The Future of Faith: An Interview With Diana Butler Bass

The biggest religion story this past summer was the news that the institutions of Christendom are officially dying. For those who follow such things, the data isn’t all that new. It’s been coming in, from some streams of Christendom at least, for over thirty years. If you count heads, butts, or dollars, Christianity in America doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Which is, in part, why The Everyday Awakening exists. Because everywhere I go, I hear stories of hope about the way people’s lives are being transformed as they dive into community with others, practicing their faith in the peculiar way of Jesus. Especially over the past few years, I’ve witnessed another Great Awakening stirring in our land—only this one’s not happening under the Big Top. It’s stirring in the thousands of local places where you and I live.

No one gets this better than Diana Butler Bass. For over a decade, she has covered renewal in Mainline churches as both a religious historian and a popular journalist. What’s more, Diana is a participant in the awakening she writes about, honestly wrestling with the good and the bad in the traditions she’s inherited and faithfully seeking a way forward not only for herself, but for a generation of spiritual seekers. Diana’s newest book, Christianity After Religion (HarperOne 2012), has already been widely celebrated. I was glad to have a chance this week to connect with Diana and talk a bit about what it has to say to those of us trying to live into the everyday awakening.

First of all, Diana, let me thank you for Christianity After Religion. It seems to me that you have your finger on the religious pulse of our culture at the moment. I wonder what sort of response you’ve gotten since the book came out. Who’s writing to say, “Yes, this is exactly what I’ve been feeling.” Who seems scared by the sort of awakening you’ve described?

The breadth of response has been fascinating—I’ve gotten the “yes, this is exactly what I’ve been feeling” from many who refer to themselves as “emergence” Christians, mainliners who have been longing for this sort of change for more than 30 years, people who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious, neo-monastics (like yourself!) and real-in-monastary monks and nuns, Jewish rabbis and theologians, Muslim friends, folks in the Roman Catholic diaspora, liberal Baptists, peace church people (especially Quakers), and a good number of people who are part of alternative spiritual traditions. One day, I received three emails within a few hours—one from a retired Episcopal priest saying he’d been waiting for this book his whole life, another from a member of the Unification Church in Sweden who told me that he’d never read a book by a Christian where he felt so welcomed, and a third from a Jewish theologian who wanted me to speak with his rabbinical students.  I’ve never written anything with such a warm range of responses. And I feel deeply grateful that I’m making new friends as a result. Indeed, the thesis is, in part, that there is a new inter-religious awakening happening all over the world. My correspondence underscores the truth of that observation.

That said, there are nay-sayers, too. Most of the less-than-friendly notes and blogs come from folks whom I might call the “guardians of institutions.”  A lot of people fear religious experience and think it dangerous, thinking that what is needed today is more religious order, a new commitment to dogma, and more institutional authority. And I have always gotten a steady stream of criticism from social, theological, and political conservatives. That has not stopped. I can’t say that they are fans of this book or the awakening I describe therein.

One of your gifts, it seems to me, is that you engage the present more than most historians while also maintaining a scholarly appreciation for  all the forces at work in history, even those that animate your  detractors. In other words, you have enough of a “position” that you receive the steady stream of criticism you’ve described. Yet you’re able to name how even the conservative backlash to the progressive movements of the 60s and 70s has led to our current awakening. This seems to me a deeply gospel truth: we love our enemies because we cannot be saved without them. So what have you learned from political conservatives and institutional guardians over the past 20 years? And what might we all learn from those movements today that are largely motivated by the desire to protect and defend?

I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question before.  In many cases, I’ve learned from “enemies” how NOT to behave in the world. Indeed, a dear friend, who once watched as I was struggling with an institutional crisis, said to me, “Diana, the point of this is to teach you how to be a leader. You now know how to listen because no one has listened to you; you now know how to respect others because you haven’t been respected; you now know the importance of the outsider because you have been cast out.” I hadn’t thought of that until he underscored this for me–I realized how often we take negative experiences and return evil for evil. That’s a primary problem in our political life and global relations–not to mention the life of denominations and congregations. But Christians should be able to break that cycle—and turn even the most painful experiences and worst criticism into a life of learning how to do better, how to forgive, how to love more. Understanding, listening, discernment are the basic practices in living a life of forgiveness—and when one is hurt, those practices are often blocked by fear.  But the more you do them, the more habitual they become. And it becomes easier to learn from everything from mere differences of opinion to verbally violent attacks.

That’s what I’ve learned personally. As a church, I hope we can learn defensive-less-ness. Jesus was not one who was much interested in protecting or defending. Jesus was about loving and laying aside. Movements that are about “protect and defend” are far outside the Gospel narrative, outside the witness of Jesus.  They aren’t Christian. We need to understand the fears that motivate such movements and the people attracted to them. But we must be equally clear that there is another way–and we must always, always, always stand as communities of conviction based in love.

Since finishing your book, I’ve described to several people the “flip” you’ve observed from a faith that believed, then practiced, then belonged to a faith that belongs, then practices, then believes. It’s a wonderfully vivid way of summing up what I’ve sensed working with young people who are drawn to Christian community. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to think about how we talk about Christian doctrine in this new setting–how it can root and ground people in their community and its practice. I wonder, are there new forms of teaching and preaching you’ve seen that seem to do this well?

Jonathan, this makes me laugh—because it always seems like we’re thinking of the same things! That is one of the most important questions that my book leaves to the imagination, mostly because we are experimenting with the “flip” as the new shape of community.  I’m not entirely sure what preaching and teaching look like in their entirety, but I am sure that western, post-Christian theology needs to be a grassroots enterprise, a communal activity guided by experience as much as tradition, reason, and scripture. For insight, I often refer to the Latin American base communities of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as to African Bible study approaches as models of experiential theology and doctrinal exploration.  Indeed, in the 1740s, during the First Great Awakening, John Wesley and his communities got this right in an early Industrial context—their ability to read scripture and make theology from bottom up inspired a couple generations of women and slaves toward a new, powerful expression of Christian liberation and justice.  So, although the idea of starting theology in community and practice—and in the experience of transformed lives—is a bit hazy in the west right now, there are terrific examples of how to do this in non-western contexts and in the very history of the western church.  I call this sort of theology the “minority report” of our traditions. Too often, experiential, awakened faith (and the theological insights it births) have been covered up or obscured by institutional control.  But the “minority report” is an important dimension of Christian (and other religions as well) and is in need of recovery right now.

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  • Matthew

    Thanks so much Jonathan. After reading the post, I thought to myself — if theological constructs come either from the top down (institutional authority to community) or bottom up (community engagement to individual people), will the end product be the same — or should it even be the same?

  • spabbygirl

    What a great interview about a great book! I wasn’t bought up any sort of Christian but at the age of 29 (20 odd years ago) whilst studying social work at University I felt drawn to Catholicism and Christianity. I love all the ritual & contemplation. There was a nun on my course & we made great friends & I was finally christened & confirmed in the Catholic faith. My friend went back to her convent at the end of the course, I moved hundreds of miles away from my friends with my children as a single mum. From then on practicing my faith became difficult, not because of lack of committment but because of lack of welcome into new Catholic churches as a single mum. I always felt an outsider because I didn’t know all the rituals properly. Eventually a school friend’s mum suggested I try their local, very lively, Baptist church. I did and now have a thriving group of Christian friends and am very active in local Christian life. Its sad that I felt I had to change church to feel welcomed into the community and in some ways I feel I’ve dipped out, if I was still an active Catholic maybe I could change things, but the truth is I feel more comfortable elsewhere.
    Thanks for a great interview & great vision.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Your story reminds me of an image from another of Diana’s very good books, A People’s History of Christianity. She ends that book with the image of many tributaries whose waters are overflowing their banks, spilling into the other streams and forming one great river. Maybe that’s what’s happening to you–you’ve not left the Catholic church, but rather been caught up in the Baptist stream as a Catholic, moving forward with God’s Movement. Blessings, jwh

  • LogicGuru

    This is so, so, depressing. I suppose I should be glad that I got in on the world before organized religion pooped out altogether. Jeez, I’m not a conservative. I’m not interested in authority or the promulgation and enforcement of dogma. I just love churchiness–the buildings and their furnishings, the rituals, the art and music–for me, that’s the only way I can get religious experience. Can’t meditate, I’m too antsy. I find it boring and irritating. I like rituals and buildings. How can this be maintained without “organized religion”? That seems to me to be the whole purpose of “organized religion”: to maintain the facilities and do the ceremonies. Of course we believe what we please and behave as we will. But organized religion will die, and the buildings will be sold off or razed, and the rituals will disappear and we will all be the poorer for it, because then a source of intense, pleasurable experience, mystical experience, will cease to be available.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      I don’t think the end of Christendom is the end of ritual, tradition, and “organized religion.” Neither does Diana. What her research on thriving congregations has found is that they’re re-engaging with tradition in innovative ways. The good news is that the institutions will themselves be reformed by this great transition. It’s happened every time–for every reformation, a counter reformation. Roman Catholocism didn’t go away 500 years ago. But it did change. And we all received the gifts of the Jesuits, the Carmelites, etc.

  • FOMResearch

    “During the time of the “Koreagate” scandal in 1976-1977, the Fraser Committee found that the National Intelligence Service of South Korea (KCIA), had, among other things, been using the Unification Church as a political tool in its various
    anti-communist activities. The KCIA’s general goal was to influence the domestic and foreign politics and policies of the United States. Eighty-one pages of the 447-page Fraser Report (pages 311-392) deals specifically with the Moon organization. The term “KCIA” occurs sixty-eight times within those eighty-one pages.” Source:

    Please also see:

  • len

    My wife and I both read “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and found much that resonates. We are charismatic evangelicals, with sacramental leanings, though theologically I am tracking closer to Stan Hauerwas. But it does seem time to find a new via media – which is really where the early Anabaptists lived eh? btw, you have spelled Diana’s name wrong in the header ;)

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks, Len. This blog needs a better editor ;-)

      An Anabaptist, charismatic evangelical w/ sacramental leanings? Sounds like ya’ll are right up my alley.

  • Sam Hamilton

    Every time I read one of these blog posts about how Christians need to get away from “religion” and “institutions” or lauding people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” I’m left with the same feeling – one of confusion about whether they’ve actually thought through what they’re advocating.

    We either have a choice: to be followers of Jesus or not to follow him. If we choose to follow him, we have become religious. Our religion is Jesus. We’re Christians. And as Christians, we’re called to be in community with other Christians, and thus we have institutions. If we want to do the work of Jesus, we’re always going to need buildings, leaders, money, etc. Human society does not exist without institutions.

    What I’m sure people really mean is not ditching religion altogether or institutions altogether, but particular dogma they don’t agree with or institutions that they don’t like. I just wish they’d be more honest about this rather than trying to use what seem to me to be coded phrases that have polled well with the non-Christians to whom they’re trying to make our faith more attractive.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      I agree with your point about the need for institutions, Sam. But I don’t think this is simply an attempt to make Christianity “relevant” or “attractive” to its cultured despisers (to use Schleiermacher’s term). Institutions that are vibrant change, and I think this is a conversation about how forms of faith are changing while the God who never changes loves us just the same.

      • Sam Hamilton

        Thanks for your response. I agree with you about vibrancy and being willing to change. Perhaps the people that Diana writes about need to use words like “flexible institutions” or “less dogmatic religion” rather than simply criticize “institutions” and “religion” as inherently bad. Because the way they talk, it comes across as if they’re saying “I’ve ditched the institution/religion, I’m more progressive or advanced than you who still cling to it” when in actuality they’ve just established a different form of institution and actually still have their religion, because they continue to follow Jesus.

  • Deborah Arca

    Jonathan – editor to the rescue; we corrected the misspelling about a week ago … before we placed this great interview on our home page at Patheos! Thanks for sharing this inspiring interview with us!