What good is a slightly rainy vacation if you can’t catch up on a little reading? And my backlog is substantial. For example, when the new Diana Butler Bass work Grounded magically appeared in my Kindle carousel the other day, I cringed as I remembered that I had not yet finished her last book, Christianity without Religion (2012). I like to read an author’s work sequentially whenever possible so that I can follow the thread of their thinking and theorizing. That quirk in my personality meant that it was time to finish Christianity without Religion, so I picked it up again or I would never be able to begin reading Grounded, a book I have been anticipating.
I was apprehensive: the last time I tried to read Christianity without Religion, Bass’s analysis and conclusions about the institutional church had made me see red. At that time, I didn’t finish even the first section.
What a difference three years can make. In those days of “long ago,” even the title of the book was, to me, “fighting words.” You see, three years ago, I would have defended to the death the importance of and the bright future of the institutional church. If you didn’t throw yourself into the life of a church community willingly, well, you just didn’t understand. Or, you hadn’t found the right community, one that really understood a life of discipleship. You must have visited a church that, well, wasn’t at all like my church. How could my favorite author and historian dare to suggest an answer to Bonhoeffer’s infamous question about just what Christianity might look like without religion, particularly an answer that, well, didn’t include the church as we knew it? That was just unthinkable, ridiculous.
Again I say, what a difference three years can make. Three years, a seminary education, training in the ministry of spiritual direction, and a whole lot of living later, I guess I was now ready to hear the message contained in Bass’s Christianity without Religion, because once I began to read again I could not stop. I was not only ready to hear that message, but I was grateful that those pages finally provided me with language for my own experience and the drastic changes in my own understanding of a life lived in faith that have formed over these last three years.
If I am truthful with myself, I should have pushed past the anger three years ago and kept reading beyond the first pages of Part I, “The End of Religion.” I might have seen that, even then, the author and I shared not only a common perspective (I too, am trained first and foremost as an historian) but much common ground. And it is another quote from Bonhoeffer that summarizes that agreement: “Jesus does not call men to a new religion, but to life (Letters and Papers from Prison).”
Called to life — an important theme. Called to life and called to practice. How does Bass get us to this idea? By walking us gently through a carefully focused examination of the history of religion, through a review of the movements (particular to religious life in the United States) known as the Great Awakenings, and through an invitation to see our lives and our call to faith from a different perspective. To summarize, she carefully charts the process in which we, those who identify ourselves as Christians, are changing the questions that we ask and the ways in which we ask them.
Questions are a significant tool in the making of disciples, no matter what flavor of Christian you might consider yourself to be. As Martin Copenhaver points out in his book, Jesus is the Question, Jesus taught most often through the use of the question (in fact, Copenhaver counts 307 didactic questions in the New Testament). And for us today, learning to live in these questions, questions that may never have a single or “right” answer, is the task of building a life of faith. Through her analysis of history and contemporary trends (such as the so-called rise of the nones and the dones), Bass identifies important changes in the questions we ask and the ways in which we ask them, and suggests that these changes point the way forward in a life of faith, to a place where we are can label ourselves both spiritual and religious, a life of practice and choice as well as community. And that community may not reside in four brick walls with a steeple on top.
It is, in many ways, the moment when we began to change our view of religious participation from that of obligation to that of a participation based on personal choice that the world went topsy-turvy. Before, adulthood meant accepting our responsibilities and behaving as the generations before us instructed us to behave. Somewhere, however, the generational transfer lost an important element — our elders began to pass things along to us without telling us why they were important, without sharing with us the reasons that they incorporated those practices in their own lives and why they hoped that we would continue them in our own. This so-called failure left a creative void.
As humans, we cannot help but seek meaning and ways to make our own lives on this planet feel meaningful. We are not programmed to simply do most things because, well, that’s the way it has always been. We begin to ask questions, we begin to seek. And our seeking, our asking of questions, these simple human actions, set in motion a crisis of legitimacy for the institutional church and for other societal institutions. And in that crisis, the three B’s of religion (belief, behavior, and belonging) all face re-evaluation and quite possibly re-formation:
Conventional, comforting Christianity has failed. It does not work. For the churches that insist on preaching it , the jig is up. We cannot go back, and we should not want to. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back to catch one last glimpse of the past as her family fled to an unknown future (Gen. 19: 26). Centuries later , Jesus reminded his followers, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62). (Kindle Edition, pp. 36-38)
The church (meaning the people of God, not the institution) lives in the tension between order and prophecy (pg. 88). And right now, we are feeling that tension. Much of this book is about that very change and the ramifications that this shift has for the future of faith and the faithful, and the future of those institutions that have always been the manifestation of what is meant by the word religion (p. 95).
Bass remains unabashedly resistant to the efforts of her readers to cast her in the role of guru, but these ideas and these words that were so difficult for me to read before now bring me comfort, and for that I am grateful They bring to me an understanding of my own need for pilgrimage right now. Bass’s words help me better understand the signposts on my journey. Pilgrimage is not just an act of travel, or a choice to avoid so-called commitment. Pilgrimage is, itself, a different kind of commitment — a commitment to meaning and growth and understanding, instead of place and institution and thing. It is, as Bass might call it, the act of “waking up.” And it is a waking up that takes time and effort.
I think, now, I might just be “awake” enough to begin reading Grounded. Better buckle up, who knows what I will find there!