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Norman Lear And America’s ‘Deep Spiritual Malaise’

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Norman Lear And America’s ‘Deep Spiritual Malaise’

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(OPINION) Early in the premiere episode of Norman Lear’s sitcom “Sunday Dinner,” the beautiful environmentalist T.T. Fagori raised her eyes to heaven and, with a sigh, entered a spiritual minefield.

“Chief?” she asked God. “You got a minute?”

In addition to praying out loud in prime time, this character offered a theological reverie at dinner while meeting the family of her fiance, a 56-year-old widower nearly three decades her elder.

The problem: His granddaughter heard Fagori mention God during a science lecture.

“You see, I talk about extending ‘love thy neighbor’ to include animals, plants, stuff like that. I say that the natural world is the largest sacred community to which we all belong,” Fagori explained. “I talk about cosmic piety because the same atoms that form the galaxies are in all of us and it’s the universe that carries the deep mysteries of our existence within itself.

“You see how all that sounds pretty spiritual. … So, when the kids hear me say these things, some of them think they hear the word ‘God,’ but they don’t. I don’t actually mention it. Interesting, huh?”

This 1991 comedy flopped — but it was an important statement from Lear, whose Dec. 5 death at 101 years of age closed his career as a lightning rod in popular culture and politics.

For decades, Lear described himself as a cultural Jew who didn’t practice any traditional form of faith. He also founded People for the American Way, an old-school liberal advocacy group on church-state issues. But this television icon became more and more intrigued with religious faith, both as a force in American life and as a topic ignored by Hollywood.

During “Sunday Dinner” press events, Lear argued that America was caught in “a deep spiritual malaise, and nobody is addressing it. The Religious Right did for a period and still continues to. But mainline churches don’t do that good a job of it. And the media don’t deal with it at all.”

This show’s environmentalist mystic “comes from the certain knowledge, as I do, that a living faith is the best design for living,” Lear told Religion News Service. “She obviously knows everything Jesus said and would, with every instinct, try to live it. I think she’s read the Tao Te Ching by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tze.”

Fagori absorbed the “creation spirituality” work of the Dominican priest Matthew Fox. But Lear said her main Catholic influence was the Passionist priest Thomas Berry, a self-proclaimed “eco-theologian.” He bought the rights to Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” so his heroine could freely quote the book.

At the same time, Lear wanted to deal with complex, painful family issues — as in “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude.” The “Sunday Dinner” theme song ended with: “I don’t know if this is a love song / maybe I’ve been singing it all wrong / trying to get my message through to you. / As sure as the sun shines above us / there’s something out there that loves us / waiting patiently for us to see / love begins at home with a family.”

That didn’t sound agnostic. Did “there’s something out there that loves us” refer to God?

In a 2017 testimony posted by Harvard (University) Memorial Church, Lear’s daughter Madeline described how her family’s spiritual search shaped her own conversion to Catholicism. “I’ve always believed in God. My parents believe in God, too. My mom was raised Christian, my dad, Jewish, though they would call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.’ And so, I wasn’t raised with any kind of formal religion,” she wrote.

But faith, broadly defined, mattered to her father. In a 1992 Harvard address, Lear discussed his drive to explore the importance of humanity’s “mysterious inner life, the fertile invisible realm that is the wellspring for our species’ creativity and morality. It is that portion of ourselves that impels us to create art and literature. … It is that portion of our being that gives rise to our sense of awe and wonder and longing for truth, beauty and a higher order of meaning.

“For want of a better term, one could call it the spirit-led or spiritual life. … And yet, as a student of the American psyche, at no time in my life can I remember our culture being so estranged from this essential part of itself.”



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