The New Spirituality: Horizontal, Incarnate, Communal | Sojourners

The New Spirituality: Horizontal, Incarnate, Communal

An Interview With 'Grounded' Author Diana Butler Bass
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Let it be noted: Diana Butler Bass is not worried about the kids.

The passage of time is ever-present in our conversation, and we linger often on the uncertainty of what's ahead for American religion, particularly among the growing numbers of unaffiliated young adults. But Bass seems at peace with — and at times, delighted by — the role she has assumed in this new faith landscape: that of witness, storyteller, and occasional wisdom-dispenser to an institution-overhauling younger generation. 

Bass is a religion scholar and author of nine books on American religious history. With her usual precision, she uses Grounded to elucidate the centuries-long power structures that have propped up hierarchical religion, and where the present anti-institutional, spiritual-but-not-religious energy may take us. 

But Grounded is also intimately personal. The book is Bass' almost devotional exploration of our material world, asking how we can draw closer to the spirit by paying closer attention to the earth, and eachother. Grounded — what she calls her "first second-half book" — makes its peace with a world in a constant state of change.

"It's about a whole bunch of conversions," she says.

"And this is one more in a string."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: In Grounded, you mention having fallen into a gap between a “hierarchical” religion and a more “God-with-us” horizontal thing. What is that gap?

Diana Butler Bass, author, Grounded: There have been several points in my life when my understanding of who God is has changed. I became increasingly uncomfortable with language of a distant, far-off god, and began to feel in my own heart and soul that there was something disordered about that universe. I’d been thinking in a very vertical construct.

Woodiwiss: I appreciate your observation of the major question of our time being, “Where is God?” Which is very different than, “Who is God?” or, “Is there a god?”

Bass: After 9/11, I began to notice that at times of great social crisis people were not necessarily asking, “Why did God allow this to happen to us?” Instead they would ask, “Where is God?” And the fascinating thing is, people would almost invariably say the same thing — that God was present with the suffering.

And that is so different, historically, than the way in which Americans talked about God over the last few generations. We had always asked questions of the intentions of god, not the location of god.

But Western culture has organized its religious, political, economic life in what I call a set of vertical relations, where the richest and most powerful people are on top and the poorest and people without any power are on the bottom. There’s an echoing of the idea of a god in heaven with the idea of the richest, the holiest, the most powerful people being at the top, closest to god.

That whole vertical structure is changing. It’s a dramatic time, because we all know that that can’t be sustained any longer. There’s a flattening of culture and of economic systems. Our institutions are caught in the middle of that same fight. It’s happening within every denomination.

[READ: an excerpt from Grounded by Diana Butler Bass

Woodiwiss: Is God present in institutions?

Bass: Most of the time, when institutions are formed, they’re formed with really good intentions — to help people find and experience wisdom. And I think God has been faithfully present in the religious institutions that we have, over a really long period of time. So I don’t think that God is absent from those institutions. But I do think that many of these institutions are asking the wrong questions.

As a result, people who are exiting [them] are a little bit at a loss as to how to speak about their experiences, and how to connect to the beauty of the way our ancestors answered these same questions.

Woodiwiss: Are there institutions you feel are doing that well?

Bass: I do have hope that some of the institutions we currently have might get their acts together, to hear a different sort of theological questioning, and respond to that.

It’s a very dynamic moment of cultural change. I can put out as many charts as you want about all that. But the reality is, my life is embedded in this change. That’s really why I chose to write this book in such a personal way — to encourage people to think about their stories in relationship to these changes.

Every one of us has stories to tell about what it’s like to live through a time when the conventional forms of religion are declining; when vertical institutions are under siege; when the bottom part of the pyramid is saying we need a different structure to society; when we’ve understood that the top of the pyramid hasn’t always had the best interests at heart.

People feel it. And some are afraid of it, others rejoice in it. I think a lot of people are just confused by it.

Woodiwiss: You’ve mentioned power several times. This was a small piece in your book, but I found it one of the most interesting — your exploration of empathy and smart power. What does power look like in a horizontal model?

Bass: I think it exists in the bonds of relationship. There is incredible power when people choose to be and remain in relationship with one another. No one person owns it. It is literally built through communication, experience, consistent care.

I think certain human capacities like empathy and compassion are incredibly powerful. And that’s a different kind of power, one that our great prophets have often known. Gandhi, MLK, Desmond Tutu. They’re well aware of the power of compassion and empathy.

Woodiwiss: What do we need to be prepared for, in order to do horizontal power well? What qualities must be in place for this coming shift to be a truly empathetic one, and not just a restructuring?

Bass: One primary metaphor for religious communities to explore is the vision of the table. We’re going to have to learn how to sit with a lot of different people whom we never expected would be together. The table involves hospitality, feeding one another, listening, conviviality. Jesus got into so much trouble when he sat at the wrong table. And of course we have the image of the last supper. I think that image has to really call forth our deepest imaginations.

The other piece I find really compelling is the idea of the garden. There is something going on right now around urban farming, millennials moving out into rural areas and saying they want to relocate themselves connected to the land.

These two places, the table and the garden, are the social and spiritual architectural elements that are beginning to build out whatever the new world is going to look like.

So I think that’s where we might be going. I’m very excited — I’m not a grouchy old baby boomer who’s worried about the kids. I’m running right along behind them as they try to make a new world.

Woodiwiss: Is there a curiosity for older wisdom in that new world?

Bass: I think so. I’m in my mid-fifties now, and one really profound part of life’s journey is that you begin to think about how you invest yourself in the future a bit differently. I’m hoping the way I tell stories — the way I set that table — is not just about helping fix churches, but about being a storyteller in the midst of a community that’s moving towards the future.

Woodiwiss: We have more access to learning about religious and wisdom traditions than ever before, but I don’t know that we’re necessarily seeking that knowledge out. Where will the impetus come from to reach out and overlap, when we have more possibility than ever to cloister ourselves?

Bass: Well, a lot of people will cloister themselves, because they want to control the table. And that’s just another expression of the vertical universe. That is very troubling, and that is happening.

But the other is happening is well. I see experiments within church communities I think are sort of fascinating. Like St. Lydia’s dinner church in New York City, which is an Episcopal emergent-style community based around having supper together. And theology on tap, book clubs, farmers’ markets — none of the conversations happening there are particularly controllable. The whole point is forming of different kinds of relationships than would happen in other sorts of places.

And I want to be there! That’s what I’m actually trying to do — create a bridge between people who are in these worlds.

Woodiwiss: In Grounded, I noticed you don’t say, “Everyone leave the church, we’ve done it all wrong.”

Bass: Anybody who knows me would not expect you’re going to get that from me! But I’m tired of people yelling at one another — people within the church saying, “The spiritual but not religious are lazy.” Or my secular friends who’ll say, “Do you still go to church?” as more of an accusation than a question.

This argument needs to go away, if we’re going to move into a future that is life giving and about a sustainable world of compassion for one another. Different conversation is necessary.

I think future generations are going to look back at us and recognize that what we’re going through is really hard. And when that moment comes, it behooves us to have a good story to tell, so that they will know that we did the best we could in a difficult time.

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