Americans’ search for the divine is alive and well, although it looks different than it has in the past, according to Diana Butler Bass, a prominent commentator on religion and culture, and author of nine books about American Christianity.
Her latest book, “Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution,” published Oct. 6, explores how people are finding God in nature and fellowship with friends and neighbors, whether or not they attend church.
Nearly 23 percent of U.S. adults did not identify with any organized religion in 2014, a 7 percentage-point increase from 2007, Pew Research Center reported in May. However, only 3 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in God, The Associated Press noted earlier this year.
In “Grounded,” Bass, who holds a doctorate in religion from Duke University and identifies as Episcopalian, investigates the spiritual lives of contemporary believers, questioning what happens when people expand their search for God beyond church buildings to the world around them.
“The most significant story in the history of religion at this time is not a decline in Western religion, a rejection of religious traditions or the growth of religious extremism; rather, it is a changed conception of God, a rebirthing of faith from the ground up,” she writes.
Bass spoke to Deseret News National this week about America’s shifting religious landscape and how meaningful it is to look for God in everyday life.
Deseret News: What are you envisioning when you talk about grounded faith?
Diana Butler Bass: I was playing with the word “grounded” in a couple of different ways. Some people — when they see the word grounded — immediately think about (the phrase), “You’re grounded,” like a teenager getting in trouble.
I was thinking more in terms of what’s under our feet. What holds us to the earth. How we discover stability. I was also thinking about it in terms of a very old quote from a theologian from the middle part of the 20th century, Paul Tillich, who talked about how God is the ground of our being. I was thinking more in terms of grounded in those ways, that which can connect us to what matters and what gives us life.
DN: Is the same spiritual revolution that you write about from a Christian perspective affecting non-Christian faiths?
DBB: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I think is happening all across the planet is that within every religious tradition there are people who are becoming more attentive to life here on earth. They’re thinking less and less about escaping to heaven, escaping to Nirvana or escaping to enlightenment.
I think they’re instead asking, “What does the wisdom of Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Muhammad have to do with how we live now? What does it have to with other people? What does it have to do with the planet?”
Within every one of the world’s traditions there is a big tension at the moment. The tension is between people who still insist their religion is primarily about personal salvation or going to heaven and people who are saying they don’t know about the heaven question but recognize their neighbors and nature are in crisis.
DN: As a result of the tension you’re describing, many people leave churches behind and piece together an individual spiritual life. Is this loss of community a problem?
DBB: I don’t know that the piecing together of our own spiritual lives necessitates losing community. People often call (the process) “cafeteria religion,” appearing to use the phrase as an insult.
But the way I tend to think about it is that religion is beginning to echo a larger cultural shift. I have a 17-year-old daughter, and she has a playlist on her phone. She rarely buys an entire album, instead buying songs that are meaningful to her. She constructs her own playlist and that is really the soundtrack of her life.
So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is whether that’s what we’re doing with spirituality as well. In a sense, we’re all in this process, in the early 21st century, of constructing our own spiritual playlist.
To me, that’s actually really interesting because even though your playlist might not be exactly like my playlist there are going to be commonalities in what different people choose. Out of all of that will come new forms of friendship and community.
I think the act of choosing is not really an act of individualism. Instead, it’s an act of trying to find a soundtrack that makes sense to us. When we find that soundtrack, there are going to be other people who have similar music in their lives. We’re going to find one another, and that’s good.
DN: If someone is piecing together their own spiritual playlist, can they continue to claim the Christian label?
DBB: To continue that metaphor, oftentimes we like one kind of music more than another. So when I go into my own playlist, there are certain styles of music that keep popping up.
I think that’s a little like faith traditions. People probably choose more from Christianity or more from Buddhism. Very few people are completely, absolutely eclectic.
I don’t think freedom of choice means these great traditions are going away or that there’s going to be a problem with people choosing Christianity. We all choose music that we think is beautiful, so the more that Christianity, the more that the church, presents a really wonderful song, people will say, “Hey, I want to be part of that music.”
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