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Excerpted from The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide by Elizabeth Lesser. Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.

"Now it seems that our sense of responsibility and connection to the community--be it a family or a city--has been sacrificed for each person's quest for self-fulfillment."

Elizabeth Lesser, The New American Spirituality, Part 5

There was a black gospel church in my town, and once my mother and I went to a civil rights gathering led by the church pastor. The singing and vocal prayer enraptured me, as did the sense of community. Now, this was what I had in mind! I longed to attend church here each Sunday and sing my praises to the sweet Jesus that captivated the hearts of the congregation. But this also was not to be. My introduction to the black gospel tradition coincided with rising racial tension in my town, and eventually with Martin Luther King's assassination. I could only admire the worship from afar. I did buy a record album made by Marian Anderson, the great black singer who featured strongly in my mother's pantheon of heroes. In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to Washington's Constitution Hall for a concert. Eleanor Roosevelt then invited her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of seventy-five thousand people. My mother approved of my record choice although she had no idea that when I was alone in the house I would turn up the volume and sing to Jesus as I had seen the church faithful do.

By the time I reached the age of fourteen I still yearned for spiritual community. Therefore, the public questioning of God's existence felt like a great loss--he had apparently died before making formal contact with me. I never read the article. I was too young to understand that it was describing an erosion of values in Western culture that had been gathering speed in America for decades, and in European culture for centuries. Nietzsche had written about the death of God in 1883, but God had been dying a slow death in the Western world long before Nietzsche. The cultural bias in favor of the material, the rational, and the scientific was not new to the twentieth century; Western culture had been leaning in this direction for more than three hundred years. When Descartes, in 1637, said, "I think, therefore I am," he provided the philosophical basis for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, movements that would, of course, have started without his famous adage. Yet that one small sentence summed up a radical shift in human consciousness and behavior. Where in the past humankind saw itself as part of a larger, collective scheme, fundamentally linked to creation and the cosmos, now each person was to be governed by his own intellect. Now the individual's aptitude and sense of self would receive the kind of sanctification once reserved for the gods, nature, and the community.

Almost thirty years after Time magazine asked if God was dead, it published another exposť of American culture in 1993, when one of its journalists wrote, "The most significant thing in the last half-century has been the dramatic expansion in personal freedom and personal mobility, individual rights, the reorienting of culture around individuals. We obviously value that. But like all human gains, it has been purchased with a price." Now, at the start of a new century, we are beginning to understand what this price includes. The judging, parental god died; the autonomous individual was born. In the past, the rights and creativity of the individual were sacrificed for the health and protection of the community. Now it seems that our sense of responsibility and connection to the community--be it a family or a city--has been sacrificed for each person's quest for self-fulfillment. In the swing from one extreme to the other, we have elevated personal progress and materialism to a kind of religion. The emptiness of these pursuits as a social value system has brought on a mass yearning for a sense of the sacred in our lives together.

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