You know the books that you’ve bought and you mean to get around to reading them. The “it” theology books of the moment. The automatic buys of the big names. The book everyone will be talking about. The books that collect dust because you’ll get to them when you have some time… ha!
Christianity After Religion is not that book.
If you have derided the term “spiritual, but not religious”- this book is for you.
If you have described yourself as “spiritual AND religious”- this book is for you.
If you’ve made up another profession on a plane or train to avoid conversations about religion, this book is for you.
If what passes as political rhetoric, but is really religious fundamentalism, makes you crazy- this book is for you.
If you’re fairly certain your church/denomination/faith community can’t continue as it is, but you’re not sure where to begin with even a little change- this book is for you.
If your faith community is holding house dinners, experimenting with ancient forms of worship, talking about mysticism, trying new lectionary paths, and everyone else thinks you’re crazy, BUT it works for your congregation- this book is for you!
Diana Butler Bass unfolds a powerful and provocative argument that spiritual life in the United States, and indeed the global community of faiths, is undergoing a Fourth Great Awakening. She gives clear descriptions of the historical causes and spiritual effects of the first three. Then her description of the fourth, our current experience:
The Fourth Great Awakening is not a quest to escape the world. Instead, it moves into the heart of the world, facing the challenges head-on to take what is old- failed institutions, scarred landscapes, wearied religions, a wounded planet- and makes them workable and human in the service of a global community. No miracles here. God does not heal without human hands. The hard work is the possibility. (239)
Bass gives careful attention to the backlash of Christian conservatism and fundamentalism. The promise of returning to “the good old days” and the creation myth of white, male supremacy are sure signs of an awakening. A backlash can’t happen without something to last against. There will always be people who dig in their heels and offer pabulum in a time of change, in order to gain control. History is not on their side. They cannot win the war. The truth is, there are many people in this country, deeply faithful people, who have put their hand to the plow of a new kind of spiritual living and who, as Jesus instructed, will not look back.
Bass describes the new kind of faithfulness as experiential religion or religio. Experiential religion or faith embraces reason and experience together, without the zero sum game of modern theological warfare.
As our own age turns toward the authority of experience, it is good to remember that reason is not bad. Reason is part of the human experience, often considered a reflection of God’s image in humankind. To be spiritual and religious is to call for a new wholeness of experience and reason, to restitch experience with human wisdom and to renew reason through an experience of awe… Experiential belief is integrated belief, that which brings back together capacities of knowing that modernity ripped apart. It is only in the territory of the heart where faith makes sense. (128)
Bass details how in our vocations and our hobbies, we learn by joining a profession, a group, a mentor. We take on the habits of the people or person from whom we are learning. Over time, we then come to believe things about our profession or hobby- what it means to us and how it helps us. We belong, then behave, and then believe. Yet, we expect people to these tasks in the exact opposite manner when it comes to church.
If you want to knit, you find someone who knits to teach you. Go to the local yarn shop and find out when there is a knitting class. Sit in a circle where others will talk to you, show you how to hold the needles, guide your hands, and share their patterns with you. The first step in becoming a knitter is forming a relationship with knitters. The next step is to learn by doing and practice. After you knit for a while, after you have made scarves and hats and mittens, then you start forming ideas about knitting. You might come to think that the experience of knitting makes you a better person, more spiritual, or able to concentrate, gives you a better sense of service to others, allows you to demonstrate love and care. You think about what you are doing, how you might do it better. You develop your own way of knitting, your own theory of the craft. You might invent a dazzling new pattern, a new way to make a stitch; you might write a knitting book or become a knitting teacher. In knitting, the process is exactly the reverse of that in church: belonging to a knitting group leads to behaving as a knitter, which leads to believing things about knitting. Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief. That is the path to becoming and being someone different. The path of transformation. (202)
With all due respect to Wesley, I think that’s one of the best descriptions of sanctification I’ve ever read. The contemporary narrative touts Christian faith as adherence to dogmas and standing firmly behind the line of orthodoxy, no toes in sight. That’s Christian perfectionism, not perfection, and that’s not what Bass has in mind. Nor the early church. Nor Jesus. We are brought ever close to the possibilities God has stored within us through our Christian practices. The practices, prayer, study, hospitality, discipline, communal life, create the space for the Spirit to bring us closer to perfect love.
This is the kind of church that offers spiritual apprenticeship, a chance to tell faith stories and learn to be a new kind of family. This is the kind of church that speaks to brokenness so many perceive. This is the kind of church that many spiritual, but not religious people can belong to… eventually coming to trust. This is the kind of Christianity that God may well be trying to bring to fruition in this time and this place. Bass brings this gospel with such tenderness and passion that it’s hard not to see that she’s right.
There will be those who criticize this book as Christian syncretism or who will say that Bass does not say enough about God, particularly the God of Christianity. She doesn’t need to speak for God or about God. She speaks powerfully to the people of Christ who wish to witness to the light of God into the world. For these people and for Bass, God is the God of all history. Including our history. She writes, “This awakening will not be the last in human history, but it is our awakening. It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just, and loving.” (269)
That needs an Amen.
Book purchased by the reviewer for review. All quotations are from the hardback edition of this book.
Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. HarperCollins; NY, NY. 2012