A review of Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion : The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, HarperOne, 2012, 304 pp.
By Fred Folmer
For a certain segment of the population, the mental pictures are —and maybe even seductive. Envision, if you will, a world in which outdated concepts like “belief,” “dogma” and “institutional religion” have been largely eviscerated from the literal and figurative map. These ideas have been supplanted by hypernetworked spiritual practitioners who respect Western as well as Eastern traditions, who blur the modern distinction between the mind and the body, who draw from ancient wisdom while applying the most recent scientific and technological innovations, and who create non-authoritarian communities of memory and mutual support.
What’s more, this egalitarian mindset extends far beyond the realm of what is usually known as the “spiritual.” Folks support local organic growers and swap recipes and home-repair advice at farmer’s markets, fostering sustainable human and ecological connections in the process. Climate change has been addressed. Alternative forms of energy and transportation are in wide use. Global peace may well be at hand.
Welcome, pilgrim, to the Fourth Great Awakening. Your guide to this unfolding event is Diana Butler Bass, a historian of Christianity with a Ph.D. from Duke who has established herself as a leading commentator on the liberal/progressive wing of American Protestantism. In her most recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, she crunches the numbers on religious affiliation and finds that “religion,” as represented by institutions that protect their turf more than they focus on spiritual matters, is on the wane.
And while it’s been long assumed that liberal or mainline Protestantism has been moribund for decades, one startling aspect of Bass’s argument is that even evangelical/conservative Protestant affiliation is declining in numbers. “The old argument that liberal churches are in decline and conservative ones are growing,” she writes, “is not true.” The result, for Bass, is a “Great Religious Recession” that shifts the focus away from these apparently calcified protectors of dogma and toward individuals who freely choose their own path.
Such a movement, she argues, represents a “Great Awakening”—the fourth such event in American history, a moment of “cultural revitalization” that represents a fundamental shift of goals, social structures and presumptions. As Bass points out, the idea of such “awakenings” as happenings, distinct from the usual ebb and flow of human activity, has been called into question. Nonetheless, she has largely accepted some historians’ definitions of these social changes as definable, consciousness-shifting events, and this acceptance allows her to place these awakenings in her overall narrative of religious life. The Fourth Great Awakening, which Bass argues is occurring now, represents for her the latest and maybe the greatest manifestation of these movements—or, perhaps, single movement, given that all of these awakenings point toward the spread of what Bass will term “romantic” religion: personal and experiential forms of belief and practice. As Bass narrates it, the trajectory of this movement seems unstoppable, a veritable force of nature.
In Bass’s book, it’s a little unclear as to who or what this force—the motivating agency of all this awakening—might be. Is this agency solely, or primarily, emanating from humans, or is there some metaphysical power that’s driving all that human activity? Bass appears not to want to take a clear position toward the latter, because to do so would be to make a claim that is tied to the very kinds of religion from which she says humans ought to unshackle themselves. Instead, she employs words like “Spirit” and “spiritual” to try to describe the awakening’s driving force, contrasting such terms with concepts derived from traditional religion. She argues that whereas “religion” points to such notions as an “institution,” “rules,” “dogma” and “orthodoxy,” spirituality is about “experience,” “connection,” “meditation” and “energy” (these terms are taken from participants in a workshop that Bass conducted; she includes a longer list of opposing concepts in her book). Basically, the word “spiritual,” Bass argues, “is a far more appealing term than “religious”; it connotes both a critique of institutional religious forms as well as “an important stage of awakening: the search for new gods.” Nonetheless, the agency behind the awakening seems to be just as authoritative as the old gods, and just as powerful, since it’s working through persons to drive the awakening. “Awakenings take work,” she writes, “as human beings respond to the promptings of God’s Spirit in the world.” The human element is undeniably present, but it is “God’s Spirit” (if not “God” exactly) that is doing the prompting.
But what is this powerful “Spirit”? It’s hard to say, exactly, because Bass never lays out directly what she means when she writes it; it simply appears to be a kind of experiential, ineffable energy that is moving masses of people in a certain transformative direction, yet it’s also something that can only really be experienced in the realm of the individual. The book, then, is plagued by an ambivalence about what this term really involves: Bass consistently appears to issue a quasi-theological claim (i.e., the “Spirit” is at work, breaking up the empty husks of religious institutions) and at the same time to not make any particular claims, preferring to leave such matters to individual experience.
Moreover, Bass elides the important question of what exactly “Spirit” is—which human, historical or metaphysical forces constitute it, and which do not. This omission becomes particularly conspicuous as she describes the decline of what she calls “obligatory religions,” in which the ability to choose one’s religious practice “is often viewed negatively as a violation of tradition, a break with custom, rebellion against God or the church, heresy.” For Bass, the Fourth Great Awakening is causing a sea change in religious expression, motivating people to seek freely chosen forms of spiritual expression where once these forms had been dictated by institutions; consequently, obligatory religions “are not faring well.” But in the Fourth Great Awakening, choice of spiritual practice is omnipresent and, well, obligatory; religious believers or nonbelievers must either accept or reject their own traditions, and/or craft their own personal systems of belief and practice from the dizzying array available. Notably, Bass does not offer much insight into how contemporary religious actors go about constructing their choices, where they get their ideas and, most crucially, what forms of power underpin the circulation of beliefs and practices. “Choice in religion is just what is,” she writes. “There is no escaping it.”
It’s not that Bass is wrong about the “crisis of legitimacy” that churches face, nor that she’s wrong about choice as a highly distinguishing characteristic of our present moment—although I would add the caveat that the pre-eminence of “choice” does not make sense in every cultural and social context. But in the service of her narrative of a “Fourth Great Awakening,” in which choice emerges as both free and triumphant, Bass pays scant attention to the specific forms of power and social organization—such as the commodity marketplace—in which individual religious/spiritual choice has come to be required of many human beings. Such forms are not incidental to the “awakening” that Bass is describing and prescribing, but are fully entangled with it; one simply couldn’t have a world of “choices” without the necessary scientific, economic, political and intellectual underpinnings to support that world. However, Bass portrays the weakening of churches’ legitimacy as either something that’s their own fault—there’s a lengthy section on the ways in which “religion” has failed, with such usual suspects as the institutional Catholic Church and 9-11 as contemporary culprits—or something that’s, again, simply inevitable, guided by a “Spirit” that pushes people to claim a true, experiential essence.
And so the issue of what exactly is bound up within this driving agency of the Fourth Great Awakening—this “Spirit”—simply won’t go away. Bass clearly doesn’t want to say that the commodity marketplace is somehow providential; indeed, she delivers a harsh critique of churches for their corporate mentality, arguing that this has led to their demise. But in assigning agency to a transformative energy that has provoked people to claim their rightful authority over their own religious lives, it only makes sense to presume that the economic and social framework that enables people to do so would also be caught up in the promptings of this “Spirit.” So is commodity capitalism part of “Spirit,” or isn’t it? At least tacitly, Bass’s book appears to want it both ways.
The book takes on a more practical tone as Bass lays out her suggestions for how persons can think more fruitfully about belief, practice and social belonging. She argues that although “religion” is declining and “spirituality” is increasing, people actually want both. “What the world needs,” she writes, “is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection—these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely” (emphasis in original). We should, then, refocus the formulation of “spiritual not religious” into “spiritual and religious.”
In order to do this, Bass offers a new schema for conceptualizing “belief,” asking readers to focus not on the “what” of belief but the “how”—a question, she writes, “of meaning and purpose that pushes people into a deeper engagement in the world, rather than memorizing facts” or accepting dogmas without question. Belief, in other words, should be thought of as an action rather than an opinion, moving the central activity, as she writes, “from the brain to the heart.” Central to Bass’s argument here is the idea that there was once a time when this was true—before Enlightenment-era forms of knowledge came to force purely intellectual solutions to all questions. Her idea for a better form of “spiritual” religion, then, is a reclamation project of sorts: to bring back “capacities of knowing that modernity ripped apart.”
It should be duly noted that there are plenty of aspects of modernity with which Bass seems quite comfortable. But it also cannot be denied that her formulations here will represent a powerful form of support for many progressive and liberal Christians. If such persons hunger for a way to think about their beliefs and practices in the face of attacks from those on the right wing of Christianity as well as atheists, Bass’s book can serve as a hearty rejoinder to both these latter camps. This remains true as her argument describes two more aspects of her “great awakening”—rethinking “behaving” and “belonging.” In the case of behaving, Bass again waxes nostalgic about how religion used to be much more about embodied practice—forms of knowing, and bodies themselves, that were embedded in devotional action that was infused with a divine sense of purpose. In the age of religious decline, such practices have hardened into what she (quoting William James) calls “dull habit.” The key to restoring authentic religious life, she argues, is belonging to a group where a “living faith” can be witnessed and imitated—“a community of people who know how to do it.”
While those already on board with this program will delight at Bass’s vision of devotional practices and communities—this reader will admit to more than once being truly drawn in by her descriptions—other, more skeptical readers might wonder how this can be done without reinstalling forms of institutional power, however small, that Bass would like us to avoid. In other words, where Bass sees a “community”—for her, a good word—someone else might see a nascent “institution”—for her, a bad word. And particularly in an age when, as she correctly notes, people can simply drop out and choose something else that’s more compelling to them, how can group life really be maintained without some form of social power or authority? At what point does “devotional practice” morph into “coercion”? What is the line between “good community” and “bad community”? What practices, in the end, are “spiritual,” and which are not?
The answer, for Bass, is that communal relationships are built on a structure of groups of people who have, to use a term she frequently employs, found their selves in God. “Christian spirituality of the self,” she writes, “enjoins that God is not only located in us, but that God acts, speaks, heals, loves, touches, and celebrates through us” (emphasis in original). And from this “spirituality of the self,” relational identities can then flow: “spiritual community, a living, renewed church, begins with being in Christ, the first and primary relationship of a vibrant faith life” (emphasis in original). There is, then, a kind of fusion postulated between the personal/experiential and the communal; without the relationships with other people, she writes, “it is impossible to find God or know who we are. We must belong in order to be and become.”
To many ears, this will sound quite a bit like “religion,” with at least the potential for all the messiness, authority, “dull habit,” and inhibition of free choice that the word can be seen to imply—in short, all the things that Bass would like Christians to avoid. The way around this is to have relationships that are primarily driven by one’s personal and experiential relationship to a divine presence—that are underpinned by the aforementioned “spirituality of the self.” Questions of community and authority then can more or less take care of themselves, as persons whose lives are infused with this spirituality will group together, and support and even form one another as a matter of course. This, then, is the essence of the Fourth Great Awakening, as Bass narrates it.
Quite openly, this is a romantic (and, indeed, capital-R Romantic) vision that owes a lot to other Romantics such as Schleiermacher and Emerson. As with these thinkers, Bass’s assertions rest on theological claims that ultimately are difficult to evaluate outside of a theological context—one can either accept or reject them. Nonetheless, it’s important to point out that Bass’s vision does reproduce a key problem associated with Schleiermacher and Emerson: It rests on the existence of an authority (a “divine,” infinite, sacred, Spirit, God) that is taken to spring primarily from and through individuals, without explicit reference to social belonging. For Bass, “spirituality of the self” is universal, to be found in all individuals everywhere regardless of cultural background. Individuals can then form communities of persons whose relational life is based in these individual “spiritual” experiences.
The problem is that although this “spirituality of the self” is taken to be universal by its proponents, it too has a specific social location: It depends on liberal Protestant-derived understandings of the self, the body, and the community. On the surface, this may not seem to be a problem; Bass is, after all, an admitted liberal Protestant. The problem is that Bass is seeking to map this vision far beyond liberal Protestantism, into the more abstract and universal, virtually limitless realm that she is calling “the spiritual,” one that seems to be applicable to all people everywhere—and one that might, in certain contexts, be simply called “secular.” By the end of the book, her vision is global and ultimately rather sweeping. The Fourth Great Awakening, she writes, is happening not just among liberal Protestants but also among “Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists,” who “have been undergoing similar revitalizations as they pay renewed attention to the spiritual dimensions of their traditions, emphasizing communal identity, faith practices, and experiential belief—often against authoritarian leaders and inflexible religious structures.”
But this assertion does not pay attention to the very particular (Protestant, Western) history that has enabled the pre-eminence of the “spiritual dimensions” of traditions. It is a history that is rife with power relations, and quite unequal ones at that, as such understandings have “spread” (how, exactly?) around the globe. And so to suggest, as Bass does, that this “spiritualizing” of global religions is an aspect of the “much, much larger web of God’s wondrous work” is to implicitly assign theological agency to all the processes, however unseemly, that have made this happen. Moreover, such a vision does not attend to those who might be excluded by it—those whose religious practices cannot easily be “spiritualized,” or whose social organization might look authoritarian or otherwise illiberal, or whose integration and regulation of the body might look oppressive. In celebrating the “spiritualizing” of traditions, Bass’s argument suggests that such persons are out of step and deserve correction to this all-encompassing, universal framework; it fails to consider the forms of power that carved out this framework historically, and those that might remain involved in shaping it in the present day.
Still, Bass’s arguments and suggestions are likely to be quite persuasive and even captivating for those progressive Protestants who consider themselves to be Bass’s fellow travelers—or for those whose sensibilities resonate with such folks. The book’s final section in particular, in which Bass suggests that people who wish to bring about the awakening “perform” the practices that would lead to such a shift, is artfully rendered and would seem to present some promising possibilities for Christians who are rightfully concerned about the planet’s ecological and social directions. For instance, Bass suggests that people take up two practices—one “inner” (e.g., yoga) and one “outward” (e.g., volunteering). Whatever choices are made, persons should keep the goal of awakening in mind, acting as though the transformation they seek is not only possible but right on the cusp of occurring. “Perform faith,” Bass writes. “Display the kingdom in all that you do. Anticipate the reign of God in spiritual practices. Act up and act out for God’s love.” What’s particularly compelling about these suggestions is their modesty—their relatively simple suggestion of retuning the body and mind in order to enact a transformation of self, community, and immediate surroundings. It’s a vision that, to the eyes of this reader, seems likely to succeed in some humble way, not least because it focuses on what persons can tangibly do; it focuses on specific actions rather than abstract concepts. Had Bass’s argument followed this principle throughout, it would likely have been significantly more persuasive.
Fred Folmer, a graduate of New York University’s M.A. program in religious studies, is a librarian at Connecticut College.
Cover image: George Whitefield by David Martin, oil, 1770