Friday, March 09, 2012

The Precise Way in Which Diana Butler Bass Is Not Quite Right

In a previous post, I quoted the central framework Diana Butler Bass makes use of to structure her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. This framework is anthropologist Wallace's attempt to delineate how change happens in cultures and people groups, then appropriated by a later cultural critic, McLoughlin.

It's helpful to know that the main framework for Bass's book has a kind of cultural critic pedigree. Since various kinds of cultural criticism contest one another, which theoretical framework we appropriate for our own work matters, and inasmuch as we can, we are called to listen to the cultural criticism that differs from our own. More on that in a little bit.

Diana Butler Bass is always worth reading. She typically has her finger on the cultural zeitgeist. Of course, there are multiple zeitgeists out there, but she has thoroughly imbibed the spirit of the age that we might term liberal North American faith.

DBB is also worth reading because she is really a fine writer, economical in her use of words, keeping the main thing the main thing. She is also a best seller. One might say she doesn't just report on the cultural zeitgeist--she is herself a part of the zeitgeist.

It is this last point that drives me to write what I write next. I do not have it as a goal in this post to totally undermine DBB's project. I find what she has written comforting, clarifying, and wise.

I do, however, want to lift up one critique that, if DBB were to hear it, and incorporate it into her future work, would make her work less misleading than it currently is. So bear with me, as I try to distinguish one kind of social criticism from another, and try to get a handle on why I simultaneously appreciate, but am also troubled by, DBB's new book (and it is worth repeating that what is most troubling about DBB's analysis is a way of thinking she has adopted from someone else).

Here's the main critique: Implicit in DBB is suspicion of institutions, but valorization of those departing the institution for a post-religion faith. The heroic characters in her narrative all do something similar: they set off on their own journey of exploration into a spiritual life somehow distinct from the kind of faith exercised within the "institution."

In this sense, her book would be more appropriately titled: Spirituality After Religion.

Take the McLoughlin model DBB offers early in her book. It is heroic in character. It valorizes heros and it also indemnifies human experience, snipping it out of its historical and traditioned contexts as being shaped by medias, books, and indeed church. It assumes that experience is independent of the traditions that make it. Clearly the leaders on the way to something new are the true heroes, and those holding back (or held back) need to just learn from the heroes and catch up.

The point is that DBB valorizes the new spiritual explorers and their agency, and assumes that is the most plausible analysis. For her, plausibility is largely mediated thorugh serious cultural shifts and media is ignored. This is why I noted briefly in my previous post that DBB shifts over from being strictly descriptive into being prescriptive, because I think the kind of social analysis DBB is conducting actually creates the very thing she is describing, and reinforces it.

To lift out an alternative, one could just as easily write a book explaining that the plausbiility of beliefs may be the fault of the believer as much as the implausibility of the system. That is, even though these new spiritual seekers are departing "religion," it is actually their own belief systems that lack plausibility, rather than the "religions" they are departing. DBB frequently scolds clergy or other folks who have raised this type of concern at seminars or conferences she leads.

She fails to take into account the formation of the hero (what was it in the culture that really contributed to these folks departing organized religion and redefining words like spirituality and religion?) or institution or radical individualism; she sees these as givens that are the unalterable features of culture.

A good friend and theologian, analyzing the social criticism of McLoughlin, in light of another social critic's work (Theodor Adorno), writes, "I mean one could dispute the description with some kind of radical claim that no person has any agency; the real agents of change are corporations or the wealthy who are dissolving traditional communities, indeed all communities. That gives an alternate account of who is doing the changing." However, that kind of critique doesn't really count in the kind of plausibility structure DBB has constructed. Instead, "experience" functions as the norm of plausibility, it is the "hard core," a norm that is itself unquestioned and formed to generate the crisis. It's a very autonomous account of human belief and action.
Autonomous experience, religio as "the journey I am on," my spiritual quest, these become the unquestioned norms in DBB's model. These are the things which cannot be criticized or questioned; and they function as the norm of belief or maxim of action in her work.

DBB frames the large middle section of her presentation around three key words that have been bantered around in the church for years. The description goes like this. The old "religious" approach was to expect "belief," which then led to improved forms of "behaving," which then eventuated in "belonging" to a community that shared common beliefs and behaviors. 

In the new "spiritually vital faith" (see the valorization again?) this series is reversed. First we "belong" to a community in which new "behaviors" are learned, and this new way of belonging and behaving then shapes "belief." 

DBB's final chapter is titled "Performing Awakening." Here, in the continuing pattern of valorizing those who are leading the way into a new spirituality, she writes, "Conventional religion is failing and a new form of faith, which some call 'spirituality' and can be called religio, is being born" (259). Now, I agree that DBB has put her finger on a kind of migration or remixing that is happening in religious faith. But her choice of language, that conventional religion is failing and a new spirituality is being born, buys completely into the valorization pattern I've described above, and I just don't think it is accurate.

As a lifelong Christian reading her book, everything she described as the new spirituality sounded to me like the very things I have been invited to do my whole life in traditional religious institutions. Her recipe for performing awakening includes: 1) Read the bible, 2) engage new faith practices like prayer or hospitality, 3) have fun and play, and 4) participate in making change (pages 265-266). Do these sound like a new spirituality being born, or a remixing of regular old religion, to you? For my money, they just sound like an invitation to re-focus, not be re-born.

I think DBB's work would be more helpful, more clear-eyed, more accurate, and more true, if she took account of these cultural critical insights. Settings things out in such stark terms--Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening--may sell more copies, but won't necessarily build up the kind of Christian community Christ is really calling us into. 

9 comments:

  1. And thanks to friend Dr. Gregory Walter, who shared many ideas with me that help formed the substance of this post.

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    1. And of course any errors in what I have posted are mine along, not Gregory's.

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  2. I think that if we looked closely we'd find that most reform movements within Christianity share some basic features. Aside from play and have fun, the activities you enumerate are likely to be present in some form. Of course that is just the sort of thing a historian would say: nothing very new under the sun. LDL

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  3. What an excellent piece you've done here! It deserves wide reading.

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  4. Thank you for clarifying what I found to be a very disturbing post: This is How We Are Changing: Five Stages of Change in Religious Renewal Movements.

    I do, however, still have some issues with your position. It seems to me that there are fewer and fewer people who actually grew up with a church tradition. Perhaps people forget that the un-churched are simply that: un-churched. It’s like Tim Burton remaking Alice in Wonderland. There’s a lot to inspire a film maker in that book. there’s a lot that has inspired film makers over the years. But it seems that Burton’s vision was one of:

    Golly, I love the imagination in these stories, but I’ve seen so many versions. I’m so familiar with the material. What can I do to make it fresh?

    He, or perhaps, the producers don’t realize that the 6 year old in the theater doesn’t have 40 plus years of experience with these characters. Lewis Carrol is fresh! Burton is jaded, even cynical. Why another Lorax? The original cartoon was poignant and charming, and would be to a generation who has not yet experienced it. Isn’t it the same for Church traditions?

    Are not "1) Read the bible, 2) engage new faith practices like prayer or hospitality" traditions? I'm not sure that "3) have fun and play" are useful. they seem to pander to a self indulgent sentimentality rather than feeding spiritual maturity. And to "4) participate in making change" I'd say that change is not always progress.

    Coincidentally: http://kittyaloneandi.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/credo-get-behind-me/

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  5. Kathy S.12:46 PM

    Clint -- I completely agree with your conclusion: "Settings things out in such stark terms--Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening--may sell more copies, but won't necessarily build up the kind of Christian community Christ is really calling us into."

    Our Lord Jesus stands before us, always. (I do think when he hears words like "zeitgeist," he just sighs.) I will try to keep my rhetoric simple: Acts 2:42 -- "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." This is the baby church catholic: Magisterium and Community, Eucharist and Liturgy.

    ... and the baby grew up .... It's so simple: This is the thesis of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

    "I'm not religious. I'm spiritual." It is my opinion that this is a big smoke-screen for: "I want to do what I want, especially in matters of sex and 'love,' and the Church ain't gonna tell me nuthin'."

    Additionally, I must say it: this "hero" (below) reminds me of Martin.

    "Here's the main critique: Implicit in DBB is suspicion of institutions, but valorization of those departing the institution for a post-religion faith. The heroic characters in her narrative all do something similar: they set off on their own journey of exploration into a spiritual life somehow distinct from the kind of faith exercised within the 'institution.'"

    Maybe that "institution" is not as bad as you thought....

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  6. Thank you for this post. I'm glad I read it.

    Just a pushing back a little:

    1. All institutions are reflections of the cultures that birth them. Is it possible that Bass is articulating a significant cultural shift and the institutions that have been around a while (my Baptist tradition, your Lutheran reflect cultures that are waning) are now struggling because of it? A new culture relating to institutions differently...asking something else of institutions, perhaps?

    2. The "emerging" (such an overused term, sorry) culture will necessarily have a different set of mores and priorities. So, the critique from outside will fall flat. The critique of "individualism" won't ring true even if it's right on target. What is individualism to one culture will be liberty or creativity to another. So, we can rage all we like. It won't make a difference.

    3. Bass is optimistic about the transition and what it might bring. I read that optimism in a different light, however, than you do. I read it as if she's saying "let's see what we can learn instead of accusing the SBNR folk of shallowness." This is what I think is most of value in her latest work. If we who presently serve the old institutions don't take the SBNR seriously, don't treat these people as thoughtful adults on a sincere spiritual journey, then there is little hope that we'll learn and grow ourselves. We'll simply be time capsules...and, in my opinion, that's a significant problem.

    4. Finally, and thank you for this forum, your line of thought assumes that the people in the pews actually have a positive assessment of the institutions in which they participate. People shop, choose, try on, search, journey, join, leave, transition etc. already. We know this. I'm in a Baptist church and only a third of them identify as baptist. So...what does that tell us? Just because people are in our institutions does not mean that they value them to any great degree. In our critique of the SBNR, we must remember that they are likely serving on our Councils, synods, and are preaching in our pulpits.

    Again, great post. Thank you for it.

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  7. I'm thankful for your thoughtful push-back. I'll give your reflections some thought, and post something more substantive soon. Thanks!

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  8. thanks for this. I've been reflecting (but not writing!) on my own discomfort with the word "spirituality" lately. I do learn and get value from the "spiritual but not religious" folks, but the word "spirituality" has some negative connotations for me, from a Lutheran, "down-to-earth" perspective.

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