Insights from those who've left the fold

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass (File photo)

by Dana Greene


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By Diana Butler Bass
Published by HarperOne, 336 pages, $26.99

"There is nothing worse than sleeping through a revolution." With this sentence, Diane Butler Bass concludes Grounded, a provocative, well-researched critique of contemporary American Christianity. The movement she describes is a spiritual one that challenges the traditional notions of God and church. Driven forward by humanists, agnostics, post-theists and those who call themselves spiritual but not religious, this revolution aims at creating a "worldly faith."

Bass argues that if the Christian church sleeps through this historic moment, it does so at its own peril.

The author of nine books, Bass is a public theologian and well-known commentator on the history of American religion. Although her previous writing has been aimed at "fixing" Christian churches, Grounded is an attempt to understand the contribution of the "theologically discontent" and their emergent insight into two theological questions, namely who is God and where is God found.

Her book is, in one sense, an admonishment of Christian churches to cease the hand-wringing over the decline in membership and to pay attention to the insights of those who have left behind their Christian allegiance.

As Bass sees it, these former Christians reject what she calls a "vertical" view of God, the traditional understanding of God as king, master and judge who resides in heaven. As well, they are suspicious of what she calls church as an "elevator," namely, church as the vehicle by which one is transported to salvation in heaven.

She maintains that these seekers are uninterested in dogma and theological debate, but they have not given up on God. Rather they encounter God not as patriarch, but as Spirit dwelling in the natural world and in human community. God is not up there, but both here among us and out there on the boundaries of human life.

While this awareness has always existed within Christianity, it has been the purview of the few -- mystics, prophets, artists. It is now becoming more pervasive and widely accepted. Increasingly, people are intent on "finding God in the world."

Although Bass poses two questions -- one about God and the other about where God dwells -- it is the latter to which she gives the most attention. Her book is divided into two parts, both of which deal with where God is found: in the "natural habitat" and in "human geography." God is present, here and now, and one is "grounded" in God's world.

Using literature, sociological commentary, Scripture, and her experience as a suburban dweller and member of various Protestant denominations, Bass explores her interaction with "dirt," "water" and "sky," which provide the landscape in which she and others experience God.

She goes on to examine how human association also gives access to that encounter. In the search for ancestral roots, in the creation of home and the offering of hospitality, through participation in neighborhood and engagement in the global commons, one is offered the opportunity to meet the divine.

Bass sees the "theologically discontent" as contributing to a positive understanding of God's immanence. If the objective of this book is to emphasize this contribution, it is a success, and, given its lucid prose, it will be read widely. However, having raised two prominent theological questions, one is left wanting further discussion of whether this revolution omits important aspects of Christian experience.

Christianity has always attested to a God who is both transcendent and immanent. While emphasis on the immanence of God may be compensatory to an undue weight on transcendence, immanence carries with it its own dangers. As an illustration, Bass' description of this spiritual revolution gives almost no consideration to the notion of grace, that is, the help that comes not from humankind but is offered by God.

Likewise, to stress God as Spirit may be a counterweight to the importance given to God as Father; it can nonetheless minimize the centrality of Jesus.

Again as an illustration, Bass includes very little discussion of Jesus and the concomitant issues of suffering and injustice. Given that these issues are part and parcel of the human condition, and that all the world's religions have wrestled with them, one wonders why they have been given such short shrift. One suspects that the "theologically discontent" of America may not have suffering and injustice as principal concerns in their lives.

Furthermore, one should question whether most American Christians participate in a church in order to ensure their salvation. While denominational differences need to be acknowledged, many Christians would respond that they participate not to save their souls but to help them love God and inspire them to love their neighbor, even those who are enemies. And for Catholics, if salvation is thought of, it is always salvation within community.

Grounded is an admirable contribution to the understanding of contemporary American Christianity, which is in constant need of reformation. Bass' hope is to awaken the often-defensive Christian church by alerting it to the important insights of those who have left its fold. May the church listen.

[Dana Greene is dean emerita of Oxford College of Emory University and on the board of the Shalem Institute. Her latest book is Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 6-19. 2016 print issue under the headline: Insights from those who've left the fold.

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