Christianity After Religion
Diana Butler Bass
I have met and talked with Diana Butler Bass, heard her preach, enjoyed one of her public lectures, and read her books. Her latest (and eighth) is titled Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. This time, following on her last book, A People’s History of Christianity (see Sentinel, July 26, 2010), Bass offers us even more than we perhaps think we want (or need) to know about the Church today:
• A new spiritual awakening is playing a significant role in forming the contours of a new kind of faith beyond conventional religious boundaries.
• Faith is swept up in the waves of global change, as every aspect of human experience is undergoing profound rearrangement.
• In the first decade of the 21st century, even the most conservative Christian churches have stopped growing … membership gains have slowed to a crawl.
But before we wax eloquent over the good old days of churches bursting at the seams, it’s helpful to realize that dwindling numbers and calls for spiritual awakening have a long history. Bass devotes the whole of Part III of her book to awakenings that give us all hope—fresh thinking rooted in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ringing challenge, “Jesus does not call men to a new religion, but to life” (Letters and Papers from Prison).
How do we experience new light?
Speaking of “dwindling numbers,” Bass points out that in 1734 a revival swept through the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, where a local minister, Jonathan Edwards, identified four steps of spiritual awakening that had enlivened his flock: a general stirring toward moral living, an awareness of personal shortcomings, an experience of “converting grace,” and a palpable sense of joy from encountering the “new light” of God. Edwards shared his thoughts in a book that was an immediate bestseller, going through 20 printings in its first year. He argued that his congregation had merely responded to God: “Prayer opened the heart to sense God, and opened the eyes to see God’s activity.”
Christianity After Religion makes it clear that over the centuries, during each spiritual awakening, people have asked the same questions: What do we do to bring about renewal? How do we experience new light? Can we participate in God’s work?
I asked Diana Bass where she stood on these issues, especially since completing her book and now picking up early reader responses.
“As a mother and a teacher, I’m trying to embody the awakening in two distinct ways,” she said. “First, my family and I are very intentional about Christian faith—we do attend church, pray over meals, celebrate holy days. … We actually talk about our actions and activities in light of Jesus’ teachings and ministry. …This sense of purposefulness and practice lifts Christian faith into a realm of personal and communal experience, so that it isn’t simply a set of doctrines we happen to believe in, but is a way of life to be explored and cherished. …
“Second,” Bass said, “because the new awakening is interfaith, we are making a concerted effort to listen to stories of other traditions, to teach respect and appreciation (not simply tolerance—respect and appreciation go farther than tolerance) for the diversity of God’s people, and to join in whatever practices we can share with our friends and neighbors from other religions. As a family, we cultivate both our particular Christian identity and our friendships beyond human-made boundaries. Developing practices of hospitality and curiosity helps create the environment for spiritual awakening.”
To which I would add: Isn’t this an essential step in fulfilling Jesus’ command that we “love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34)?