On the last Thursday of classes, April 25, I went to Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School to hear Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass discuss the topic for the event, “The Future of Faith.” While I enjoyed the thoughtfulness with which both writers engaged the subject of the rise of “the nones” and the declining number of people affiliated with mainline Christian denominations, and while it was not intended to be a debate or a competitive event of any stripe, I nonetheless declared by my own subjective criteria that Diana Butler Bass had won. And consequently I purchased her 2012 book, Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
The book is not flawless, and neither was her presentation in Marquand. But what I appreciate about Bass is her willingness to take seriously the cultural moment that many are calling “the rise of the nones,” or those who identified in polls during this most recent election cycle as “none of the above” on the question concerning religious affiliation. Bass approaches this subject not from a reactionary position, but from a desire to learn. Sure there are shallow and narcissistic reasons why some are abandoning institutional forms of religion, but aren’t there plenty of shallow and narcissistic reasons that many remain? She doesn’t uncritically acclaim the new way of seeing faith and spirituality, but she doesn’t dismiss it either. And that’s a refreshing voice — a voice of empathy.
“I suggest that those who care about that their churches survive to the future try something new: Listen to the new voices, hear what is being said about conventional religiosity and church life, and change thoughtfully and wisely.” (Bass in an article for the Huffington Post entitled “The Future of Faith” anticipating the upcoming event of the same name)
So I’ve been reading her book and trying to integrate insights into my sermons. Since the three major topics she examines are the changing approach to believing, behaving, and belonging, I have been taking these last three Sundays before my summer away from the pulpit to spend a Sunday with each. Last Sunday the lectionary selection from Acts, the story of Paul’s encounter with a spiritual but not religious Lydia and the kind of boundary-transgressive spirituality that led Paul to go to Europe, attend a prayer meeting down by the river, and sit in the grass with a group of women, talking about faith. The how of Paul’s belief validated the what of Paul’s belief. And it’s this need for a reclamation of the how of belief — that belief is embedded in relations, human and divine — that Bass points out in her chapter “Believing.” And my thoughts from that sermon are posted here.
This week I’ve been studying her chapter “Behaving.”
The central problem facing the church is a failure in transmitting the tradition across generations. There are a lot of factors involved in this failure. And it’s not any one person’s fault. Rather it is part of a broader shift in American culture which the church has fallen victim to. The church was not prepared for the rapid changes of the past century and so decline.
“In the post-World War II period, Western societies underwent what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘an expressivist revolution,’ whereby obligatory group identity — whether of nation, family, or church — was replaced with a new sense of individual authenticity and the ‘right of choice’ based in personal fulfillment. External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward authentic self in society.” (141)
Many lament this cultural change. Bass seems ambivalent: “whether the switch is good or bad is beside the point.” The change has happened and we are in a world where everything “from clothes and career to loves and faith [is] a matter of choice.” Perhaps ambivalent isn’t the right word. There’s a kind of pragmatism in her take on this shift which seems to say, whether it’s good or bad, it’s there and we need to figure out what do in light of it.
I know plenty of people who bemoan this shift and see it as an insidious triumph of the modern capitalistic construction of the consumeristic individual. And I’m inclined to follow in the direction of that critique. But I appreciate, once again, Bass’s willingness to listen and learn how this new spiritual emphasis might help renew the faith.
So she points out how in the new world of choice, when we’ve become detached from the communities and traditions of our upbringing or heritage, the how question which used to be so important (e.g. how do live as a Methodist or Baptist) becomes suspended and the what question comes to the fore (what tradition do I want to be a part of, what spiritual practices will be most fulfilling, healthful, etc.) along with the why question.
“Our grandparents and parents may have been very good at the doing of religion, the how of faith, but, in their world, there was no need to engage the interior questions of meaning, the what and why of faith.” (141)
Now here is where I think Bass overgeneralizes. Certainly there was enough of an atmosphere of choice across the U.S. that these questions were entertained and it was not just a matter of how we do our particular religion well. One needs only to look at the circumstances in the early spiritual journey of Joseph Smith to realize that the crisis of choice has been alive in America for some time.
But however long the dilemma of choice has been around in American, Bass is certainly right to see that it has become the dominant reality of the 21st century religio-spiritual landscape.
The “practice gap” leads to the following consequences.
“When how became an end in itself, people began to ask what. If I am not going to [follow in the family trade], what now? If I no longer embrace Methodism, what faith will I embrace? When it comes to behavior (in contrast to belief), what emerges as the driving spiritual question. What always leads to why — the compelling reason to choose a particular path of what…. After a choice is made, then we craft a new way of faith, the how follows the what and why. Choice, meaning, and practice interlace to open us to purposeful ways of being in the world. (142)
The way forward that Bass sees lies in addressing the questions what and why given the irrelevance of how for those who have become disconnected from traditional religious communities.
First, she tackles the what.
Her one word answer to what is “practices” which she defines as “things we do that shape who we are as they awaken us to God and others” (145).
Practices create habits which in turn affect who we become — our character. What we spend our time doing, where we put our energy and attention will naturally shape the kind of people we become. And this has been understood by religious communities since time immemorial. So the various denominations within the Christian religion, and the various religions besides all have practices that can be engaged in. Beyond that, we now have modern practices from yoga and meditation to spiritual retreats and twelve-step groups that are available options for the spiritually hungry. Psychotherapy has probably become as common as confession once was.
The catalog of contemporary spiritual practices is large indeed.
The spiritual practices of Christianity have always fallen in two groups: 1) practices of devotion and 2) practices of ethics. These correspond to the two greatest commandments cited by Jesus: Love God and love your neighbor.
Devotional practices have included prayer, silence, praise, reading and meditating on sacred texts, Bible study, scripture memorization, fasting, keeping Sabbath, public worship on Sunday. (148)
Ethical practices have included “serving the poor; caring for the sick, oppressed, and needy; humility; peacemaking; forgiveness and reconciliation; giving freely from one’s resources; honoring the body; truthfulness; hospitality; healing; and discernment.” (148)
These ethical practices flow from the devotional practices. Prayer for the world shapes one to become the fulfillment in some small way of that prayer — thus charity fostered in prayer becomes charity lived out in service.
Ethics have been considered as separate from beliefs in the modern world, but as Bass points out, the early church saw an essential continuity between their beliefs and their way of life. “Early Christianity was not called ‘Christianity’ at all. Rather it was called ‘the Way,’ and its followers were called ‘the People of the Way.'” (149)
The Way consists of belief infused practices and practice-shaped beliefs.
I think one of the more interesting points that Bass makes in this chapter is that what contemporary seekers are doing when they are creating a bricolage out of the various practices and beliefs of various religions and spiritualities is very similar to what early Christians did out of the established religions of their time: Judaism and the Roman and Greek religions.
She writes: “The new adherents found the old ways moribund, somehow lacking the energy and inspiration to meet the challenges of the world around them. Yet they did not reject the old completely. Instead, the early Christians wove together their new way of life and the new stories of Jesus with practices they borrowed from other religions.”
Now I don’t think this completely explains why Christians began changing their practices — certainly there were other theological reasons less experientially and more rationally considered. But nonetheless it is true that early Christian faith drew on the cultural forms of its time and there was great diversity in the expression of the new spirituality.
Discernment was needed in considering with wisdom and due caution what practices to add to the emerging faith. “Discernment…. entails praying for guidance, asking questions, listening to the insights of others, and making considered choices.” Discernment is the “practice behind the practices.” (152)
An openness to reviving this process in the current cultural moment will help the church better understand the why behind the what of the practices that they do include in their community life.
After considering the what of Christian practice she considers the why.
“Christians do things because Jesus did them first. As he said to his disciples in the Gospel of John, ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (13:15). The primary why for any Christian practice is that the action, in some way, imitates Jesus.” (154)
Christians not only imitate Jesus, but they also seek to imitate the “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before. “The witness and practices of those who went before are called tradition” (155). The word “tradition” often sounds like a dull “we’ve always done it this way” conservative faith. But it is different when tradition is embodied in the lives, the biographies of ancestors. Tradition is embodied faith over time. It is imitative and inspired.
The why imitation involves encountering the same God that was encountered by these trailblazers — through spiritual practices.
Imitation is how the most significant learning and development happens. “Imitation connects us to others as it opens the door to self-awareness and mastery. We are part of a great guild of human activity, apprentices to the art of being truly human” (156).
Imitation has to be intentionally done. Who one imitates makes all the difference in the world.
This leads us back to the consideration of spiritual leaders and communities. Who are we going to follow. Christians choose denominations because there’s no way of being in the church except making such a choice (C. Taylor in Bass 157).
And what follows the intentional choice of spiritual leader or community is “imitating the practices of others already on the same path — whether that is the imitation of the founder or those who have, in some measure, mastered the craft of living faith. What leads to participation is a community of people who know how to do it.” (157)
Spiritual practices are connected to the cosmic scope of the Christian vision of redemption. The prayer “Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven” embodies this. What we pray shapes how we view the world, ourselves, and God — and when we pray concerning the kingdom, we anticipate its presence in our midst and we find ourselves drawn into manifesting it in our own lives.
“Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and what will be. Spiritual practices are living pictures of God’s intentions for a world of love and justice” (160).
Many are concerned about the individualism that seems inherent in affirming the modern seeker’s quest. But Bass points out that if spiritual practices are crafts, they are necessarily learned in community. One learns Yoga very difficultly without an instructor helping form the right postures.
Her overall take on “behaving” is that we need to be more open to varieties of spiritual practice — remembering that much variety exists in the historic Christian tradition. We should be guided by the two pillars of love of God and neighbor. But more than openness we need to reclaim an authenticity and intentionality to what we do as a community of Christians.
“To be spiritual and religious when it comes to behavior means to be deliberate in choosing what we do, to do those things that imitate Jesus, and to act justly in the world. It is intentional Christian practice. We are to be learners on the way, then initiates, apprentices, skilled practitioners, and masters. Not just members of a church.” (168)
We must look at our church and ask important questions of why we do what we do. And if it is just out of a sense of obligation than we need to let it go and allow to rise to life a new spiritual practice which comes from an authentic love of God and neighbor embodied in the local spiritual community. Discernment is what is needed not criticism. Hospitality to the “nones” that we might learn from them and they might learn from Christ.