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I Dreamt That Lincoln Had a Dream: Barack Obama, the American Theodicy, and the Spirit of American Democracy

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I almost got thrown out of Harvard in 1969 for protesting the Viet Nam War, and never regretted it. Yet soon the limitations of mere political activism burdened me. I knew that without a corresponding revolutionary shift in our fundamental sense of who we are and what human life is about, our outward revolutions would be cosmetic. Yes, they were important. But they weren’t fundamental.

This led to my spiritual quest and work. I have never ceased to be a revolutionary. I’ve simply continued to try to help transform human nature and society from a different focus.

Along the way I’ve read about the American Revolutionary period and the Renaissance—times that dramatically shifted not just people’s outward lives but also the very mindset and disposition of the human spirit.

By contrast, I’ve felt something essential has been increasingly missing in action in American politics and society—first slain in leaders like the Kennedys and King, then mangled by Nixon, and later just falling asleep, getting lost, being forgotten, slipping away.

Then in the later 90s, I had a remarkable dream about that American essence. First I was seeing Abe Lincoln’s head and upper torso from behind. He was asleep, dreaming, disturbed. And then, suddenly, I was dreaming his dream with him:

A cartoon-like character was sitting by a roadside in the hot sun. He had little stick arms and legs like Mr. Peanut, but his body was a paper booklet. I knew immediately that his name was “The American Theodicy,” and that he was composed of primary documents expressing the spirit of America: The Declaration of Independence. The Bill of Rights and certain Constitutional Amendments. Perhaps Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Definitely Lincoln’s own Gettysburg Address.

The American Theodicy sat there weeping, abandoned and left behind. He’d been literally ripped out of the sprawling corpus of policies, judgments, regulations, agreements, and stipulations, and also deals and compromises, that have grown up to comprise American polity.

The dreaming Mr. Lincoln grieved.

I’d never heard the word “theodicy” before. It means, in Greek, “justification of God,” as in, how we can explain the existence of a benign God in the face of universal suffering and human evil. Or, “vindication of the divine attributes, especially justice and holiness, with respect to the existence of evil.”

It’s not necessary to make grand pronouncements about God, good, and evil to feel that the spiritual heart of America has been ripped out of our body politic. Especially, but not only, during the current administration. And not just by Republicans.

So in this presidential campaign I’ve been thrilled and delighted that, for the first time ever, a woman and a man of color have become the only serious Democratic contenders. That sheer fact is already a good portent. Like my friend Stephen Dinan (see his recent post), I was mostly leaning toward Hillary, with reservations. Then I saw Obama speak after the New Hampshire primary.

I marveled. I really had no idea how much I myself had been grieving for the American Theodicy—the spiritual charter of American Democracy, secular yet so numinous, our most precious gift to all humankind—until I saw and heard Obama speak that night and felt him give hope back to my heart.

Now, I’m an optimistic fighter for the human spirit and the fulfillment of our destinies. But as I felt our core values getting lost and undermined, I had increasingly despaired for decades about our nation. Here, now, this focused, dignified, courageous, wise, and vibrant man was giving me a transfusion of hope, there where I had been mourning without knowing it.

I’ve continued to marvel at Obama ever since. I’m not a starry-eyed idealist. I know this guy’s got his shadow side. Everybody does. Obama’s not perfect. Not even close. Nobody is. If we elect him, he will not always make everyone happy. And we will not just feel he’s God’s pure gift to America and humankind.

That doesn’t mean he won’t prove to be one of the most crystalline embodiments of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and our Revolutionary War—the spirit that brought forth our still-amazing Constitution—the spirit of the Gettysburg Address—that we have been blessed to have among us, maybe even since the flawed yet heroic Lincoln himself.

I appreciate comparisons to JFK, yes. But, historically, our current crisis—crises—may be nearly as grave, and as central to the very heartbeat of our country, as those we faced during and after the Civil War. We have to find out who we are as a republic again, and regenerate ourselves from the heart out.

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Intent on democratizing Eastern-style awakeness and integrating it with everyday Western life, Saniel Bonder is an acclaimed teacher, one of the foremost pioneers of evolutionary, embodied, and mutual enlightenment working today. A Harvard graduate, (more...)
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