Awakening, Counter-Awakening, and the End of Church

The United States is currently in the throes of a spiritual awakening, says Diana Butler Bass. In her new book, Christianity After Religion, the author argues that we are at a crossroads in history—we can choose to move forward into new emerging spiritualities, or we can heed the siren sound of the traditionalists calling us back to a romanticized, rigid, past.

We are not passive observers, Bass writes, but active participants in shaping what’s to come. Bass herself has been at the forefront of the emergent spirituality movement, with books like Christianity for the Rest of Us (2007) and A People’s History of Christianity (2009).

In an interview with Religion Dispatches, Bass talks about how this seemingly crazy, religion-infused GOP primary race is actually part and parcel of an awakening that will transform how all of us structure and experience religion—as well as society—going forward.

RD: You write that the U.S. and other places around the world are in the throes of a spiritual awakening. What do you mean by that?

DBB: One of the things I think is very important is to separate two terms that are often confused in American religion: “revival” and “awakening.” Those are two different things. I like to remind people that revival is a ritualized event. It happens with some regularity. You go to a revival meeting and the point of a revival is stir up individuals so they have some sort of new encounter with God; be it to be born again or baptized in the Holy Spirit.

An awakening is not a revival. An awakening is not an individual or ritualized event, but a larger cultural event where the whole of a society or group of people become changed, transformed, reoriented toward something new. In the literature of awakening, they are typically understood as revitalization movements that happen to groups rather than individuals.

So, when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.

My book examines that change and tries to make it very clear about where we might be going in the future.

You also write about the rising number of “nones”—those who claim no religion—and how church attendance across the board, even in more evangelical churches, is in decline. If all of this is true, that people are now more “spiritual” than religious, what do you make of the huge role religion has been playing in the GOP presidential primary, in particular?

I think that the rise of the “nones” is a really fascinating thing and it actually fits in with the idea of awakening much better than people think.

For an awakening to happen, old institutions have to go away. What once existed has to change. What we’re in the moment of right now in American culture is that our old institutions, our way of being a church—our way of understanding any kind of religious tradition, be it Judaism, Islam or Christianity—all of those older patterns are dying.

I think you can look at the first decade of the 21st century and see that there has been a massive failure of religious institutions. When that kind of failure happens, what is happening concurrently is that the people who used to be part of those institutions are now unaffiliated. The institutions have failed them and they are now just floating around without a clear set of religious labels that they identify themselves with. Or they lack an institutional home.

When it comes to awakening, I look at those people who are unaffiliated and I say, ‘Wow, that to me is a sign of the transformation that we’re going through. More and more people understand that we’re moving into a new place and are willing to take the risk, freeing themselves up and exploring their spirituality in different ways.’ I think eventually a large number of those people will re-affiliate in some way, shape, or form—but when they do, the actual institutions of religion will be very different because of the demands those people make on new kinds of churches.

I look at that whole arc of people who are leaving church because of the failure of the institution, and I don’t see that as threatening. I see that as a really exciting and hopeful possibility—if religious institutions will listen to the message those people are sending them.

How does this relate to the growth of the conservative [religious] movement in the GOP and the presidential election? When you have this kind of institutional collapse and large groups of people who are demanding a different kind of faith and moving out, taking risks toward an unknown future—that’s actually going to terrify a large number of people who are happy with the way things have been.

On one hand, you get movement toward the future, with people taking risks; you get people who are willing to engage new ideas about God and community and spirit. On the other hand, you get a counter-awakening movement; you get people who are very afraid and are trying to reinstate what they knew in the past.

I think that both of these parts of the pattern of awakening are clearly visible in our culture. When I see people stepping outside of the accepted boundaries, and then I see the people, who are what I would call “the old lights,” I think, ‘Well, that’s a pretty typical pattern in the midst of cultural change.’ It helps me to say, ‘Okay, this is really where we are. We can expect this kind of countermovement.’

The question then becomes, which way will the whole of the culture swing? Will it swing in the direction of people taking risks and trying to move toward the future or will the backlash become so strong that it will slow or perhaps even halt the idea of an awakening? We’re standing at that crossroads. Which way is this going to move?

Then, it becomes up to us. What we do makes a difference in how the culture actually changes. Both of these are very important dimensions of an awakening.

Do you have a feeling about which path we as a society might take given what looks like a significant backward movement when it comes to arguments about womens reproductive rights, this resurgence of anti-feminism in public discourse?

My Ph.D. is in American Religious History, so my default move, when it seems like everything around me is dark or failing, is to look back to the past and ask, ‘What did those people do who came before us?’

There’s a reason for the phrase, ‘It’s darkest before the dawn.’ So often in American history the greatest movements toward social justice and greater democracy and new religious institutions only happened in the wake of the very dark chapters in history that preceded them.

In American history you get, at the very same time, the unfolding of the progressive movement and the strongest expression of the Ku Klux Klan at the beginning of the 20th century. What we know 100 years later is that the progressive movement actually won in that era. People turned around and said, ‘We don’t want to go there. That’s really bad.’ Sure enough, countermovements ebbed away and [progressivism] became the dominant story of American culture.

I’m hoping we’re in a moment of that kind, and I hope we get there quickly, because I don’t like it when people get hurt. That’s what happens with these backlash movements. They can express themselves in violence. And that kind of violence also does harm to the people who are in the mode of the fearful—it’s a devastating cultural moment. 

In the GOP primary, they are playing to the hard right wing now. Do you have a sense that in the general election perhaps some of this religion talk might dissipate or soften?

No, I don’t have any hope that religious talk will soften into November. I think it will still be there. If Mitt Romney is the nominee, he continually wants to sidestep the religious talk and he has good reason for doing that. People don’t understand Mormonism. Most American Protestants and Catholics have a fundamental distrust or uncertainty about Mormonism, so he wants to play it down. If he brings on a vice presidential candidate like (Virginia governor) Bob McDonnell, there’s no way it’s going to be diminished. I suspect that the vice presidential candidate will be the person who carries the narrative for the religious right, if it’s Romney.

I’m not even convinced the nominee is going to come from these four people who are still in the process. I have long thought that there was going to be a different nominee and we’ll just have to wait to see how that plays itself out.

If it’s Santorum, all bets are off!

Who knows, he might be it. In some ways he’s a very attractive character. If you listen to his speeches and you were in the worldview of those he tries to appeal to, I can see why they like him. He’s young, he’s much more charismatic than I’ve seen him be before and he offers a cohesive worldview that a lot of people find appealing. He is definitely a person to watch out for, if not in this election cycle, certainly another one.

You write about some of the reasons people aren’t going to church anymore. Perhaps they’re bored, angry, or they don’t feel church fulfills their needs. What do you think people really want out of religion these days?

That’s a great question. I think people don’t want to be wounded and bossed around and they don’t want to be treated like children. Instead, I think people want to be part of spiritual communities where they are valued in terms of their life experience and the insight that they bring to the construction of religious life and their understandings of God and neighbor. I think there is a real need for religious institutions to listen to the voice of all of God’s people rather than telling them what to do.

I also think that people want deep ways of trying to connect with who they really are. People want to understand their own inner lives, and insofar as religious institutions can help people make those connections that would be a real step ahead.

People also want connection with God. They want to know how you connect with wonder, awe, transcendence, and how we can connect with our neighbors in meaningful ways. They’re interested in how we can form networks of care, networks of doing justices, and networks of service in which we can make a better world.

I see it happening in many congregations. People tell me they see the church as an institutional bureaucracy going nowhere fast, but not in their congregation. When I hear that I actually know there are thousands of smaller groups of folks in Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and other groups meeting all over the place that are experiencing that. Those are the communities that are beginning to embody the spirit of the new awakening.

This is where women and LGBT folks become very important. Those movements have been liberationist movements and have made tremendous strides to help us all become a better country. But there is something even deeper than the fact of their being liberationist movements—women and LGBT people are saying ‘We are people and our whole personhood is in God. We want to be part of community that hears the wisdom of our experience, that accepts us for who we really are.’

In a very real sense, what the feminist movement and the LGBT movement have become for religious communities is a test of hospitality. Are you really open to accepting and welcoming everyone? Is the personhood of the gay couple as welcome as the personhood of the straight couple? That becomes a test of the awakening. It’s not simply what’s your political position about the rights of these people, but are these people really people? And are they people with their full wisdom, their full experience, their full sense of who they are? Are they really, truly welcomed into the deepest realms of making community? 

What do you believe this new awakening will look like if we have the courage to move forward?

The awakening that we are pushing toward is one where we can go past boundaries that once were insurmountable. It’s over these boundaries that we’re going to find new friends and new ways of loving God and new ways of engaging God’s reign in the world. That’s where we’re moving and that is frightening to some people who don’t think they can make those leaps. They don’t see women as fully human. They don’t see their gay and lesbian friends as having a personhood from which they can learn or be friends with. Those boundaries remain incredibly important for some people; they can’t imagine a world where those boundaries no longer exist.

I heard Rick Santorum talk about this very thing: the need for people to have these roles. It’s the roles that provide safety and order and freedom from the fear of chaos. It’s only if we can go back and have all these roles re-established that everyone can be safe.

But that’s not where we’re going. We’re going to a new place and it’s going to be hard for some folks to make it there.