Ellenism August 9, 2012

Robert Bellah, in his very well-known Habits of the Heart, opened up a can of church and religion worms when he showed that the evidence pointed us in the direction of increasing individualism and the lack of interest on the part of Americans to participate in community. In his sketch of religious individualism, he created “Sheila” and her creating of her own religion as “Sheilaism.”

Diana Butler Bass, though she wants to emphasize that Ellen is not Sheila, has given us a slightly new version of Sheila in her story of Ellen. Diana’s book is called Christianity After Religion, and Diana is excited about the prospect of the end of religion and the awakening of something new.

Bared to the bone, Diana’s project is that what was thought to be a revival and renewal of the church in the 1960s, and therefore a better Christianity, has turned out to be something entirely different. What is emerging is a spirituality after religion, and by “religion” she means institutionalized Christianity.

The numbers she pushes are the numbers of declining church membership and attendance, and she contends this is not just the case with the mainline but with evangelical and conservative churches. While the numbers of the latter were often touted to point to the bankruptcy of the mainline, the numbers of Americans participating now in conservative churches are on the decline. (If anyone knows I’d like to know why Diana and others are not also using the Baylor Study of Religion, or studies like those of Bradley Wright or Christian Smith, where those numbers — if I understand them aright — are not pointing to decline as much as holding their own.)

Yes, I would agree with Diana in this: in the last generation there are notable shifts, and I would call it a bricolage approach to one’s faith. In other words, Sheilaism is accurate: more and more people are forming their own faith. Ellenism is a form of Sheilaism; Ellenism takes Sheilaism into non-institutional, anti-institutional forms without minimizing one’s religious affection.

Diana’s argument is the argument that Bonhoeffer and Harvey Cox were onto something when they spoke of both religionless Christianity (which Diana needs to define very carefully since Bonhoeffer is on the rise and this expression of his capable of horrendous miscommunications) and the secular city or the death of God and religion. She thinks we are at the end of an era and  on the cusp of a religious awakening and here’s how she describes what is awakening:

This transformation is what some hope be a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and oppression.

In other words, what is awakening is a form of the liberation gospel. People are angry and bored and are pursuing something new. They are fed up with institutional hypocrisy. Ellen, Diana observes, “has, in effect, become pastor, theologian, moral authority, teacher, and spiritual director of her own postinstitutional church” (25). I simply can’t agree with Diana that Ellen is not Sheila; Ellen is Sheila twenty to thirty years later.

There is, she says, a Bear Market in religion.

There, also, the possibility of a Fourth Great Awakening. She thinks it will come through the mainline and through this widespread disaffection with the institutional church.

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