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

edited by Mark Nepo
Jossey-Bass, 2005

review by Jeffrey Needle

Back in 1893, a group of Unitarians, Universalists and Swedenborgians came together with the aim of bringing the world’s religious bodies into dialogue and, it was hoped, some fundamental unity. Titled “The World Parliament of Religions,” and held in connection with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, its assembled scholars, divines and other representatives of the world’s great faiths put forth their best cases for both the legitimacy of their own schools, and for the need for unity among them.

More than a century later, the dream of the Parliament has not been realized. Sectarian and religious divisions continue to separate people and foster hatred, sometimes resulting in war and death.

Deepening the American Dream is a publication of the Fetzer Institute, whose statement of purpose includes the following:

The Fetzer Institute's mission, to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community, rests on its conviction that efforts to address the world's critical issues must go beyond political, social, and economic strategies to their psychological and spiritual roots.

Their goal seems to be as lofty, and perhaps as unattainable, as that of the World Parliament of Religions. Efforts have not abated over the years to ameliorate the divisive nature of race and culture. Current events tell us that much more needs to be done.

The editor offers an insight into the purpose and scope of this book:

As a program officer for the Fetzer Institute, I have had the privilege of working with many others around the country on a project called Deepening the American Dream. It began six years ago, when Rob Lehman, then president and now chair of the board of the Fetzer Institute, wondered about the inner life of democracy, the way that its citizens are formed, and the role of spirit in our civic life together. (p. 1)

“The inner life of democracy” — what a thought! Observers of the institutions of our republic are not likely to use the word “introspective” in describing its mechanisms and activities. The contributors to this volume insist that there is a reservoir of spirit in our society to be tapped, if only its participants will look inwardly for direction and definition.

Covering a wide variety of subjects and approaches, the writers consider such ideas as the need for civility in American life (and a fascinating study of the lack of such in our history), the weaknesses of democracy in providing a tolerant and compassionate place for minority belief to thrive, and a wise essay by noted historian Elaine Pagels titled “Created Equal: Exclusion and Inclusion in the American Dream.”

The most important essay, in my opinion, is written by Charles Gibbs, and is titled “Opening the Dream: Beyond the Limits of Otherness.” Gibbs, an Episcopal priest and noted activist on behalf of global health care and education, lays out the territory very well. His concept of otherness— that we ought to come into our humanitarian efforts with a sense of unity and “sameness” rather than as an outsider imposing his or her cultural values—strikes at the heart of both contemporary missionary efforts and the foreign policies of many nations.

Can we meld into one symbolic whole? Can we transcend our differences in our quest for mutual tolerance, fostering the essential qualities of love and forgiveness worldwide? Gibbs relates so many instances from his own life experience that point toward hope rather than despair.

But the road toward a cure must begin with a diagnosis, offered so eloquently by Robert Inchausti, in his essay “Breaking the Cultural Trance: Insight and Vision in America":

If the history of the twentieth century has taught us nothing else, it has made clear that human culture is not a stay against moral erosion, a revolution in manners, or a Utopian alternative to the violence of history. Human culture is, as T.S. Eliot suggested, what we make of the mess we have made of things. At its best, it can provide a sustained resistance to the ever-changing face of depersonalization and false authority, challenging the complacencies of the middle class, the entitlements of the rich, and the internalized powerlessness of the poor. The problem isn’t that our leaders don’t know these things, it’s just that they are not original enough in the conclusions they draw from them or brave enough in their attempts to dispel the confusions.
(p. 154)

And there you have it. Will we answer the call of this volume to come together in a context of peaceful, loving co-existence, or will we continue down the path of hatred and destruction? Only time will tell.

Copyright ©2006 Jeffrey Needle

Deepening the American Dream
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