Page 2 – Diana Butler Bass – Christianity After Religion
Using social science survey data as well as historical and theological analysis and anecdotes drawn from her own life and work, Bass describes the end of traditional religion as we are witnessing it before sharing her hopeful assessment (or intuition) of the awakening that we are on the cusp of seeing. Focusing on a distinction between positive experiential spirituality (as viewed even by many of traditionally religious Christians) and a deadening institutional belief-oriented religion, Bass examines the decline of traditional religion in terms of practice and belief–particularly noting a precipitous decline after September 11, 2001. Protestant conflicts over homosexuality, a politicized strident religious right, the Catholic Church sex scandal, terrorism and more have exacerbated trends that were present before the advent of that “horrible decade”. While spiritual practice and prayer are still with us, they look different from the church-going and prayers practices of our parents’ time. Yoga, meditation and a bewildering variety of other faith and interfaith experiences now present themselves in American culture. Indeed, “Toto” is not in Kansas anymore as the world of faith is transforming.
After her adept analysis of the failure of religion, at least in American society, Bass sketches a new approach to spiritual questions that moves from a focus on religion as an institution instantiated through a process of belief (doctrine), behaving ( ethics and practices), and belonging (community) to a focus on ” religio as a spiritually vital faith” (204) incarnated by “the great reversal” through a process that begins with belonging as it moves on through to behaving before returning to belief. While her idea of stages may be a little too cute as a heuristic device, it still helpfully highlights three critical aspects of faith that are in the midst of transformation. She sees this reversal as leading Christians into a new awakening where vital faith is performed or actually practiced. Like Cox, she contends that we are returning to a focus faith as an enacted trust rather than as disembodied belief. “Relational community, intentional practice, and experiential belief are forming a new vision of what it means to Christian in the twenty-first century” for Bass (214). To many eyes this vital faith may look like a more inclusive, less white male version of emergent Christianity.
Bass not only articulates a hopeful vision for the future of Christian faith, that makes room for other faiths too, she also provides often captivating snapshots of where the faithful have been and where we can go. Bass takes us from her own story of being caught with a Bible at Saguaro High School to a community college graduation in Florida. As this winsome, once evangelical, now Episcopalian scholar and participant compellingly summarized:
People often ask me to describe this awakening. In response, I tell stories, parables of spiritual renewal, of a world transformed by God’s love. I tell stories about surprising congregations and relate conversations I have had on airplanes, at coffeehouses, and with bank tellers. I share insights from my friends and family. I show people polls, surveys and trends. I preach from scripture. I read poetry. I teach about the people of the past. I confess my own struggles and regrets. … I have described the end of an old religious world, and invited you to see the contours of the new one that is being born all around us. You may wish to mourn the loss of what was, but there is no need to fear what will be, for the future is here only in part, and there is much work to be done.” (268)
Was Bonhoeffer right about the end of religion in the West? Perhaps he was, but Diana Butler Bass tells us that we need not fear for God is doing a new thing–a beginning– if we will but just join in performing in an awakening of Spirit for our time. Is she right? I do not know, but I hope so—and I do know that I too want to see the horizon of faith that she sees.