“Maybe one of the things that churches need to do is stop looking at themselves, and go outside the doors of the church and find God there. There are other things we really need to attend to. If there is no world, there will not be a church.” – Diana Butler Bass, author, Grounded: Finding God in the World
Where is God? It’s a question humans have been asking throughout the ages. In her highly anticipated new book Grounded: Finding God in the World, Diana Butler Bass explores the particular way this question is being answered now, in our time, and in doing so, reveals that in fact, nothing short of a spiritual revolution is afoot. And the even bigger surprise, perhaps, is that this revolution is happening not within the walls of the church, but outside of them, in nature, in neighborhoods, in the home, and in the global commons. Where is God? Right here, Butler Bass says, in the dirt, in the water, in the air we breathe, and in the face of our neighbors. And this makes a world of difference in how we live as people of faith.
In writing about this new territory for God, Butler Bass, a popular speaker and author of nine books on religion, brings her trademark tools of sociology, history, and theology to the task, but adds to them some less-worn but equally welcome trowels of a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s heart. In Grounded, Butler Bass convincingly plants us and God squarely in the soil of this world, and gently invites us to get up out of the pews and take a long, meandering walk outside, where more and more people are finding and experiencing God.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Diana this week about her new book and the profound shift she’s documenting in the idea of a God grounded in the world.
You say in Grounded that the biggest religious story of our time — the decline of Western religion — is not actually the most important, or the most significant, story happening right now. What’s the bigger story about religion we’re missing?
I’ve been writing about “the decline” for the last ten years and making the argument that it’s really about a shift or a transformation, and that religious institutions will have to adjust to this change to make it in the future. I’ve talked about it so much and kept wondering, why don’t people seem to be getting it? And then about four years ago, it started to dawn on me that it really isn’t about institutions or the church. It’s about the way in which we understand and experience God. That’s what the church fundamentally is — a community where God is experienced. And I kept thinking about my own church experience and what was missing there, because I felt like there was some gap between what the church was offering and where my soul was going.
And as I began to explore that gap, I realized that the church – even great, wonderful, progressive, vibrant churches — were still proclaiming the idea that God was in Heaven and that the primary reason for going to church was about me getting saved. When you talk about that with progressives, it means us doing God’s work here on earth and serving the poor and doing great social justice work, but ultimately it was still about a distant God who was far away from us, who asked us to do things, and if we did them, then everything would be great. And the moment I realized that this was really the God being proclaimed in the church, I thought, I just don’t believe in that God anymore.
That’s the fundamental realization I’ve come to in the last couple of years. We don’t really have a problem with institutions or with churches, we have a problem about God. Our institutions are still locating God in the very same place they did 500 years ago, in a far away heavenly realm. So I began to say, what if God wasn’t really so far away? What if we took the Incarnation really, really, really seriously? And what if that means that God’s body is really here? When I got to that internal spiritual switch, it was almost as if an entirely new spiritual path opened up for me. And that became the narrative of Grounded. It’s going out into the world and trying to find that God.
So what did you find when you went looking for God in the world?
That’s a funny question because I mostly found that if I keep my eyes and ears and heart open, God shows up in the most unexpected ways. I found that I always need to keep looking. It is a never-ending quest to encounter God. I think this has always been my spiritual disposition, a kind of almost insatiable curiosity for what is sacred, to connect deeply with the world around me. But to the point of the book, I discerned that people were finding God in two primary places — in nature and through their neighbors, in creation and community. And I realized that was where I was finding God, too.
You call what’s happening now a spiritual revolution. But is this really something new? Haven’t we human beings always been looking for God?
Yes, we always look for God. I think the difference in the searches people have been on for God in the past versus what’s happening now, is that we always used to look outside of ourselves for God. God was far away. The vast majority of people who were born into western Christianity and know it as their their primary tradition remember asking as a little kid, “Mommy, where’s God?” And Mom turned around and said, “God’s in heaven.” Western theology has been almost completely taken by this idea of a distant God. The change we’re going through right now is a questioning of if that is really where God is. Instead of looking so far away, to an unknown realm that we can’t even experience in any significant way, lots of people are now looking immediately around themselves, and saying, look at this! God is in my garden! Who knew God cared about tomatoes? Or, God is in the air I breathe, or in the face of my neighbor.
The direction in which we are looking for God has really shifted. And that to me is incredibly exciting. I think a lot of people know this change from that distant, vertical God who lives in the heavens and who is either a “Father” or “King” or “Judge” or “Master” – there’s a lot of scary language to describe that God! When you hear people talk about God now, they’re much more likely to use the language of “love,” or “presence,” or “friend,” or “companion.” It’s not about a King, or a Lord or a Master. It’s now usually about the one who is with me. That’s happening to lots of us. And sometime our churches or institutions aren’t giving us permission to pursue that God.
Right! Many churches or pastors would say, “That’s not who God is!” But you make a solid case in your book that this idea of finding God in the world – in the dirt, in the water, in the sky — is very biblical. This isn’t just us creating a God on our terms for our own time, but it’s a God who comes very much out of the Christian tradition.
Yeah, I knew a lot of people would say, “That’s not the God of the Bible!” So I kept going back to scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I started re-reading these very familiar passages. And when I read them, not through the lens of a distant God, but with the lens of a God who was close, it was actually shocking to me how different those passages sounded and yet how beautiful they are.
For instance, in the passage about the woman at the well, Jesus says “I am the living water.” And you look at that and say, Jesus just called himself water! Now a lot of people would say that’s just a metaphor, but those very same people say you have to take the bible literally! I actually point out in the book that this whole encounter with Jesus and the Woman at the Well is very thin metaphorical territory. You can’t really tell the difference between metaphor and icon, when Jesus is really pointing out something that is true about God or himself and or about the nature of the universe. You know, we’ve always assumed this story has meant X, but maybe if you read it with this different perspective, it might mean Y.
How does this “God in the world,” this grounded God, look different from the God you grew up with?
That’s a great question. Many of us, especially those born in the mid to late 20th century, are still haunted by a vision of hell as a literal place. So the first thing for me is that that layer of hell as a physical place below us, except as an emotional memory, that has disappeared for me.
Last week I preached a sermon in Portland, and the text was on if your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off, and how Hell is this sea of unquenchable fire. And so here I was, I’d just written this book called Grounded, and that was the text! So, I went into it saying, how can this text be re-interpreted by the idea of a God who is with us right here? And I managed to re-interpret that text by switching the focus in the story from Hell to an earlier line in the story that says: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” The idea that we have this human family of people who are very different, but we don’t have to be against one other. And if we choose to be in relationship with each other, if we choose the neighborly path, then, even with those differences, who is not against us, is for us. So this whole text is about peacemaking.
So that for me is part of the change. This is not a God primarily interested in punishment or conversely, reward, but this is a God who is interested in how we live now. It is so challenging to me. It’s a realization that is turning not only my spiritual life, but also my ethical and moral choices, inside out and I’m personally on a path of re-imagining my entire understanding of what it means for me to be a Christian person.
You refer in your book to God and the world and us as a “divine ecosystem.” What do you mean by that?
We live in a spiritual environment. I started talking about this as a result of my book Christianity After Religion. I was giving talks about it, and about how all congregations live within a spiritual environment. Over the last few years, I’ve begun to introduce environmental language into my spirituality and theology. And I began to think about how we do live in a spiritual ecology of the Divine presence – God is with us here, in the web of life — not not beyond it — and we live here, and the rest of nature is here, this whole amazing system of the world, and this planet we inhabit, its all interrelated. The environmental language and the language of the web from technology has conspired to create a new spiritual language for us and it’s been very powerful to me.
It was interesting to see that Pope Francis uses this language too – he talks about this shared environment and a spiritual ecosystem. I was really surprised to see it in Laudato Si right as my book was going to press! So, I’m not entirely crazy … the Pope see it too! But of course, a lot of people are seeing it. I just felt called to use it as the primary lens for writing this book.
Given such a divine ecosystem, what is our responsibility as Christians around climate change? And why should we, specifically as Christians, care about this issue?
One of my hopes with this book is that people from both the Jewish and Christian tradition will understand that the world that’s around us, the ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the water we drink, are not just resources to be used for our choice, but they are also the containers – the location – of the sacred presence of God. There is an incredible holiness to these things we’ve been treating as objects.
If people can pay attention and just be mindful to the presence of wonder that is in the soil and garden, maybe we can stop and say, hey, soil erosion is a bad thing, and I need to stop and think about how climate change is affecting this. My hope is that if we understand that God is with all these things, then we will treat them better.
You know, it’s very hard to motivate people to save this beautiful planet, because the job seems so big, and we wonder what can we do, and then we get hopeless, and then perhaps we give up. So what I’m trying to do is help people see the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is about our souls as well as just maybe liberal activism. There is something that is profoundly and deeply humane, and human, and wonderful, and full of awe in participating in what needs to be the biggest, most proactive social movement of our time, and that is engaging the question, what are we going to do about the environment?
This new book is a bit of a departure for you from your past books. It feels more spiritual memoir to me, more personal. How does this book differ from your others?
In Grounded, I shift the balance back from my last few books and use a lot more personal story and a lot less sociology. You can only draw out of one tool kit so long before you have to stretch yourself and say, where am I being called vocationally? I kept feeling this tug to release what I keep referring to as my “inner Annie Dillard.” She’s always been there inside of me. The thing I borrow from her, I hope, besides trying to develop myself in a deeper literary style, is that she has this incredibly close observation of the world around her. She always employed it toward the natural world. What I try to do in Grounded is take that same intimate observational eye and employ it to the world around me, which includes both nature and also my neighbor. I use that same Annie Dillard close-in lens about the world that I experience and then I tried to turn that experience around and present it in a way that’s poetic. I think of it as what I would call “experiential theology.” I’m not writing about God. I’m trying to invite people to know God, through the literary and observational lens that I present.
It was incredibly purposeful for me to walk away from “Diana, the Church Fix-It Lady” and “Diana the sociologist” — not to kill them, because that’s part of who I am and I love that stuff — but what I’ve always dreamed of being, is really truly “Diana, the Poet.” I’m in my mid-50s and this is the moment to follow that passion. I was really inspired by several of my friends who were in their 70s this year who got sick and passed away. And those friends, who were also writers, said to me, you just have to say what’s in your heart. So that’s what I decided to do. Instead of writing the book people expected, I had to write the book that was growing out of my heart.
Your last chapter is titled “A Note to the Church.” You’ve been such an advocate of the church, and you are always so pastoral in your books and talks. What do you want the Church – this institution you grew up in and still care for – to hear and to know about what is happening and what the future holds?
You’re right, that last chapter was an attempt to be pastoral to my friends! We didn’t want the people that have followed my work to think I’d abandoned them. And I don’t think I’ve abandoned them; but I’m asking them to see more widely. I’ve been in ten thousand conversations in the last decade about the church, and I need to be in conversations about the world.
So the last chapter is a plea to my friends that we really need to have a different conversation, and maybe one of the things that churches have to do is stop looking at themselves and go outside the doors of the church and find God there. And maybe if we just stop concentrating on ourselves, things will get better. There are other things we really need to attend to. If there is no world, there will not be a church. We’ve talked about saving the church every which way we can think about and maybe it’s time to put that conversation to rest, and attend to saving the world, and trust that the other thing’s going to happen.
So I really want to change the conversation, and I also want to see this new conversation about God. Part of what I think has caused the decline in Christianity, at least in the Protestant world, is that we’re still talking about God as if it’s a hundred years ago, if not further ago than that. We’re talking about holy things in categories that don’t take into account quantum physics, climate change, religious pluralism, changes around family and sexuality. We’re not understanding at some really deep level in our soul that all of those things have changed the way people experience and apprehend God. So, it’s not just the issues we need to address; but the world has profoundly changed. And when that happens, that means that the same old God won’t do. We need an entirely new kind of theological language, expressed through our liturgies, and our songs, and our prayers. A language that honors what we’ve had and what we’ve done, but that also make space for a new experience of God.
And that’s a good thing. That’s what theology has always done. Theology is always taking into account the experience of God’s people in a given time, and we haven’t really done that very seriously in the late 20th and early 21st Century. We haven’t done that, and it needs to happen.