In a 1990 forum in Harper's Magazine, five specialists on urban life—two architects, an urban planner, a sociologist, and a sculptor—discussed what has been happening to our public spaces. While they differed about how best to design our shopping malls, subway systems, and city centers, they were unanimous about the underlying problem: Our lives are increasingly characterized by "fragmentation and difference," and we need a new "sense of what we have in common while knowing our difference—a sense of wholeness."

This sense of wholeness seems even more unattainable now that we are into the 21st century. Jerry Springer regularly takes us from shouting match to shouting match, with no resolutions—and certainly no "meta-narrative," no overarching story of human existence—ever in sight. Zealous religious believers denounce each other, even as they are all being condemned by equally zealous critics of religion. Influential political leaders complain about growing incivility in their own ranks that they seem incapable of reversing. And many social commentators seem resigned to a world in which no light at all can be shed on the possibilities for unifying either our individual or our collective lives. Psychologist Kenneth Gergen argues that we can only resign ourselves to an "endless wandering in the maze of meaning"; indeed, we may need to come up with a new hymn to sing along the way: "Mazing Grace."

In 1880, the Dutch statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper issued a bold proclamation that spoke to the growing fragmentation of society and social roles in his own day—and in ours: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'Mine!'"

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