Christianity after Religion: A Review

Diana Butler Bass. Christianity after Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 304 pages. Hardcover $15.98.

Joseph W.H. Lough

Imagine a world where, after millennia of religious, political, social, cultural, and economic conflict, men and women of many faiths or of no faith, whom we might describe as “spiritual” though not “religious,” in large numbers began to outwardly display qualities that sadly have all too often been absent among members of traditional religious institutions. Such “spiritual” men and women display “an unnoticed spiritual vibrancy . . . based around a serious engagement with faith practices such as prayer, hospitality, and enacting justice” (p. 15). They exhibit a Christianity (or Buddhism, or Judaism, or Islam) that is “nondogmatic, noninstitutional, and nonhierarchical” (p. 109). Among these men and women “external authorities do not carry the weight they once did” (p. 115), and “religious organizations, ordained leaders, and conventional creeds recede in importance” replaced by “direct friendship with God through prayer and discernment as means to spiritual understanding” (p. 116). In these communities “propositional truths about Christianity” have begun to be replaced by “prepositional truths of being found in God through Christ with others toward the kingdom” (p. 192). Now imagine that this world has already begun to emerge, that we today find ourselves in the middle of a global spiritual awakening of unprecedented proportions, and that it is no longer a question of whether or not we are in the midst of a Fourth Great Spiritual Awakening, far broader and more extensive than any of its predecessors; but whether we will “move with the Spirit instead of against it” and “participate in making our world more humane, just, and loving” (p. 269).

This, in short, is Diana Butler Bass’s thesis. Butler Bass earned her doctorate in religious studies from Duke University in 1991 studying under George Marsden, best known for his research on American Christian Fundamentalism. And, yet, it is clear from her work that at some point during or after her studies Butler Bass acquired a special aptitude for listening to parishioners and clergy in local churches where she now runs seminars, and an aptitude as well for distilling what she has learned into clear, crisp, compelling prose. “For the last dozen years, I have been studying what nurtures vital congregations and writing books about good churches” (p. 15). It is also clear that somewhere along the line she acquired a special appreciation for the value of survey research. “During the same dozen years in which I analyzed successful local religious communities, new surveys and polls pointed to an erosion of organized Christianity in nearly all its forms, with only ‘nondenominational’ churches showing a slight numerical increase” (p. 15). Christianity after Religion draws liberally from recent survey research.

But neither recent survey research nor the many hours Butler Bass has spent listening to parishioners and clergy over the past twelve years provide sufficient grounds for her principle claim that “the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being, to borrow a phrase, ‘born again’” (p. 5). In order to validate this claim, Butler Bass must develop a narrative covering not just decades, but centuries, comparing and contrasting the current spiritual awakening with its nineteenth, eighteenth, and seventeenth century antecedents, while taking special care to identify and isolate the “spiritual” motivation behind these awakenings from the social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances by which they might also have been accompanied.

Not surprisingly, Butler Bass is at her strongest when she is discussing the practices and concerns of contemporary parishioners and clergy. Thus, in what she presents as the heart of her study, Butler Bass treats us to a whirl-wind tour of women and men of faith who have reversed the traditional steps of membership in a religious community – believing, behaving, and belonging – and are replacing  them with the steps belonging, behaving, and believing. “And therein,” writes Butler Bass, “lies the difference between religion-as-institution and religio as a spiritually vital faith” (p. 204). Butler Bass is a master at identifying why some communities foster a sense of belonging, how members of these communities model behavior that is contagious, and how these behaviors grow out of the spiritual journeys that have always formed the heart and soul of vibrant faith – from Moses’ journey out of Egypt to the most recent journeys parishioners share out of addiction into freedom or out of loneliness into community.

Many readers will  identify positively with the generally triumphalist trajectory of Butler Bass’s  narrative  which, instead of focusing on the increasingly conservative, reactionary, and narrowly fundamentalist character of contemporary spirituality, invites us to view the history of the Christian Church since the Reformation as a series of ever broadening circles of spiritual awakening. Each successive circle gives rise to its own institutional and dogmatic constraints through which ultimately God’s Spirit breaks through, generating a circle of freedom and life broader and deeper than the preceding one. “Historians of American religion,” notes Butler Bass,” generally recognize three significant awakenings in the United States and Canada:”

the First Great Awakening, 1730– 60; the Second Great Awakening, 1800– 1830; and the Third Great Awakening, 1890– 1920. During each period, old patterns of religious life gave way to new ones and, eventually, spawned new forms of organizations and institutions that interwove with social, economic, and political change and revitalized national life (p. 29).

For Butler Bass, there is no question but that the directional dynamic visible in this series of ever broader, more encompassing, more liberating and emancipatory circles, has been generated by God’s Spirit and that the Fourth Spiritual Awakening through which we are currently passing fits a consistent pattern established in the first and repeated in each successive spiritual awakening. Thus, we are led to ascribe the unmistakable directional dynamic driving history ever since the Protestant Reformation to the movement of God’s Spirit.

Nevertheless, Butler Bass’s account of the Fourth Spiritual Awakening suffers from two serious weaknesses. The first weakness comes to light when she attempts to identify the mechanism or force driving this awakening. The second weakness concerns the historical frame she has selected for her story. The two are related.

It would be one thing if Butler Bass had advanced a strict socio-historical interpretation of the present spiritual awakening. In that case, Butler Bass would have supplemented her rich anecdotal evidence and survey research data with a social scientific model sufficiently robust to account for the changes she charts over time, principally from the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation to the most recent shifts in spiritual affections away from institutional religion toward less formal, occasional structures of spiritual and religious interaction. Such an approach might have shown how at its inception Protestantism was already inclined to pare back its institutional forms and simplify its dogmatic claims, not because these forms and claims had never satisfied the needs of the medieval soul, but because they were no longer adequate to the demands of the infinitely more flexible, streamlined, and demanding regimen of early capitalist society. Butler Bass could then have proceeded to show how and why the inherently revolutionary character of this new social form continued also to generate ever new spiritual forms that periodically cast off the institutional and dogmatic constraints imposed by their antecedents. She might then have gone on to explore the ways that episodic opposition to traditional institutional forms and historical expressions of faith fed off  the dynamism inherent within capitalism itself, which, in order to reproduce itself, had to continuously cast off its superficial, merely outward, exterior form, ineluctably born along by the new social form of capital. And this, in turn, might have allowed her to offer a more satisfying explanation for the repetitive, cyclical, character of church history since the Reformation; an explanation for why the body of religion – its built, institutional, physical, historical, immanent expression – which for the Church’s first 1300 years was entirely unproblematic suddenly becomes beginning with the Protestant Reformation the central problem of Christianity, such that Christianity must continuously and repeatedly cast off its body and assume a new one.

Absent such a rigorous social scientific model, however, Butler Bass is compelled to leap from one explanatory universe to another, from the social scientific universe of survey data to the rich psychological universe offered by personal testimony to the universe of contemporary biblical studies and theology and back again, without however showing us why and how the process of awakening that she identifies did not and could not appear until the Christian religion was almost sixteen centuries old.

Not that historical explanation always and in every instance demands that we identify one and only one causal mechanism. Most communities up until the fourteenth century were shaped by a richly variegated panoply of loosely coordinated, overlapping and intersecting practical regimes composed partly of political action, partly of domestic action, partly of economic action, partly of sacred action, and so on, all embedded in and marked by special deference towards the natural world of seasonal rhythms, tidal forces, migrations of fowl and fauna, meteorological events, as well as the ebb and flow of empires and their wars. This rich variegated panoply of intersecting and overlapping causal mechanisms gave to human society a distinctive cyclical character which, from the vantage-point of its capitalist successor, had all the appearance of quite literally going both everywhere and nowhere all at once.

But then quite suddenly and unexpectedly one causal mechanism emerged in the late fourteenth century, ably described by Geoff Le Goff, David Landes, myself and others, that drew all other formerly independent mechanisms into its orbit, lending to history and to society for the first time a directional dynamic completely unlike any of its old and new world predecessors. That was because unlike these predecessors, capitalism not only coordinated all social action tightly together into a logical and rational whole, but also because subjectively it tied this action to a new experience of value completely free from the material, institutional, social, and cultural impediments endured by non-capitalist, institutionally, politically and socially mediated experiences of value. And it is precisely when viewed from the vantage point of this broader historical frame that Butler Bass’s triumphalist narrative trajectory reveals its darker side.

Here also is where we need to cast a more critical eye on the conventional binary opposition that cuts across her narrative, where institutional rationalism and dogma are set against both individualist and collective romanticism and experience. Historically, Butler Bass is surely correct to point out how the romantic mode has frequently served as an able vehicle for individuals and groups who feel hemmed in by traditional institutional and confessional constraints. Transcending the traditional body of faith and experience has time and again helped individuals and groups to recover, reembody and reenact an experience of faith precluded within the traditional body of faith and experience.

And, yet, this focus makes it all the more puzzling why she did not take advantage of the wealth of scholarship covering the period during which Christian faith adjusted itself to the new capitalist social formation, a period extending roughly from the late fourteenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. Had she done so, she might have observed the intimate, mutually constitutive relationship forming between rationalism, on the one hand, and romanticism on the other.

Here the disadvantage of a narrowly pragmatic, psychologically-oriented approach to the religious history, an approach often favored by students of American religious history, comes to light. This pragmatic approach is bound to overlook the rich, complex, and multi-faceted interaction between religious subjectivity and practice and larger and broader social, political, and economic forces by which religious subjectivity and practice have been shaped over time. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that all of the spiritual awakenings covered in Butler Bass’s volume are centered in European North America, a North America whose outstanding characteristic may be that, unlike any of the communities in Europe, Africa, or Asia, which had to contend with their non- and pre-capitalist histories, North American Christianity was constituted after the emergence and explicitly in the image of the new capitalist social formation. It therefore had far less difficulty warding off the ghosts of pre-capitalist institutions and practices.

North American religious practitioners displayed far more spiritual vitality than their sclerotic European coreligionists. But they also displayed far more clearly the peculiar schizophrenia that came to be iconic for  all religious experience and practice within capitalist societies. That is to say, they displayed a simultaneous disdain bordering on contempt for all things associated with the body of religion – its built, physical, institutional, socially and historically embedded character – while at the same time straining towards a religion grounded as much as possible in experience, be that the empirical experience of science or the experience conveyed in religion of the heart. And it is precisely here that rationalism and romanticism meet, where religious practitioners habitually disbar any evidence or claim that is not empirically, experientially, their own, while continuously and repeatedly rationalizing their own immediate experiences of faith, bringing them into line with the increasingly attenuated authorities permitted by their newly awakened faith.

Spiritual experience assumes this peculiar binary form in capitalist societies because in these societies and in them alone all social experience is mediated by the two-fold social form known as the commodity. What is unique about the commodity, what distinguishes it from social forms in other kinds of societies in which social artifacts also display both material and immaterial, symbolic, qualities, is that only in capitalism do commodities embody, convey, and transmit value that actually coordinates and mediates all social action. Eighteenth century natural philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant nominalized this unique characteristic of value, calling it simply “the Sublime.” They adopted this term in part because, although immanent to the material substance of the commodity, the Sublime nevertheless transcended and ultimately destroyed the material constraints set by the commodity’s physical characteristics. Later, in the nineteenth century, European romantics such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and GWF Hegel, sought to show how this sublime substance was itself the true foundation not simply of religious experience, but also of physical life, historical change, and social transformation. With this in mind Hegel, in fact, labeled this Sublime substance the Weltgeist or “world spirit,” while Schleiermacher called it the Lebensgewalt or “life force.” Still later, of course, Karl Marx would label it the value form of the commodity.

Whether on account of her narrowly pragmatic approach to religious experience, or on account of the limitations imposed by her historical frame (i.e., her focus on religious experience in colonial and post-colonial North America), Butler Bass overlooks this intimate relationship between rationalism and romanticism, just as she misses the intimate relationship that each bears to the capitalist social formation to which they owe their appearance and persistence over time. In any event, whether she begins with the First Great Awakening or with the first-hand reports of present-day parishioners and clergy, however liberally supplemented by survey research data, Butler Bass’s methodology makes it impossible for her to distinguish between the normal, episodic, hostility that members of capitalist societies display against the body in general – and against the body of religion in particular – and what may be a genuinely emancipatory reaction against and rejection of specific institutions and practices that are truly oppressive.

It is worth noting in this regard that some of Butler Bass’s most penetrating interpretations arise not in the context of the triumphalist trajectory of her narrative, but rather in the context of her biblical interpretations where she finds Jesus and his followers at odds with popular religious sentiment and long-standing religious tradition. Here Jesus’ hermeneutic would appear to arise from his prophetic attachment and commitment to a long list of groups – the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast, the widow, the homeless, the orphan, the prisoner, the harlot, the leper, the tax collector, the foreigner, the outsider – whom traditional religious practitioners had abandoned, but which he believed formed the first members of God’s emerging community on Earth. Since these sections of Butler Bass’s book are so strong and illuminating, it is odd that Butler Bass did not adopt this prophetic stance as the gauge for authentic spiritual awakening, but instead placed opposition to traditional religious institutions and practices at the center of her interpretive framework. Such a prophetic lens might have allowed Butler Bass to better differentiate between a hostility to all bodies, including religious bodies, that is normal to social actors in capitalist societies and that prophetic opposition to specific religious institutions and practices that were deemed oppressive.

Supplemented by this prophetic lens, it might be interesting to return to the same ground covered in Butler Bass’s volume, exploring how and where opposition to traditional religious institutions and practices has been truly emancipatory and how and where, to the contrary, it has been merely self-indulgent and self-absorbed. With this proviso, it is clear that Butler Bass has offered a significant contribution to our understanding of contemporary spirituality. Whether she may also have identified a genuine Fourth Spiritual Awakening time alone will tell.