a tolerant and good society. But I digress.)
I will tell of a few other great chapters from this important book next time. For now, thank God with us for our successful, if exhausting, participation in this good gathering, for meaningful conversations and for a few dollars earned. And, for the central argument of this book–that there is a substantial conversation in which we need to be vigilant to be involved: the relationship between our inner character and our world-formative reforms, the relationship between faith and civic life, between spirituality and cultural restoration. To raise that question, again and again, is part of the urgent task of our time. This book, I believe, helps us ponder how to do that. We would think that our customers, friends and fans of Hearts & Minds, regardless of tradition or faith perspective, would find it well worth pondering.
*To gather a bit of a sense of the things the Fetzer Institute is working on, and the iniatives they’ve promoted, click here. At the conference we met a few of the scholars who are working on a forthcoming book (soon to be released) with higher education guru, Art Chickering, on spirituality and community colleges. That, too, has Fetzer imprints on it.
Deepening the American Dream: Reflections on the Inner Life and Spirit of Democracy edited by Mark Nepo (Jossey-Bass) $24.95 Order it here.

2 thoughts on “Deepening the American Dream: Reflections on the Inner Life and Spirit of Democracy

  1. Byron,Glad to have you back and pleased that your time was so enriching. Peace,Michele

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