“We’re Not Fighting About Politics, We’re Fighting About God”: Diana Butler Bass Wants a Revolution

Religious historian Diana Butler Bass is our preeminent narrator of the decline of traditional religion and the emergence of progressive and spiritual-but-not-religious faith in the 21st century.

Her newest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, turns from descriptions of postmodern religious life toward scrutinizing contemporary science, both physical and social, for evidence of ongoing “Incarnation,” what the ancient Hebrews called Emanuel, or “G-d with us,” or what religion scholars call “panentheism”—God in everything.

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Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution
Diana Butler Bass
(October 8, 2015)

Bass seeks out God in soil, water, sky, and in fellow human beings and their communities. “A shift in our conception of God is at the basis of a cultural reorganization, a cultural rebirth, and I think we’re actually fighting in our culture about God,” she says. “It’s not really about politics. I think we’re really fighting about God. I think that Glenn Beck and I have a fundamental disagreement about who God is.”

Bass is asking her readers to consider a shift in American Christianity that goes beyond politics and demographics: “I think a conventional God moving off of ‘His’ throne in heaven is much bigger news than the fact that your local Methodist church doesn’t have as many members as it used to have.”

I spoke with Bass this August in a café near her home in Alexandria, Virginia.

In Christianity After Religion, you wrote about how the spiritual-but-not-religious trend is actually a new Great Awakening or new Reformation. In Grounded, you’re saying this spiritual revolution might help to heal some of humanity’s wounds?

That’s exactly why I’m thinking about race so much right now. I think we’re working in interesting ways to try to build complexity around religion, but I’m not sure we’ve even begun to have the conversation around race that we have with religion—and maybe that’s what’s emerging right now.

Those kinds of boundaries, the boundaries of religion, the architecture that we built for the old world has failed. And either we’re going to try to keep it in place and kill ourselves in the process, or we’re going to recognize that something else is happening.

There are some beautiful, good books that are being written about all this. One of my favorite books in recent years is Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, which is about the emergence of a whole different pattern of human culture.

One of the things that I am deeply committed to—and I think it’s just because I came out of the womb this way—is that history really matters. If you’re moving to someplace new, you don’t leave absolutely everything behind. Certain heroes, myths, stories, memories, artifacts are going to be needed, and they’re still going to be beautiful even in years ahead. That’s what I’m actually trying to figure out—what kind of stories are going to help us get there?

I don’t know if it is what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point (or perhaps what Rifkin calls the empathic civilization) but what I do know is that we have to have something that is better than this—not because this is horrible or bad, but because this has outlived its usefulness and is hurting people. And what we have now doesn’t allow us to be who we need to be in order to save the planet, or an economic plain where people can have dignity across the world.

That God, to me, is the God that I’m trying to talk about, and it’s what I call the God of the horizons. That God is not up there, looking down, judging us, but that God is out there—that’s the point to which we must be moving in this journey.

You mention race, apart from religion. But what about the way Christianity has dealt with race historically? And how do you see the role of American churches in the evolving conversation about race in this country?

We have these churches that have been proclaiming complete equality of all humankind—theologically—while when you look at the institutions themselves, it’s a different story. Just this summer there was a Pew survey on religious diversity in America and it was sad. It was just sad. There were only a few that were genuinely diverse as religions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, one Pentecostal group, Muslims, and everybody else was not very diverse.

You start asking those questions, and sometimes people will say, “Oh, well, we really try!” or “Our church is open to everybody.” What’s happened is that churches have failed to ask the really deep questions. The church has just never dealt well with race. To ask deep questions of churches regarding race is one of the surest ways to get yourself kicked out of a church meeting—it’s a really sure way to get a conversation shut down.

That raises the question of empire. In a very really sense, many churches have played the hand, over and over again, of a corporate culture that privileges rich, white people, a political culture that privileges rich, white people, and a military culture that uses poor people of color in order to keep rich, white people safe.

And we don’t want to look at that, or we don’t have the eyes to look at it. Because the institution has kept us locked in a place that wants us to justify our niceness, but has failed to ask us to address the questions of poverty and class and color that really do advance the privilege of white people at the expense of other people in our society.

With sexuality, of course, having millennials raise that question so strongly has left the churches scrambling. “What are we going to do here? We have no idea what to do with this.” I think some denominations are beginning to get their feet under them with issues around marriage and relationships and sexuality, but they still have a ways to go. Everybody voted on marriage issues this past summer. In American mainline denominations, everybody has marriage and relational liturgies on board. There are questions that need to be asked, and institutions have been afraid to ask them for a very long time. Maybe they have to now.

It seems it’s almost easier to talk about gay marriage than it is to talk about Black Lives Matter. And I hate saying that, but I think it’s true, because I think that white Americans are more complicit in the continuing oppression of black and brown people than we can ever want to say we are. When it comes to letting our gay kids get married, we’re going there, because they’re our kids. That distance between the races, I think is still pretty obvious and evident, and I think it’s painful, and I don’t think the institutions have really stood up well with that.

Some individual clergy have certainly been heroic. And I do think some of the things I’ve seen coming out of churches right now are some of the most hopeful and systemically radical things I’ve seen about race—but it’s going to be interesting to see how far that goes.

What hopeful and radical things do you mean?

Some of the stuff around Ferguson. People have flocked there. Clergy have flocked there. Theologians have flocked there. There are books being written that are challenging and beautiful. One of my former students, Reggie L. Williams, wrote a book called Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. It’s a brilliant book. A theologian like him really gives me a lot of hope.

I have been surprised at seeing the number of young, white pastors involved in Black Lives Matter, and the passion that they bring. I know people in their 30s who are active around the Sojourners community and things like that. I’m learning from them, and I’m glad for what they’re doing.

So those are some of the things I see—the rewriting of theology in a new generation; people who are not afraid to ask questions that we’ve needed to ask for a long time.

You said religious people’s minds are changing on sexuality because their kids are LGBTQ—this change is not coming from institutions. Is there hope that churches can support cultural change around race or does this kind of social transformation depend ultimately on personal relationships?

I’m not an anarchist. I do think that institutions are really important, and I actually think that institutions can be beautiful in so many ways—they can be the architectural memory of some of the most amazing things about the human race. But institutions naturally do two things really well, and that is rules and rituals. And they do one thing really poorly, and that is relationships.

That’s the heart of this spiritual revolution—it is at heart the relationship that we are developing with nature, and the relationships that we are developing with one another in new patterns of human community.

And it’s in this muddiness, this liminal zone of human relationship, that something new is being born, new life is being fashioned—and we don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. The liminal place can’t stay liminal forever, even though it feels like it in a postmodern age – it feels like we’re going to be living in fluidity for the next-however-long it’s going to be. We are human beings, and we build things.

The question that I have is: Can we build institutions that are more about relationships and renewal?

I don’t know the answer to that question. If I have invested my energy and my life in anything, it’s been trying to point to that question and to at least open our minds to the possibility that we can have different kinds of structures and institutions than the kinds we’ve had in the past.

The institutions that we build out of this moment might help to make the future more just, more beautiful and might, frankly, save the planet. I am so worried about planetary health, I stay awake at night.

When you say planetary health are you talking about climate change? Or is there more to it?

I listen to right-wing radio all the time, because I like to know what people who are not me think. I spend a lot of time listening to Glenn Beck. I spend a lot of time listening to Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly. There are actually these right-wing media sources making fun of the theory that terrorism and climate change are linked.

But that is absolute truth. The loss of farmlands in the Indus River valley in Pakistan and India have led to the displacement of entire generations of young men who have moved to cities like Kurachi where they’re ripe targets for extremism. That group of people who once would have been farming on land they inherited from their grandfather, are not doing that because the land doesn’t exist anymore. So now they’re young men who are lost and without prospects.

Climate change and terrorism are absolutely linked, and here on Fox News, they’re saying, “Oh, what a stupid idea. What is it, that they’re too hot and they can’t get air-conditioning in their houses?” That is so frightening. If people have jobs, if people feel respect, if people feel like they have a future for themselves and their children, then they don’t want to blow up the world.

It’s also related to issues regarding the Middle East, between Israelis and Palestinians. Most of the water’s under Palestinian territory in Israel. Israelis want to keep that territory because they want to keep access to the water.

And look at immigration in the United States, the tension between the United States and Mexico. One reason people are coming here is that with industrial farming in Mexico, the water sources are increasingly drying up and people are moving farther and farther north, trying to get access to good water. That’s going to be a continuing flashpoint. It doesn’t have a lot to do with the fact that immigrants want refrigerators and nice suburban homes. It has to do with water.

What did you think of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment?

Pope Francis, I think, is an amazing figure in the sense that he’s providing, I think, a new narrative for the Catholic church. If you can do that with Roman Catholicism and you can do that from the position of the Vatican—I don’t know how successful he’ll be—I think that it can be done in a lot other places as well.

I am shocked that the Spirit gave the Church a pope that is this revolutionary at this moment. He’s not a revolutionary in the sense that I as a Protestant would pick as a revolutionary. But these are Catholics. This is the Vatican, so it’s a different kind of revolution. But I can recognize it when I see it. So whereas I would be tearing down the walls of the Sistine Chapel (No! I love the art in the Sistine Chapel; I wouldn’t tear that down) but I would be opening up the Vatican in all sorts of ways.

I would have women priests within five minutes.

In the encyclical, which I read pretty closely, he works to maintain that Creator-Creation distinction. He says at several junctions, “We cannot confuse these two things.” Those are the places where I went, “Darn it!” He came this close to a theological revolution in the Catholic church, and he backs off at the last minute.

God is with us: what difference does that make? It makes a huge difference. Maybe we’ll treat each other better. Maybe we’ll treat the planet better. That was the missed moment of that encyclical.

But that’s my revolution.