Is religion itself a lost soul?

A new book by Diana Butler Bass, who will be speaking in Seattle on Friday, puts a hopeful spin on the future of religion. Crosscut writer Anthony Robinson isn't so sure.

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Author Diana Butler Bass

A new book by Diana Butler Bass, who will be speaking in Seattle on Friday, puts a hopeful spin on the future of religion. Crosscut writer Anthony Robinson isn't so sure.

Independent scholar, cultural commentator, and historian of religion in America, Diana Butler Bass is in town on Friday to read from and discuss her newest book, Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

For some time now, Bass has made it her business to study and sift through the embers of contemporary religion’s disarray and decline — particularly Christian and mainline Protestant — and to find in them the sparks of a new possibility. In her 2007 book Christianity for the Rest of Us she reported on pockets of suprising vitality and renewal in the churches of the Protestant mainline. She continues, but broadens, this trajectory in Christianity After Religion.

Early in this new book Bass catalogues 'The Horrible Decade' of 2000 to 2010, noting in particular five major events that “revealed the ugly side of organized religion,” and which challenged “the faithful to wonder if defending religion is worth the effort.” This string of events also created “an environment that can rightly be called a religious recession.”

Those five big events of the “horrible decade” include

  1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led many to conclude that religion was the culprit.
  2. The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal and a huge erosion in respect for religious leaders. 
  3. The Protestant conflict over homosexuality symbolized by the 2003 election of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson — a gay man — and the subsequent fallout. 
  4. The 2004 Presidential election, which the Religious Right delivered to its favorite son, George W. Bush. But in the process of winning that battle, the Religious Right lost the war, alienating a whole generation with its mean-spirited politicized version of Christianity.
  5. What Bass calls the “Great Religious Recession,” roughly paralleling the economic one. With the loss of economic confidence of the recession, there was a parallel loss of confidence in religion, its institutions, and leaders.

While acknowledging that this has been a very tough stretch for those who care about faith and the communities that seek to practice it, Bass does see something hopeful emerging from the wreckage. In fact, she argues that from these various endings and disillusionments, a new “Great Awakening” is underway, a new movement that is remaking the faith. This awakening is characterized by “relational community, intentional practice, and experiential belief,” which together mark “a new vision for what it means to be Christian in the twenty-first century.”

One important sign of that Awakening for Bass is the preference for the term, and self-description, “spiritual” in contrast to “religious.” She sees the by-now-common turn to the word “spiritual” as in, “I am spiritual but not religious.” as an expression of healthy discontent with the way things are. This is, Bass writes, “often a way of saying, ‘I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor, and my own life.’” As such “I am spiritual but not religious” may not, she offers, “be a thoughtless mantra at all — in many cases, it may well be a considered commentary on religious institutions, doctrine, and piety.”

But Bass also notes the growing numbers of those who claim a new middle term — and — as in “I am spiritual and religious.” Between 1999 and 2009 the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as both “spiritual and religious” grew from a scant 6 percent to a significant 48 percent. This is a hopeful sign, that the religious are seeking something better, that the spiritual are not completely rejecting either community or organized religious forms.

Part of the shift, Bass describes, is people’s longing for actual experience of God, of the holy, the sacred, or the divine. There is impatience with forms of faith that talk about God, but don’t help people experience — or make room for their experience of — God. She sees the emerging “Christianity After Religion” as being closer to what Jesus actually preached and lived: “a beloved and beloving community, a way of life practiced in the world, a profound trust in God that eagerly anticipates God’s reign of mercy and justice.”

Bass acknowledges that all of this may be hard to discern through the fog of nativist, back-lash movements like those of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and now Rick Santorum. But these she sees as more the death throes of the old order than a genuinely new thing or one that will prevail.

The strengths and weaknesses of this kind of book are closely related. A strength is the breadth of scope and analysis. Bass synthesizes a great deal of data and interpretation. She draws together a host of different thinkers and finds signs of hope in quarters as diverse as American Pentacostalism’s 'mainstreet mysticism' and new interfaith awareness and practice. But that breadth is also Christianity After Religion’s weaknesses. Sometimes the analysis is so broad as to seem superficial.

A somewhat different way to put this is that Bass wears two hats. On one hand, she is a scholar and analyst marshaling lists of data and amassing trends. On the other, Bass is herself a reformer and advocate. She not only reports on the emergence of a more connectional, authentic, progressive awakening through which religion may play a more hopeful and healing role in the world, she very much wants this to be the case. To wear both hats is not, at least in my view, a bad thing. But at times it's hard to sort out the decriptive from the normative in Bass’ study.

Finally, there is, in Bass’ argument, and that of many others these days a tendency toward, "The past was bad but the future is good.” That’s an oversimplication, of course, both on the part of the advocates of 'new, better, emerging,' and on my own part in summarizing them in this way. Still, the underlying tone is there.

But we have stood at “the edge of a new consciousness” before, have we not? In fact, this may be one of American’s most enduring story lines. Depart the tainted old and past; embrace the new and promising.

An argument can be made that the real story is another one altogether. That instead of being on the edge of a new awakening we are in the midst of a serious cultural decline. The crass and the crude, the slogan-loving, and the dumbed-down transcend the usual left/right, red/blue, liberal/conservative polarities. Perhaps we aren’t sloughing off outdated and corrupt forms so much as losing values and a cultural ethos that gave religion in America some depth and marked and made American civilization in any real way civilized. 

If you go: Diana Butler Bass, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Friday March 16 at 7 pm, 1521 Tenth Avenue.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.