Now that I’ve established some of my assumptions and interests, I’m beginning my “giving up church for Lent” journey wth Diana Butler Bass’ new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution.
Bass’ previous book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening has been essential reading for the past few years. In CAR Bass makes the compelling case that the decline of traditional forms of Christianity in the United States is actually the birth of something new: a fourth great awakening that began with the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. This awakening is non-dogmatic, experiential, relational, environmentally conscious, and pluralistic. In very personal terms, Grounded describes what this spiritual revolution—largely taking place outside of churches—looks like.
My favorite line in the introduction comes after Bass recounts an airplane conversation with a “spiritual but not religious” person who shares with her a rich variety of spiritual practices that ground her, few of which happen in a church building.
Her testimony is remarkably like that of millions of others across Western societies. Yet these stories are rarely taken as a whole, giving voice to an important cultural critique, meaningful spiritual longing, or serious theological perspective. Instead, they are often ridiculed, called tedious or boring, most often described as “radical individualism,” “cafeteria religion,” “navel-gazing spirituality,” “Oprah church,” or, in more sophisticated philosophical terms, “moral therapeutic deism.” Entire books have been written and at least a couple of careers made by pointing out how dangerous such views are to the fabric of community, especially to religious and civic institutions. Yet for all their attempts at journalism or academic objectivity, when these analyses are professionally deployed to describe experiences like those of my seatmate, they too often smack of intellectual superiority and moral defensiveness, carrying a whiff of judgment if not outright insult.
And I guess I am tired of being insulted.
This is pretty much a direct response to the airplane conversation at the heart of Lillian Daniel’s book, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. (Landon Whitsitt and Adam Copeland called this out years ago and I often use this book in my work as an example of how not to approach SBNRs and nones.) Taking this kind of spirituality seriously is precisely what I’m trying to do by “giving up church for Lent.”
According to Bass, the animating question of contemporary spirituality is not “Who is God?” or “What must I do to be saved?” but “Where is God?” Instead of a transcendent God in a three-tier universe mediated by religious leaders and institutions, the spiritual revolution chronicled by Bass is focused on an immanent God present in our theologically flattened world—God with us.
I like how Bass begins this book with a theological reflection on the theological crises of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—namely, where is God in the midst of two devastating world wars and a planet on the brink of mass destruction? First and foremost, this spiritual revolution isn’t about capriciousness or individualism run rampant. It’s about people seeking God. If people are giving up on church or even certain conceptions of God, it’s because they aren’t finding God in those institutions or dogmas.
People like me? We are not lazy, self-centered, or individualistic church shoppers. We are heartbroken. Heartbroken by the fact that the faith traditions that raised us and that we love seem to be sleeping through the revolution.