Christianity after Religion

I have been reading a book by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion: the End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. It was recommended to me (but I honestly cannot remember by whom). I was intrigued when I received it by a back cover blurb from Phyllis Tickle, “It is one blockbuster of an analysis that is also a delight to read.” Really? Did you actually read the book, Phyllis?

There is a lot of provocative thinking in this book, to be sure, but I would especially dispute the idea that it is a “delight to read.” It suffers not so much from poor writing as poor editing. Much of it is repetitive, and not in a reinforcing way. It is repetitive in the sense, “I don’t remember that I already wrote about that.” Particularly irritating (at least for me) is the ongoing reintroduction of authors who have already been introduced as if they are a new element to the book each time they are mentioned.

That said, there are many worthwhile things in this book. Its basic premise is that Christianity is moving from a “religion” to a “spirituality.” It is moving from institution to practitioners. It is moving from systematized doctrine to experiential practice. It is moving from “faith from the head” to “faith from the heart and hands.” Bass sees this as a new awakening, a fourth “Great Awakening” in the history of America.

Bass uses the paradigm of Believing, Behaving, Belonging to flesh out her argument. This is the order her analysis of 20th century American Christianity has produced. First, we believe a set of doctrines put forth by a particular church or denomination. Second, we change our lives to conform to these doctrines in the area of personal behavior. Third, we are accepted as part of the community. Bass sees the new spirituality-based Christianity of the 21st century as reversing this paradigm. We begin by belonging, identifying with a faith community based on personal relationships. Second, we behave, although Bass’s understanding of this is far removed from the earlier understanding. She means that we begin to fit in with this community in our lifestyle. However, in the new paradigm, this may be because we have found a faith community that matches our current lifestyle rather than any sense of transformation. Third, we believe; we incorporate the general beliefs of our identified faith community into our lives, largely on a experiential and activist basis.

It was interesting for me to notice that Bass seems to be unaware of Robert Webber’s insightful analysis of the church using these same three terms, but in a different order. Webber believed the pattern for the 20th century church was Behave, Believe Belong. He advocated that the new pattern should be Belong, Believe, Behave. I think all these paradigms are flawed by unnecessary sequentialism. Why can’t believing, behaving, and belonging all happen simultaneously? That seems to me to be more like the pattern that Jesus taught.

So in the end, faith is action for Bass. On this point, I agree. Alexander Campbell himself taught that doctrine is what you can live. Doctrine that has no impact on how we live is of dubious value. But while it may seem that Bass and I are on the same wavelength here, that is not the case. She is for a Christianity without religion, and this means (at least in part) a faith freed from propositional truth and biblical literalism. I think we have sometimes overemphasized propositional faith and a literal reading of the Bible, but let’s not overreact. I am sure that if I could have an hour to converse with Bass about these things, she would come away thinking I am a teacher of propositional truth/faith and a biblical literalist.

Can’t we have both? Can’t we have a rich heritage of doctrine based on the Bible along with an active life of righteous works and justice? Do we really have to choose? I am no fan of a systematic theological approach to issues when it devolves into “necessary inferences” (speculative theology). But I believe the Bible is true and reveals God’s will for humankind in issues of salvation and in questions of “How Shall We Then Live.

BTW: Bass makes reference to a video based on a poem written by Jonathan Reed entitled “Lost Generation.” If you would like to hear this in a YouTube version, follow this link.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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