Civic spirituality

When I was speaking at the LBJ Presidential Library last week, a woman rose from her chair to ask me if I had links on our Web site to various spiritual and religious thinkers. I had mentioned earlier in my talk that I believe America is in desperate need of a new kind of “civic spirituality.” I responded by saying that we didn’t have links to such thinkers – and I didn’t think we would. I noted that such thinkers are important and that many Americans look to them for guidance. (See “Can religion bring us together?”)

My belief is that we need a civic spirituality in America. The two words placed together – almost an oxymoron these days – is the power and currency I’m looking for.

Civic spirituality calls us to belong to the civic realm; it asks us to see ourselves as belonging to something larger than ourselves; it would have us hold a belief in the innate goodness of people – even, maybe especially, as we see and experience evil and unfettered materialism and corruption around us.

The civic spirituality I have in mind – no, the civic spirituality that I can feel in my heart – would have us know of the progress we have made in our collective past, and thus provide us with a sense of possibility about our common future.

This civic spirituality would call on us to know, as the author Kathleen Norris has so eloquently written about, the “necessary other” – that we must hear and see and come to know that which is different from ourselves … that we purposefully test our thinking and our passions before locking into a fit of certitude.

The civic spirituality I am thinking about would cultivate our sense of humility – and remind us that humility is vital to any common experience.

It would engage us to live with a sense of grace, in which we are willing to leave room for the unimaginable or inexplicable to occur – and that we do not close ourselves off in our attempts to squeeze out ambiguity, uncertainty, and fear.

The civic spirituality I ask us to consider will require at least one more element: courage. But here I do not mean the modern-day courage of beating our breasts with bravado or of raising our voices to intimidate one another. No, while I may mean many things, let me suffice to say here that I am referring to the courage it takes to step forward and be seen and to engage.

My personal dream is to write a book about civic spirituality. It is the other half of the story of public innovation about which I wrote two weeks ago. We need both: public innovation and civic spirituality – for today, we are in short supply of both.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can create new pathways in public life and politics that offer authentic hope. I know that’s what many of you who read this blog are already doing.

So, I thank the woman who rose from her chair to ask me the question.