the interview

Diana Butler Bass About the Religious Changes in America

Is There Christian Faith After Religion?

Oct 19, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

Religion is on the move in America. Strong evangelical support for the conservative ticket notwithstanding, people today believe different things and believe them in different ways compared to 20 or 30 years ago. Poll after poll the Pew Research Center has new data to prove that religious beliefs and religious identity in America is shifting.

No-one is more aware of this than Diana Butler Bass. She is the writer of a host of theological books that are hugely popular among a wide audience. Her 2013 book “Christianity After Religion” was an outright bestseller and her recent “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution” is likewise finding its way to many readers.

A scholar of American religious history, she has meticulously studied and traced the changes in religion over the past decades. As one who has gone through such changes herself—she ones was a Bible-toting born again Christian—Bass is also keen to make sense of these changes. Interconnecting seemingly incompatible world views, identifying patterns of change, and attempting to uncover what moves people of faith, she makes informed guesses about where all of this is going in order to inspire courage, give hope, and provide meaning.

I was lucky enough to find Diana Butler Bass willing and able to make some time to give an interview.

Americans still care in very high numbers about calling themselves theist of some sort such that there are still fairly high levels of at least personal or individual practice of faith. Americans are still holding on to at least the language of God and a sense of spirituality

As an expert in religions, what do you think is happening in America? Is Christianity in decline? Is faith in peril?

Well, I’m not so confident that it is a decline as much as I think that this is a transformation. You can look at the statistics and see that the percentage of people claiming to be Christian has dropped by more than 8% points just in the last 7 years and then say: “Oh, that is a decline. It is terrible. People are leaving Christianity.” But I am not sure that is what they are doing. I think what they are leaving behind is labels, doctrines, and the organizational forms of Christianity. A lot of the folks who are moving into the category of “nones” still have a very strong sense of belief in God. They have lively spiritual experiences. People are abandoning forms of religion they no longer find making sense or meaning. They ask themselves the question “What do I do next? Where is God really present in the world? What is the shape of my faith in this post-institutional world?” I have made this argument for over a decade now. It is less about a decline of faith and more about a decline of organizations and institutions and correspondingly it is about the transformation of faith traditions.

It seems that in this respect America is definitely not following the European trend of secularization

That is correct. Almost everything we see shows that Americans still care in very high numbers about calling themselves theist of some sort such that there are still fairly high levels of at least personal or individual practice of faith. Americans are still holding on to at least the language of God and a sense of spirituality. While it doesn’t have the old shape, people are still being influenced I think by the contours of faith and I even would say contours of the Bible even when they don’t know it quite the same way they used to. People are looking for a new language and a new place to practice their faith. These things still separate American Christianity from most of Western European Christianity.

Is your message to conservative people, then, to stop fighting to regain ground and simply go with the flow? Change is coming and there is nothing you can do about it.

we still know the old traditions and still know these beautiful words of the Bible. We still know the ancient story of Jesus. But we just live them in different ways depending whether we live now or lived 50 years ago or 500 years ago or 1500 years ago

Yes, I have said this in public and have been criticized for this because people assume that I want to simply accommodate faith to the world. But that’s not what I want to do, I’m kind of a historian. I have a Ph.D. in American religious history. One thing the historian knows is that the world changes. And so do the ways people construct their world, understand faith, and organize churches. The way we pass these things on to our children changes too. Democracy in the 21st century is nothing like what democracy was in ancient Greece where the word democracy was originally coined. Ancient and amazing ideas are shaped throughout history in shifting cultural contexts and they come to mean different things or are practiced differently.

But if you can say this about democracy why can’t you say the same thing about Christianity? This observation has nothing to do with being a liberal even though I’m happy to identify as a liberal and don’t have a problem with that label. But what I put forth in my books is a historical argument. I’m thinking about the past and write about the history of our own time. I want to be honest about the way people behave and about the way our human culture functions. We are embedded in a historical narrative. This story literally unfolds around us. Our lives are shaped by it even as we shape it. And I think we have a lot less to fear about change. Rather, we are invited to step into this change and make a difference.

Yet, we still know the old traditions and still know these beautiful words of the Bible. We still know the ancient story of Jesus. But we just live them in different ways depending on whether we live now or lived 50 years ago or 500 years ago or 1500 years ago. It is wonderful to have this historical awareness and to have my eyes opened to this process.

As a historian you are not only able to bring the past into the present. You are also—and that is one of the striking things about your work—a person with a breathtaking vision for the future. When I read the first pages of your “Christianity After Religion” it just hit me. You have this grand vision that embraces your born-again experience of the 70s but also includes the decline of institutional Christianity while managing to incorporate all sorts of new forms of religiosity. Can you give a brief glimpse of your vision?

You are spot on. The past influences the present. I think having this kind of historical awareness leads us to a spiritual awareness which then opens us up to the future. For me the vision centers around my own experience of growing up in the Methodist Church. This tradition goes back to John Wesley in whom lies the beginning of the Great Awakening. This tradition emphasizes spiritual experience and, what Wesley called, a 'heart strangely warmed.' The Methodist Church I grew up in, however, was rather institutionalized. This dynamic between the institute and religious experience is what fascinates me.

But the other way of thinking I have about Jesus as a Christian is that Jesus was not only a unique leader for his community but that he at the same time also was God. Jesus was a teacher and a prophet, like others were, but Jesus is also God, like no-one else is or ever will be

We are now moving into an age where the predominant way of knowledge is experiment, personal experience, with the individual as the locus of authority. My work focuses on this process and how it is going to reform our institutions. A lot of people are afraid of personal experience but I’m trying to tell through my work that personal experience has always been at the heart of every great social and political movement. I’m trying to get people to open their eyes to the tremendous opportunity this brings for the Good News and to stand on that luminous place of goodness and justice and serve as a beacon for how we should be reforming the world.

My vision, then, is that we embrace the path Western culture has been on and in doing so continue to take the story of Jesus handed down to us by the early Christians, not knowing where exactly all this will go but to simply join the flow.

In your latest book “Grounded” you make the interesting move of locating God and divine revelation not high up in the sky but rather as something that is near, with us, in the ground so to speak.

Right! This comes from a very deep theological source for me. I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life as part of the Episcopalian Church. In this tradition it is generally recognized that its theological center is the incarnation. What I finally realized in writing Grounded is that I took the incarnation really really seriously. I think a lot of people kind of by-pass the incarnation. Jesus came to us at Christmas and died on Good Friday. After the resurrection he is quickly whisked up into heaven. I wonder if we don’t get the story backward. What if we let the incarnation shape our understanding of resurrection and ascension? This thread of thinking is really important in my book.

The incarnation brings us to Jesus. What is your attitude to Christ? Is Christ still uniquely the One through whom God addresses us or is he just another way to God?

That is a question a lot of people are asking right now. There are two ways I think about this. On the one hand Jesus is not unique. There is also Moses and Muhammad and Buddha. Each of them was uniquely important for their followers just as Jesus was for his. But the other way of thinking I have about Jesus as a Christian is that Jesus was not only a unique leader for his community but that he at the same time also was God. Jesus was a teacher and a prophet, like others were, but Jesus is God, like no-one else is or ever will be. As John says: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

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