Monday, June 11, 2012

Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening?

In these days after Pentecost, we might find our thoughts turning towards the future of the Church.  On Pentecost, we may think, it all started so well, with such enthusiasm--what's happened?

Well, if we're part of mainline Protestant religions we might.  We might find ourselves despairing over how many people claim that they're spiritual but not religious.  What does that mean?  That they enjoy yoga classes?  That they go to both a Hindu temple and an Episcopal church?  That they pray to an unknown divinity?  Are we talking to Buddhitarians?  Some other amalgamation? 

Of course, the meaning of that phrase, "spiritual but not religious," has as many meanings as there are humans.  What's a poor Protestant to do?

Diana Butler Bass has spent at least a decade thinking about these issues and offering comfort to those of us still going to church.  Her new book, Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, may be more discomfiting than previous books have been, but in the end, I found it hopeful.

Bass does a great job in outlining spiritual awakenings throughout past cycles as she seeks to establish that we're in the middle of another Great Awakening.  She points out that some of the backlash we're experiencing is completely normal:  "Awakenings can be slowed by fear, but if enough people experience, understand, and practice a new way of the spirit, they cannot be stopped" (page 236).  On my good days, I cheer.  On my bad days, I worry that we don't have enough people experiencing, understanding, and practicing a new way of the spirit.

She devotes the middle part of the book to talking about believing, behaving, and belonging.  She says that the Great Awakening that we're experiencing now is about "reclaiming a faith where belief is not quite the same thing as an answer, where behavior is not following a list of dos and don'ts, and where belonging to Christian community is less like joining an exclusive club and more of a relationship with God and others" (page 99).  And then she goes on to talk about what she sees going on around her and around the world.

She says, "Accordingly, Christianity is moving from being a religion about God to being an experience of God" (page 110).  She notes that this new Awakening will be less Creed-based and more behavior based.  Like many modern theologians, she posits that we come to our beliefs by behaving our way towards where/who we want to be.

She talks about some of the issues bedeviling the modern Church, quoting one of her Facebook correspondents:  "Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?" (page 121).  She points out that believers and atheists alike are often asking the wrong questions:  "'Do you trust in the resurrection?' is a much harder question than 'Do you believe that Jesus was historically and scientifically raised from the dead?'"

She also talks about some of the practices that people are exploring and concludes:  "Practices are not merely spiritual activities we do to entertain ourselves.  Practices enliven and awaken us to the work of God in the world" (page 160). 

This book may frustrate those who came to it looking for ways to appeal to the unchurched.  This book may frustrate those who are used to spiritual books that give a specific program (often in a number of steps) for us all to follow. 

Near the end, she offers this nugget:  "There is no specific technique that can be employed, no set program to follow to start a great awakening.  If you want it to happen, you just have to do it.  You have to perform its wisdom, live into its hope, and 'act as if' the awakening is fully realized.  And you have to do it with others in actions of mutual creation" (page 263).  Again and again, she reminds us that we are not alone and encourages us to get out in the world to find like-minded people.

Now those readers who are longing for a time when everyone went to church, those readers may not find this book as inspiring as I did.  But for those of us who want reassurance that a Great Awakening may be underway and that it may lead us to a better place than we thought possible--this is a book to keep close beside you.

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