More than Believing

In her book Christianity after Religion Diana Butler Bass tells a story of sitting at a graduation listening to a strong-minded evangelical claim that someday everyone would bow before Jesus as the Lord because Jesus, like Caesar, was indeed Lord. Diana tells us the event was momentous for her and she fell into the “belief gap,” which I take to be a condition of ironic faith: she’s a Christian but traditional Christian beliefs are held at some distance.

Her alternative is to see faith, not as belief that something is true but belief as living.

What do you think of her distinction between “What” and “How” in believing?

Her chp routinely expresses the dismay of many about traditional Christian doctrines and the creed. “Masses of people now reject belief” (108). “Masses” is fuzzy enough to be neither wrong nor demonstrable. Her reading of Christian history is that of Harvey Cox, in his recent book The Future of Faith that sees three periods in church history: Age of Faith (until c. 400 CE) is marked by faith in Jesus and the creeds; the Age of Belief (c. 1900 CE) is marked by creeds; and the Age of the Spirit is marked not by faith in Jesus or about Jesus but experience of Jesus. It is “nondogmatic, noninstitutional, and non-hierarchical Christianity” (109). This is flat-out colonizing by liberal progressive Christianity of the history of the church. There is plenty of creedal faith prior to Nicea; plenty of spirited faith throughout the church; and there is plenty of Belief in the modern age — in fact, it’s all over the place today. The problem is exaggeration; there is afoot today what Cox calls the Age of the Spirit, Ellenism (earlier post on this book), and the SBNR type (spiritual but not religious). My contention last post and this one is numbers.

Diana is prone to see all of this leading to a new day and that “Christianity is moving from a religion about God to being an experience of God” (110), and I see this as a false dichotomy: plenty are creedal and full of religious affections, not unlike Jonathan Edwards (she used Edwards more on her side of the ledger of this debate, that surprised me). But her “about” to “of” God stuff makes me wonder what makes an experience of God distinctly Christian.

Diana sees the Religious Question to be What do I believe? And this is creedal, and religious, and dogmatic, and institutional.

The What question is giving way to the How questions. They are two-fold: How do I believe? (hands-on deeper and experiential) and Who do I believe? (those with whom one has a relationship and those in whom one finds authenticity).

Then she relies on Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s distinction between belief and trust, and argues true belief is experiential trust.  I would take issue in this section with her history, which seems intent on showing Cox’s groupings. This kind of faith is both spiritual and religious. She believes the Creed came hundreds of years later but to me it is quite clear that the Creed (Nicea, Apostles’, etc) emerged on the basis of a long history of creedal expressions, especially found in baptismal liturgies — so creedal Christianity is very early and there are already creeds at work in the NT.

The Creed is then revisited here: the issue is not do I believe that Jesus was raised but “Do I trust in the resurrection?” (129).

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  • Grant Walsh


    I am currently reading the book and it has been interesting so far. If Bass (and Cox) are off on some of their views about the shifts in Christianity, then what exactly IS happening? Do you agree with her contention that we are in the midst of another Great Awakening? If so, what is the emphasis of it? It seems in many ways that we are embarking in a new “age”, but its hard to know exactly what is happening. Because if you ask the GC or the New Reformers, they would contend that there is a huge momentum shift to more “orthodox” (for lack of a better word) faith. But, if you ask someone like me and my “tribe”, who have been influenced by NT Wright, you, Claiborne, Chan, etc., it would be a completely different idea of the shift.

    Either way (or maybe both ways), something big seems to be happening. And what role (good, bad, or indifferent) is postmodernism playing? Thoughts? Thanks!

  • scotmcknight

    Grant, for me the new age is the age of the internet’s dissemination of information. The numbers do not support all that much, but we sure know about stuff — new trends like new monastics and emerging and Gospel Coalition — that previously would have been harder to assess. I don’t believe evidence supports a new awakening, nor do I think Cox’s categories work.

  • Gary Lyn

    I would have to agree that it is somewhat of a false dichotomy as well. And yet, I do think that there are people who, for whatever reason (theological stance, personality, temperament…it could be a lot of things I guess) have a preference, if you will, for one or the other. Belief or experience: One feels more primary, or basic, than the other. I would say I am one who senses experience to be more primary.
    But here is where I have a problem with Diana, and many others. Having a preference for experience can often loosen the moorings to the Christian faith, and experience of God becomes a very personal or private thing. But there is a long, long tradition of Christian spirituality that remains connected to traditional beliefs. Not defined by them fully or restricted by them, but it is clear that the spiritual practice is a Christian one. Because it is grounded in experience of a living Christ and the God revealed by Christ.
    So yes, it is a dichotomy but I don’t want to land on one side or the other. Perhaps i begin from one of them, but hopefully don’t stay there.

  • Scot:

    While I also disagree with her (and does she address the developing world and the explosion of charismatic forms of Christianity?) I also think the kind of faith she describes exists and can be a step toward a bigger faith.

    Heschel talks about three ways humans approach God: worship, learning, action. Worship is seeing beyond the grandeur of the universe the greater grandeur of God and praising God with the universe. Learning is receiving the scriptures and exercising the wisdom and liberating truth in them. The third, action, seems to be more what Bass describes as the “new era faith.” It is repairing the world with God.

    I think some people will accept the idea of repairing the world and hope there is a God who empowers this process. It is a kind of faith and can lead to more.

    In other words, to people disillusioned with church and synagogue, I think it is a good thing to say, “Live as if God is real in spite of your doubt; serve people as if God is watching; and perhaps in lovingkindness you will see God.”

  • Alan K

    Is there any theology in this book? Or is it governed by social science?

  • Paul D.

    I found myself debating with DBB in the margins throughout the book — and I rarely write in my books — mainly about her re-visionist history, maddening assumptions and false dichotomies.
    The one positive element I found was the distinction between faith as opinionar vs. fides — but the Pietists said it and have lived it much better. (Of course Pietism is also subject to the criticism of subjectivizing faith.) I find hope for renewal as modelled in the missional Pietism of the ECC and similar expressions.

  • donsands

    “…plenty are creedal and full of religious affections,…”

    Amen and amen.

    I love to hear the truth from the Holy Scriptures, both OT and NT. It’s the Bible that is God’s greatest gift to us in this age. If I was persecuted some day, and left in a prison with only water and some bread for many years to live on, I could surely pray, and my Savior, through the Holy Ghost would be with me, and help me know His love, and feel his grace.
    But oh how I would miss His Word to read and ponder, as I do now daily.

    I have great love for Christ my God and Friend, and I love His Word as well. For He is the Word, isn’t He. He is a Man in heaven at this very moment ruling the universe, where nothig can dethrone Him, yet He is also the divine Lord of all; Lord of life itself.

    Thanks for the good post.

    I shall pray for Diane to grow closer to Jesus in His Spirit and truth, and so worship the Father as well in Spirit and truth.

    Have a good holiday weekend!

  • Gary Lyn

    And so if Christ is the Word, and there are many levels of meaning to that, I would say that Jesus, not the Bible, is the greatest gift to us in this age. But then this speaks to some of the things that Diane is saying.

  • “I don’t believe evidence supports a new awakening, nor do I think Cox’s categories work.”

    Scot, the Internet is in its infancy – in historical time, it started its engine a half-second ago and hasn’t even backed out of the garage. Kinnaman shows that virtuality is already one of the key vehicles by which younger people are gathering the kind of data that is driving nearly 60% of them away from traditional / institutional religious models by age 17 ( . This (arguably massive) influence shift has only been happening for perhaps 10 years (pre-2000 was measurably inconsequential compared to what followed).

    Do we call this social shift a “new awakening?” I would. I think it’s similar to the kind of awakening that the printing press ushered in, except books took hundreds of years to gather the kind of real social mind-share that I suggest is happening today in one generation. Given the next 3-4 generations, and the kinds of “Singularity-class” changes coming to our global social fabric, I think “awakening” will be an understatement.

    Moving forward, I see creeds-beliefs-liturgies-evangelicalism being framed less in terms of propositional-membership identity and politics (I believe X – therefore I am Y) and more towards demonstrable-tangible-holistic-incarnational lives and action. Someone wrote, “I shall pray for Diane to grow closer to Jesus in His Spirit and truth, and so worship the Father as well in Spirit and truth.” I know I’ll take some flak, but this is an example of the kind of “mixed message” (to say it politely) that’s driving people away from old religious models. I see people “flocking” to tangible expressions of care, compassion, empathy, and unconditional love – love that is not a proxy for religious membership, propositional purity, or tribal out-grouping.