Transcript for Diana Butler Bass on “Christianity after Religion”
Jim Fleming: Anne Rice’s defection from the Catholic Church is a perfect example of what Dianna Butler Bass calls our “post-Christian culture”. Bass is a religious scholar with a new book called “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” She says “organized religion is losing ground fast even in some of the big Evangelical denominations. What’s surprising is how many people are abandoning church, but not God”.
Diana Bass: Over the course of the last decade in North America we have seen the greatest decline in the number of Americans who want to identify with particular religious traditions, with the number of Americans who attend weekly religious services, and this decline is happening across the board. It used to be that when we talked about religious decline typically we were talking about liberal, mainline, Protestant denominations, but in the last ten years the decline has registered in Evangelical Protestant denominations. Two, excuse me, three, of the denominations that are experiencing huge declines right now are the gigantic Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, which is the conservative and Evangelical alternative to the more liberal, mainline Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and those three denominations all very conservative, long Evangelical heritage, and they are showing very substantial membership declines, and uh-
Fleming: You know what’s so hard to understand about this is that we hear so much all the time about America’s great religiosity. I mean, the politicians are certainly talking about it. They’re calling to Evangelical voters. But what you’re saying is that America’s not really as religious as it was, and not maybe as religious as we say it is.
Bass: Well, I think the fine, sort of, distinction is that America is not as conventionally religious as it was. But, you know, when you look at polls, uh, ninety-one or ninety-two percent, depending on the polls, of Americans still say they believe in God, but people are unwilling to even refer to it as religiosity any longer. They call it spirituality, or they call it something else, experience.
Bass: But they don’t want to use the word religion. Religion has, in the last ten years, been identified in the popular imagination at least, with something that is negative, or hurtful, or boring, and people are still spiritual and they still talk about the Bible. They still care about things related to God and ethics and prayer and religious experience, but they’re unwilling to link that with conventional denominations.
Fleming: A lot of people talk about themselves, as, as spiritual but not religious these days. And I suspect that is a phrase that might resonate with you.
Bass: Well, it does resonate in the sense that it’s a large group in the United States. It’s about thirty percent of the population who use that identifier. What spiritual but not religious tends to mean is that they are hurt by or weary of traditional constructions of dogma and doctrine and that they still want to connect with God.
Fleming: This is something that you’ve experienced yourself, isn’t it? You’ve done a lot of searching of your own spirituality and, I guess it’s fair to say, of religion.
Bass: Yeah, it is. Where I would place myself though, I’m actually much more part of the forty-eight percent. Right now, in the United States, forty-eight percent of Americans identify themselves as spiritual and religious. My own life is shaped very much by, uh, three religious traditions. That is, I was born and raised a United Methodist, and, uh, as a teenager I joined a rather conservative Evangelical church, and then went on to an Evangelical college and Evangelical seminary, so I know that conservative, Evangelical world very, very well. As a young adult though, I became an Episcopalian. I still am an Episcopalian and I participate in a local parish. I have a daughter who is a teenager and she was just confirmed last year. But for us, the primary thing that we are concerned about is do we live lives that have been transformed by an encounter with God, and do we live with passion, in order to help with the problems of the world, relieving poverty, making sure those who are oppressed have voice.
Fleming: Your path is fascinating, but it, it is also pretty clearly within a tradition, a Christian tradition. And that’s interesting in part, because there were so many choices in, in the 70s and maybe there are now, which may be why a lot of serious religious thinkers look at this spiritual but not religious business and say “Ugh. That’s cafeteria spirituality, or you’re jumping from one spiritual fad to the next.”
Bass: You, you know, I, I think in any kind of movement or trend, there’s always going to, you know, be the dabblers. And so, when I do hear the religious leaders criticizing the spiritual but not religious as being, kind of, lightweight, I’m not gonna go there. I do not think that most people leave a faith tradition lightly, and yet, we have, quite literally, millions of Americans right now, who are moving around, because they have found religion of their childhood unsatisfying.
Fleming: So, what are churches doing wrong, or not doing that is, is sending people wandering away out the door?
Bass: It’s a combination of things, and, and a lot of it depends on which religious tradition you, you’re talking about. I think that the mainline churches, like the Methodism of my childhood, they kind of hit the wall a while ago, thirty or forty years ago. They were almost victims of their own success. They had been hugely successful. So mainly Protestants were complacent when the seventies opened up and they were thinking that they could continue to do what they always, always had done. For Evangelicals, the problem, has, has been the massive identification of religion in politics in their churches, and, what has happened over the course of the last decade in particular, and there are many studies and articles, things I could cite about this, Evangelicals who are under thirty do not agree with the politics of the religious right. They have different political pains about uh, gay, lesbian rights and marriage, and whether or not gay and lesbian people should be ordained in the ministry. They’re very different from older Evangelicals. Young Evangelicals are deeply committed to environmentalist causes and their parents are not. Young Evangelicals care about world poverty and global issues. Their parents are not interested in those things as political concerns. The only place where younger and older Evangelicals agree is around issues of abortion.
Fleming: But doesn’t this mean a kind of overthrow of religious authority? What does it mean for the pastors? For the priests? What does it mean for theories of morality and religious authority?
Bass: Well, the turn away from institutions doesn’t mean there, there’s a turn away from God or a completely chaotic sense of where all this is gonna go. What people are turning towards is lived experience as being the place from which faith should spring. With that shift, it can be threatening to clergy who think that being a clergy person is about being the guardians of an institution. But if clergy understand that their essential call, that their job, is not to be a guardian of institution, but instead to be a gatherer of a faith-filled community of exploration, experience, questions, and wonder, well, then there’s plenty of space for clergy. A lot of people say that actually, that this is a reformation, or a re-formation of Christian faith and faith more generally. You could look Judaism as going through a similar kind of stress. I think that Islam as it encounters being a really, truly global religion for the first time, and having a lot of adherents in the West, it’s going to have to reorient itself around some of these questions too. And so that, to me, is the Reformation, it’s, it’s a whole new way of doing things, and I think that it’s going to happen. I really am quite convinced of that actually.
Fleming: That’s religious scholar Diana Butler Bass. Her book is called “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.”
Bad Religion vs Christianity After Religion: Diana Butler Bass and Ross Douthat Video and Transcript
Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. To download this audio, click here. Scroll down to read the transcript. To hear the entire August 18, 2012 State of Belief Radio program, click here.INTERFAITH ALLIANCE STATE OF BELIEF RADIO AUGUST 18, 2012
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass
[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: From Interfaith Alliance, this is State of Belief Radio. I’m your host, Rev. Welton Gaddy. This week, we’re broadcasting from the Center for American Progress studios in Washington, DC.
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New SpiritualAwakening. On February 14th, Harper One published a book by that title, written by Diana Butler Bass, and that book continues to rank highly on religion and spirituality best-seller lists.
On April 17, the Free Press released the latest book by Ross Douthat. The title is BadReligion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and that book also continues to rank highly on religion and spirituality best-seller lists.
The remarkable thing is, each of these well-received books starts with a similar acknowledgement that traditional religion, specifically mainstream Christianity, is facing giant challenges in 2012 America. Both authors acknowledge the vast influence of organized religion on our culture and society. And then, at that point, these authors diverge wildly on both their analyses of how we got to where we are, as well as on what needs to happen next.
But taken together, these books help us get a fascinating, if unplanned, cumulative look at two very divergent perspectives on a single issue that is vitally important to many millions of the American people.
Earlier this summer, a dialogue began between the two authors involved. On July 14th in the pages of The New York Times, where he’s the youngest op-ed writer in history, Mr. Douthat stated bluntly, that “Liberal Christianity has simply collapsed.”
Dr. Bass quickly responded in the Huffington Post, where she comments regularly on culture and religion. Her column was headlined “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat.”
It wasn’t long – you got it – before Mr. Douthat took to his New York Times blog to craft his response to Dr. Bass.
Well, the exchange makes for fascinating reading – here are two sharp minds with divergent viewpoints but each author is sincere and studied in the author’s knowledge of the issue. And that’s why, in following this public correspondence, we felt it could be both interesting and important to bring these minds together for a face-to-face conversation – there’s a lot to be learned – and that’s precisely what we’ve done.
So with me in the studio right now is Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion. And joining me also is Dr. Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion. I have locked the door. And so I welcome both of you to State of Belief Radio! Thanks for being here.
[DR. DIANA BUTLER BASS, GUEST]: It’s great; I’m glad that it’s not just my mind but my body too that’s here.
[WG]: That’s right.
[ROSS DOUTHAT, GUEST]: The power of prayer can unlock any door, though, so just keep that in mind. Thanks so much for having us.
[WG]: That’s great. Look, I’m fascinated with the similarities of how each of you view organized Christianity’s current state in this country – and then with such unanimity of voice, you go off in opposite directions when it comes to what you say this means for the future. So I want to start, as you would expect, with an overview of where are we headed from each of your perspectives, and I’d like for you just to describe succinctly what your perspective on this is. It doesn’t matter who goes first because I want to hear from each of you, so one of you pick that up if you will.
[RD]: Sure, I can start. I’ll try and be quick, and I’ll just try and cover, I think, some points that we agree on. Basically I think the central place that both of our books start from is the fact that over the last 10 years, especially, but really over the last couple of generations, there has been a, what you might call, a deinstitutionalization of American Christianity, in which institutional Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have gotten weaker overall. Even though if you ask Americans questions like: “Do you believe in God? Do you pray?” and so on, America looks roughly as religious in that sense as ever. So we’re less a churched country, but still a very religious country.
So there’s this broader trend, and then there is, I think, an acceleration of the trend in the last decade. And I think Dr. Bass refers to a “religious recession,” right? To sort of describe, to link it to our current economic troubles, but I think, really, dating it rightly back to either the first part of the third millennium or even the 1990’s. And that shows up in the rise of what a couple of sociologists have called “the nones” – not n-u-n-s, but n-o-n-e-s – Americans who say they have no religious affiliation: they aren’t Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics – and this is one of the new and striking religious trends in American life. So overall, we’re looking at a landscape where the traditional Christian Churches are having a harder and harder time reaching people, and this phenomenon exists across the spectrum. And we can discuss the Liberal Christianity versus conservative Christianity divide, but I think we agree that it’s a challenge facing everyone, from the most conservative Evangelical to the most progressive-minded Episcopalian.
[DB]: Yeah. I agree with everything you’ve said, and I can tell you’ve spent some time reading some things I’ve written and I’ve certainly have read some things you’ve written. And I was really surprised when I opened up your book and found pretty much the same diagnosis of the culture in the first several pages that I do in my book too, because we’ve never met before; I had no idea you were writing the book you wrote, I don’t think you had any idea I was writing…
[RD]: Well, I had spies, actually, reporting to me, and every PDF you downloaded I downloaded as well. But yeah, I think it suggests, at least in terms of the data, this underlying trend is hard to argue with.
[DB]: Yeah, and it’s been very striking that in the last five or six years what’s come out are some of the best surveys probably ever done by sociologists about American religion. And across the board, they’re revealing the same thing: that there’s this slow motion collapse of institutional Christianity that’s been going on since the 1970’s, and then what I call the Great Religious Recession – the acceleration, really, since the beginning of the millennium. And that has profound consequences on American society, as a whole, consequences that I’m actually quite worried about, as I know that you are too. And this is a changing moment of the way that Americans are thinking about their religious lives, are gathering in community, and will be exploring how you generate communities of practice that create spiritual and social capital that are related to larger issues about poverty and how we get along as a country, politics… And so I think that this is a really important subject. And I’m really glad that you have tackled it as well.
[WG]: So are we at a crisis moment or an opportunity moment?
[RD]: Well, I think that the language of slow motion that you just used, I think, it’s very useful because it is a crisis moment, but it’s a slow-burning crisis. You know, we’re not going to wake up tomorrow and find that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has suddenly disappeared, or anything like that. And you aren’t seeing some… You know, there was a poll that just came out today showing that the number of self-professed Atheists in the United States has gone way up over the last, I think ten years, five years, I’m not sure. And that’s true – but it’s going up from a very, very low threshold. It’s something like four or five percent of Americans now identify as Atheist – which means that we’re still living in a country that has very significant institutional Churches, where institutional religion is still very influential notwithstanding its decline. So I think it’s important to see this for what it is: it’s not that the house is on fire in every room or something, it’s more that the house is slowly sinking into quicksand or something, if I can mix metaphors a little.
[DB]: Nice biblical analogy. You’ve got to look out for that sand.
I think that a part of the question about is this a crisis or is it an opportunity – I always think that those two things are very closely related. But I also think that it depends on what quarter of Christianity in the United States you’re looking at. I think that for legacy Protestantism, or ecumenical Protestantism, or liberal Protestantism or whatever you want to call it – the thing that we used to call mainline Churches – I think it actually is a crisis over there and, you know, I am one: I’m an Episcopalian, and known as a progressive or liberal Episcopalian. These are Churches I love; I work with them all the time. But I am also willing to say: “Hey, I think this house is on fire” – and you could see that this summer, as you wrote about, in the conventions that were held. Once every twelve years the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians all meet in the same summer in their big national meetings. And that was this past summer; and it was interesting to watch the three meetings of the three denominations. You wrote about the Episcopal Church; but in some ways, their meeting was the most promising and optimistic of the three meetings. The Episcopal Church actually voted… Once you move away from the, sort of, the hot button issues of sexuality – especially the things about transgender ordination and homosexual marriage – and you look at the broader scope of what the Episcopal Church tackled, it was very interesting. One of their set of resolutions was actually to take themselves completely apart as a denomination, and to try to figure out what it would mean to restructure the entire institution of the Episcopal Church based on a vision of mission rather than simply a vision of how are we going to maintain this big, big organization. And so they very seriously understand the crisis that they’re in and are taking measured steps – I don’t think it’s… They should probably be moving a little faster, but it’s a big organization, it’s an old one – but they are taking measured steps to try to think about some of the issues, I think that you actually raise, about what does a healthy Christian institution look like for the 21st century. But the Methodists and Presbyterians did not do that. They are in a muddle.
[WG]: You all are on the same page as to where we are, with some very little delineations in the severity of it. So you diverge – and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but want each of you, if you, will to speak about the divergence for a second, because I want us to be able to talk about those. So, Mr. Douthat, why don’t you go first. I think both of you are talking about a kind of next step recovery – where do we need to be going – and you say one thing Mr. Douthat, you say another Diana; and so would you, Mr. Douthat, care to describe where you see it going, and then we’ll begin to pick into all of this.
[RD]: Sure. I mean, I think that, you know, we both see a crisis and we both see opportunities; and I tend to lean more towards the crisis side and she tends to lean more towards the opportunity side – and that reflects, I think, some pretty significant theological disagreements.
I think that, ultimately, any kind of sustainable Christian revival has to be what I describe in my book as an “orthodox” revival. And I’m using the term, sort of, small “o” orthodox – meaning a kind of ecumenical orthodoxy that encompasses the Eastern Orthodox Churches, my own Catholic Church, and most of the historic Protestant denominations as well – but that’s ultimately rooted in the idea that there is a kind of unchanging core of Christian faith, right? That dates back to the first century AD, dates back to the great ecumenical councils of the Church in the fourth century, finds expression in the canon of scriptures and the Nicene Creed and so on. And then also I think finds expression in certain basic moral commitments, having to do with a skepticism of materialism and great wealth, a strong emphasis on chastity in sexual matters, and so on. And I think that, one: that constitutes the core of Christian faith, and two: that I don’t think that there is a sort of correlation where the most orthodox Churches are necessarily the most thriving ones. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite: a lot of what we describe as quote-unquote “conservative religion” in the United States is conservative in the sense of being politically conservative, on the conservative side of culture war issues to some extent, but I think departs from Christian orthodoxy in profound ways. And if you think about a figure like Joel Osteen in sort of the influence of the prosperity gospel in Christianity in the US I think you can see an example of that. So I don’t think, I’m not coming forward with a blueprint that says “Be more orthodox” and, you know, “and you will grow.” Instead I’m sort of arguing that, you know, that orthodoxy is the truest form of Christian faith and that a Christianity that sort of seeks self consciously to move beyond that core will, you know, one: eventually sort of seize to have any kind of Christian identity at all, and two: as that’s already happened in American life it’s produce overall fairly negative results. And so my sense is that you can already see what a Christianity after religion, a Christianity after church looks like in the US today and it’s visible in sort of polls, in sort of the younger generation and their views about God and morality and so on and it is overall not a positive picture, it’s a more narcissistic picture, a more sort of self absorbed picture and so on. So, I’d say that sort of, that’s my overview. And how about yours?
[DB]: I think that some of the difference we have certainly is theological. And I’m very excited about that. I would’ve responded to your last response to me, except I got the flu; and so I was down for ten days…
[RD]: But here we are today!
[DB]: …And so I was sitting in my bed, thinking, I want to write a thing, and it would’ve been engaging more theologically. But I also do think that it’s a difference about where we’re looking; and one of the things that I’ve done over the last decade – and you may or may not be aware of that – is that I’ve spent a lot of time with the microclimate, as it were, of Protestant congregations. And so I know all the research you’re referring to about young adults, mostly conducted by Chris Smith out of North Carolina; and so I’m aware of this kind of thin gruel of a picture of what Christianity looks like that does show up in the national polls. But what I’m also very aware of is that sort of off of everybody’s radar screens there has been developing, over the course of the same period of collapse, what I would call sort of isolated congregations that are demonstrating a whole different kind of vision that arises out of the old liberal tradition, but is also something different. And those congregations are congregations that are not necessarily interested in saying: “We are orthodox.” They don’t start with that kind of language or that kind of doctrine test. But they do start with the story of Jesus, and who Jesus was, and what Jesus intended for human life. There’s been a huge recovery, in many congregations in the mainline tradition, of understanding Jesus’ great command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and to try to stitch together a congregational or communal life that’s really based out of this deepest core teaching of Jesus himself.
So it’s not necessarily a return to the core teaching in the sense of the Creeds; but a core teaching of looking at the life and ministry and work of Jesus, and saying: “Well, what was that all about?” And what is really the center point of being a follower of God as Jesus himself taught and lived when he was here on earth? And so there’s been this passionate sort of recovery of biblical reading in many liberal congregations, of really searching out the stories and ancient texts of Christian tradition, and asking what those things have to do with living a contemporary life. There’s a deep and renewed commitment in some of these Churches towards practices that come out of the Christian monastic tradition. You’re as likely, in some mainline congregations today, to find people who are familiar with the Rule of St. Benedict as you are to find people who are voting for President Obama in November. And that’s something that the media doesn’t actually know: that there is this very committed, serious – not necessarily creedal in the sense that you’re talking about creedal – but a group of people who are deeply aware of the ancient traditions of Christianity, and are trying to take those traditions and make them make sense in a contemporary context.
So that’s the sort of microclimate that I’ve spent time with; and indeed, the first several years of the decade, of the last decade, I actually had a big grant from the Lilly Endowment where I went out and researched those kinds of churches and wrote a whole book about that. So it’s not, from my perspective, kind of anecdotal congregations here and there, but you can actually track what I would call a renewing or a sort of a microtrend in the larger picture of liberal Protestantism that is incredibly promising, and actually follows through on a new passion for Christian story, Christian narrative, the biblical texts themselves and a sincere life of practice. And it’s changing things on the grassroots level.
[RD]: You’re going to have to press us to disagree with each other, because of course I’m going to spring in and say that I think that that’s a wonderful thing. I’m a political conservative, obviously, sort of in a professional capacity. And I’m also obviously a theological conservative; but I think – as I’ve said in the original column and would say today – that American Christianity needs a Liberal Christianity, in the sense of that it need a Christianity that is identified with social reform in some sense, the idea that Christianity should manifest itself in political concerns, and struggle against injustice, and so on. You cannot have a vibrant American Christianity that only appeals to people who are members of the Republican Party. And to the extent that what you’re describing is a real phenomenon within liberal Churches and congregations, I think it’s a wonderful thing – and I think it is exactly what Liberal Christianity needs. It needs not to give up on its commitment to social justice writ large, the language of the social gospel and so on. It just needs to reroute that language and those commitments in a biblical and more ancient Christian faith. So, and I think there is interesting overlap, listening to you talk, between the way, among more sort of self-consciously conservative believers who find themselves sort of weary of the culture war as embodied by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and so on – there’s also a focus on these sort of grassroots initiatives and small churches and what I describe at the end of my book as quote-unquote “the Benedict option,” right? You mentioned the Rule of St. Benedict, and there are a lot of, sort of, what you might call “crunchy conservatives,” in a way, who see the way to built a future for conservative Christianity in United States is to be mainly about building, similarly, communities of practice that model Christianity to the culture as a whole. So there, I think, we’re in agreement – so you should press us to disagree.
[WG]: Well, let me tell you what I hear as criticisms of each of your positions, because I’d like to hear you respond to that. There are a lot of people who say, for example, that Mr. Douthat, when you talk about a core of Christianity that has to be protected and has to endure for the integrity of the religion – that you’re wanting to simply retreat into the old hierarchical Christianity in which there was privilege, and in which there was security, and in which you basically didn’t mix it up in the social process. You just stayed with: “Well, I’m going to be a doctrinaire Christian.”
On the other hand, Dr. Bass, with you, I hear people saying: “Well, you know, she and her kind have just given up on the gospel. They rightly want Christianity to be relevant, but in service to making Christianity relevant, they have weakened it to the point that it’s a kind of Christianity lite, doing social policy that is stronger than Christianity itself.” So I’d like for both of you to respond to those respective criticisms, because I think it will help people understand better where each of you is.
[DB]: You know, I appreciate the criticism, actually, because one of the things that I take from the liberal Christian traditions is that there are self-correcting mechanisms within it. One part I liked best about your book, Ross, was the really great discussions of Neo-orthodoxy. And when I look at Christian history, I see Neo-orthodoxy as one of those self-corrective moments of Protestant Liberalism, where people like Bart and Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. and other folks who are in the Neo-orthodox tradition looked back and said: “Well, Liberalism got this stuff right about social justice, but it also became too full of its own self,” it was full of hubris, and that it was not full enough of God, nor was it full enough of…
[RD]: An awareness of human sin and the imperfect ways of human nature.
[DB]: …Yeah, right, of human sin. And so you get this whole, then, generation of people who try to take sin seriously, doctrinally, and also the idea of humility seriously, doctrinally, and they remake Liberalism on it. And you can actually, I think, argue successfully that the energy and the growth of a lot of mainline Churches after World War II are directly the result of that theological self-correction of Liberalism. So to take that kind of vision about what the Liberal tradition can do is when it goes off the rails. It does have the capacity to correct itself, and I think that in the last 15 to 20 years there’s been a whole new generation of young liberal theologians and Church leaders who have been involved in that project.
It started around 1980 with the theological voices out of Yale of Hans Frey and George Limbeck articulating, for the first time, something that was called post-liberal theology; and that group of students, who were in mainline seminaries in the 1980’s, took some of that insight from the post-liberal project, as it were, and began to apply it in congregations. And I think that’s what you see today in those pockets of vitality – where I was talking about mainline Churches that are doing well – it’s really sort of taking the emphasis from post-liberalism, which was to go back and reexamine tradition, and was to go back and to recommit ourselves to the stories of ancient Christianity, and also to base life around the idea of sustained practices in community. It took those three insights out of the post-liberal tradition and began applying them in congregations.
And so now we’ve had about 15 or 20 years of this on-the-ground, very mealy sort of self-correction of the Liberal tradition going on; and so to me – yes, I think that the Liberalism I grew up with in the 1960’s in my Methodist church in Maryland – it stunk. It was boring, it was irrelevant, it offered no possibility of a young person like myself who was passionate to live a life in God to connect in any meaningful way with scripture or with Jesus; but that kind of Liberalism is now just kind of a stereotype of what Liberalism used to be, and what it has become in some of its quarters is this very alternative, extremely demanding, different way of living one’s life in congregations. It’s not every congregation. It’s a small percentage of congregations – the people at Hartford Seminary who do all this number-crunching stuff, I’ve had them try to run their numbers on this, and they think that maybe 8 to 10% of mainline congregations demonstrate some level of this commitment to, sort of, postmodern or post-liberal sort of stuff – so it’s by no means everybody. But it’s a lot of people.
[RD]: So, two points, right? First – a quick one to your objection to my point of view, or to your phrasing of the objection to my point of view. I mean, in general, I would say – and I think the examples she was just citing helped to make this point – I think people often tend to underestimate the extent to which dogma sustains practice and even sustains activism – or especially sustains activism – and that if you look at, in American history, certainly, the great social reformers who were influenced by Christianity – they tended to be, in certain ways, extremely biblical in their faith, extremely dogmatic in their faith, often fairly supernatural in their faith. And this is a line that runs back from Martin Luther King through William Jennings Bryan back to the abolitionists And so to the claim that a more dogmatic faith just serves to, sort of, reinforce existing social hierarchies – look: obviously, sometimes that’s true. And I’m Catholic, and the Catholic Church has a long history of complicity with existing power structures. But then again, if you look around the world today, you see parts of the world, like Latin America, where the Catholic Church was a force for reaction, and sided with military dictatorships against Communists and Socialists and so on; but then you see other parts of the world like Korea, East Asia and often Africa as well, and again, these are places where the Church is less embedded in the existing social hierarchies, and it becomes an agent of reform: Catholic bishops and cardinals and so on. So I think it can run both ways, but I think dogma does not have to be an impediment to reform, and can even assist it.
And then second, to your point about whether we’re living through a kind of equivalent of the Neo-orthodox moment, where Liberal Christianity is finding a way to self-correct: what I see as missing – and this is maybe where we can get some real disagreement going – is, I think that if there were a kind of, you know, a Reinhold Neibuhr of Liberal Christianity today, right, somebody who was sort of within the Liberal tradition but was really focused on where Liberal Christianity was getting things wrong – he would be focused on sex. I think that Liberal Christianity has a sex problem, and I think it’s an understandable sex problem, because I think liberal Christians, rightly, during the era of the Feminist revolution in the 60’s and 70’s, and then also, to a certain extent, with the gay rights revolution, had a deep and appropriate desire to overcome elements of bigotry within the Christian tradition; elements of sexism and so on. But I think that commitment has tended to carry Liberal Christianity to a point where it ends up effacing or ignoring what I think is the pretty plain message – and again, we’re getting back to that question of a core – but the pretty plain message of the New Testament, Jesus himself, the witness of the early Church and so on which is a – Philip Rieff had this, you know, he describes it as a rejection of sexual individualism; and I think if you look at American society today, I think it’s fair to at least submit the possibility that we’re living through an era where sexual individualism has kind of run amok. And I think that the Liberal Churches, again, for reasons having to do with a desire to defend the movement towards female equality and to sort of avoid the tendency towards homophobia, have failed to maintain a language that speaks to those issues. And bracketing the question of homosexuality have failed to develop a language that speaks to issues like premarital sex, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing and so on. And if I were sitting here with a Republican Christian and so on, I think I’d be talking about money instead of sex; because, you know, that core has some pretty strong things to say about money. But I think in the case of the Liberal tradition right now – and again, maybe it’s different in these particular communities you’re talking about – but I think there isn’t a real confrontation with the gulf between what the New Testament says about sex and the way we live now.
[DB]: I think that Americans have a sex problem, and…
[RD]: Maybe humanity has a sex problem.
[DB]: I think that that might be part of the sin, Genesis has something to say about that. But, you know, I appreciate what you’re talking about; and I spent a good part of my life in Conservative Evangelical churches, mostly when I was a teenager and a young adult, and was educated at an Evangelical seminary. And there were huge problems related to sex there, too, and they were actually problems of individualism. I can remember probably about 20 years ago, Leadership magazine, which is one of the publications of Christianity Today, conservative publication in America, they published an expose by a major Evangelical Protestant pastor, who would not put his name on the article, about sex addiction among Evangelical pastors. And boy, that article – it came out right as I was at the end of seminary, so it might be even as much as 30 years ago now, which I hate to say – but that article was Xeroxed off and passed person to person to person among young Evangelical leaders at the time, because everybody in the community knew it was true. And that same kind of individualism that you can see express itself in some of the more radical parts of the mainline around homosexuality or some forms of sexual expression that are outside of the tradition is also happening within Conservative Christian circles – but it’s happening not publicly. It’s happening privately; and it is happening to the point where it’s destroying marriages of Conservative pastors; where it’s undermining the mission and ministry of Conservative Churches and seminaries, and it’s been very much a secret phenomenon. There have been, in more recent years, a few studies about that, and so I think that this tendency towards a whatever-makes-us-feel-good kind of sexuality is just a tendency of human nature; it’s a tendency of sin and it riddles its way through religious institutions depending upon the languages and theologies and practices and structures.
[RD]: And I’m Roman Catholic, right, so we have…
[DB]: I wasn’t going to throw any stones.
[RD]: …No, no, we should go there, because obviously, you know, the American Catholic Church – and to some extent the global Catholic Church as well – has had a huge sex abuse problem that everybody listening or watching this show is very well aware of; and I think that the phenomenon you’re describing is exactly right. There isn’t some Conservative Christian cure for, you know, the way sex and sexual sin manifest itself. But what tends to happen in debates within the Catholic Church, which is obviously the area I’m most familiar with, is: something like the sex abuse crisis happens, and then the more, sort of, theologically liberal voices within the Church will say: “Well, this proves that priestly celibacy is a mistake,” right? You know, this proves that the Catholic Church is too hung up on sex, and needs to get over those hang-ups and, you know, move into the 21st century and so on. And it’s that point that I think is just – I think it’s pretty much flat wrong, because I think it is the reality of sexual sin makes it all the more important for Christian institutions to offer some kind of countersign, some kind of manifestation – whether it is the call for priestly celibacy, the emphasis on chastity before marriage and continence within marriage and so on, you know, a sort of – if not a prohibition – at least a strong disapproval of divorce. That countersign is made more important by the reality of sin, rather than being necessarily undercut by it. And that, I think, is what I tend to see as missing from Liberal Christianity – sort of a way of manifesting that countersign.
[DB]: And that language and some of the theology that’s been developing around that has been part of the discussion, say, in the Episcopal Church about homosexuality, but is not the piece of the discussion that makes the front page of the paper. And the way in which some Liberal Protestants are discussing these kinds of issues now and trying to teach our children – I have a 14-year-old daughter! Believe me, these things matter to me deeply, and…
[RD]: I have an 18-month-old daughter. I’m already dreading…
[DB]: Give me a call in a few more years. One of the things that we talk about in our family, and certainly in traditions that I’m familiar with, are practices like: what does it mean to honor one’s body? And that comes out of scripture; comes out of the ancient tradition; it comes out of the idea that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; that God occupies, as it were, our bodies – and to teach that to our children is not just to teach them a bible verse to memorize, or some sort of ancient belief, but instead is to say: this is really what the community, over time, thinks about our bodies, and that this needs to be honored. It needs to be honored in us, and so sexuality becomes part of a more holistic discussion – particularly with daughters – about things like eating disorders, how far you go with your boyfriend, whether you stay celibate before marriage, how you relate to people who have different perspectives of this, who are in middle school with you – yeah, that’s where it starts – and so, honoring one’s body is a place that Liberals, really, can start with this. And also, I know you know Andrew Sullivan, I don’t know him personally, but I certainly have read him on this, and his whole argument for same-sex marriage, marriage equality, is honoring the traditions of monogamy and chastity and beauty that the Christian tradition teaches when two people commit themselves to a life of faithfulness. So I think there are ways to do it from a Liberal perspective, and that are really theologically rich and are in line with the tradition – not woodenly – but in an open sense, where it’s not just about rampant sexual freedom in mainline churches. You really can’t go to most mainline churches and expect an orgy on the altar, you know, it’s just not happening. People are a lot more conservative than that, in some senses.
[WG]: I’ve got to interrupt, because it’s interesting to me that I hear – in your language and in your presentation on this – I hear more of the difference between you than I’ve heard on anything else that you’ve answered. You’re talking about honoring the body. You’re saying no divorce, no sexual promiscuity – and that’s more the core traditional language; this is more the relevance, try-to-relate language. OK. What does each of you most disagree with in the argument of the other?
[DB]: Well, the conversation that we were just having actually points to it – and Ross had said it, actually, earlier – and that is, he says he wants to begin with dogma and move toward moral formation; and actually, that’s exactly the opposite way that I move. And I think that that…
[WG]: Say how you move.
[DB]: Well, the example that I just gave of starting with a practice: honoring one’s body, and then moving toward belief or doctrine or dogma is the way that Liberals – and Post-Liberals, if we’re talking about that tradition, of that renewing tradition – the way that we move. We start in practice, we start in sort of the lived experience of the community over time – because we include the longer historic experience of the Church – but it’s out of practice that we come to form belief in doctrine, rather than the idea that there is an unchanging core of faith that you give your life to, and then out of that develop a set of practices. So I actually hear that as exactly the opposite.
[RD]: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a little blurrier than exactly the opposite, but we can, I mean for the sake of the argument, I think it is sort of the nub of the disagreement. I think that you would agree that dogma isn’t inconsequential; and I would agree that experience and life in community isn’t inconsequential. But the relative weight that we give to dogma, I think, is the biggest difference between us; and the relative weight we give to the importance of specificity in commandments, you might say, or the authority. To what extent does authority reside in the bible, the Church, and the historical deposit of faith; and to what extent does it reside in the experience of the community right now. And this really is, I think, the biggest sort of Liberal-Conservative, Progressive-Orthodox, you know, whatever division you want to make – that’s the biggest divide, and it is sort of a chicken and the egg, you know, dogma and practice kind of question.
[WG]: But it has consequences for which comes first.
[RD]: Right. And it has consequences for how – I mean, to get back to sort of where you were saying that Liberal Protestant communities were trying to begin gets back to, you know, how do you think about the words of Jesus? How do you think about the function of the New Testament message in the life of faith and so on, and how do you think about the authority of that message – and how far are you willing to go in revising that message depending on personal experience and contemporary realities? And my view is that the temptation in Liberal circles is to go so far that you end up unraveling, you know, you pull the thread out so far and suddenly you’ve unraveled the place you began – and then it’s, sort of, well, why are we Christians, again, anyway, if we think that Jesus got this wrong, and Paul got that wrong, and it was the first century and they didn’t know what we know now, if you see what I mean. I think that’s the danger: that you follow the thread so far that you look back to the beginning and say, well, you know, Jesus, nice guy, got a lot of things right, got a bunch of things wrong; you know, Buddha, same way. We’re sort of mixing and matching, and then you aren’t really, you know, there isn’t any there there anymore. That’s the apocalyptic view.
[DB]: I was going to say, that’s the stereotype.
[RD]: It’s stereotypical.
[WG]: You have a quick comment on that?
[DB]: Well that, about 40 years ago an Episcopal theologian, who unfortunately died far too young, named Urban Holmes, wrote an incredible essay called “Praying Shapes Believing” – and I think that that essay has had sort of a seminal impact on, certainly me, but I think also a lot of what’s going on in mainline: is that our beliefs really do spring out of the life of liturgy and prayer, out of how the community lives together in those places. And so it is a big disagreement about the order of these things – although there are, as you nicely say, there’s a lot of nuance there that you can walk into.
[RD]: Right, well, I mean, Conservative Catholicism is not exactly an anti-liturgical community.
[DB]: Right, and Liberal Episcopalianism, with its recitation of the Creed every week, is not exactly an anti-orthodox community.
[RD]: No, no, you wll hear the Creed recited more often in certain Liberal congregations than you will in notionally Conservative mega-churches and so on. That’s absolutely the case.
[DB]: So I just, that whole sense of practice preceding belief, I think is really important – and what you say about belief preceding practice – you can run to the edges of those and find the stereotypes, or you can have a really good discussion that we’re having, that begins to sort of understand the nuances of that, and how that works together for what could be the good of Christianity in America for the future. Because for the stereotype of Liberal Christianity – you know, the stereotype of Conservative Christianity isn’t very good either. If you put belief before all this other stuff, before community, you wind up with witch hunts, and all kinds of oppression of people, and that is not pretty. As a matter of fact, there are probably more people right now who are leaving Christian Churches because they think that Christians are narrow and bigoted and dangerous than there are people who are leaving because they think Christians are kind of goofy and, you know, maybe theologically sloppy.
[RD]: That’s because the people who left the Churches for those reasons left over the last 30 years – but, yeah.
[DB]: Those people are already out. But you know, there is more of a stereotype right now about this sort of, you know, hyper-orthodoxy leading to a kind of a Fundamentalism that is hurtful to democracy and hurtful to individuals who are seeking to have a meaningful life.
[WG]: I’ve got to jump in, because I’ve got two questions I want to ask while we’re still on the air. One: for each of you, what if you’re wrong? What if your position’s wrong?
[DB]: Hey, you’re talking to a girl who grew up in Evangelicalism. If I’m wrong, I go to hell.
[RD]: I wouldn’t say that. You know, we Catholics believe in invincible ignorance. Everybody can get in, you know.
[WG]: But it’s a serious question. I mean, what are the consequences if you’re wrong?
[RD]: Well, what’s the context of my wrongness? We’re right that there is a God and so forth? I mean, because if there’s no God, that changes a lot of things!
[WG]: No, no, no. I am presuming that both of you are concerned about contemporary Christianity. Its integrity, its vitality, its relevance, how it’s going to survive – and each of you has a conviction about what needs to happen for organized Christianity to realize its potential. So, what if your perspective is wrong?
[RD]: Well I guess I’ll start. If my perspective is wrong, then I and people who agree with me will be remembered – I mean, there’s always a tension between doctrine and contemporary reality, right? And there’s always an entanglement, you know, we live in a fallen world. There’s always an entanglement between the Church and the culture, between the Church and existing biases and power structures and so forth, and there are times when people – Christians making the Conservative argument – end up becoming too attached to those power structures, those habits, those biases and bigotries, and not recognizing that the core of Christian faith is pointing in a different direction. And so in that sense, if I’m wrong, I’ll be remembered as one of those Christians, right, as somebody who just didn’t see that it actually, you know, didn’t compromise Christianity to shift significantly on sexual ethics, and that actually that was as necessary a shift as the Catholic Church’s shift on religious liberty, right? So, the Catholic Church had one view of religious liberty in the 19th century, and a different one post-Vatican II; and there were continuities between the two views, but there had been a shift. And I think that was a positive shift, and I could list other positive shifts; so in that sense, there’s always the possibility that as a Conservative you’re privileging your Conservatism over your Christianity, and that’s something that anybody on my side of these debates has to keep in mind.
[WG]: What about you, Diana?
[DB]: Feel the flames! No, I think it’s interesting, because as a person who does understand myself as Liberal or Progressive, I kind of always assume I am wrong – and so I spend a lot of time ruminating on where I might be wrong, and where I need to be more humble, and think through what I’m saying, and make sure that the advice and the passions that I’m communicating to people who trust me and look to me for leadership are not being seriously led down a garden path. So I think that when you ask a question about what happens if I’m wrong – it’s not so much a personal thing, even though I did make the joke about going to hell – it’s that I worry about folks who take me seriously as a leader, and I think, well, if I’m wrong and I say something that they embrace and begin to practice in their communities and it winds up hurting the fabric of community – that becomes a huge and terrible burden to bear. And so I am thinking more about the impact of what I say in that larger cultural arena than I would be about my own opinions.
[WG]: Second question is: what in contemporary Christianity most excites you? What are you vibrant about because it’s happening?
[DB]: The crisis is actually the thing that excites me the most. When I was little and growing up in the Methodist Church in Baltimore – I mean, you could say that there was crisis in the air, certainly there was a big cultural crisis at that time in the 1960’s – but my Methodist church was so dull that it was almost unspeakable. And now you go to church, and some of them are dull – you know, good for dull – but an awful lot of them aren’t. The people are engaged in some really interesting discussions in the ground level, people are having really fascinating arguments. The institutions are really struggling right now to pay their bills and think about what the ministry is going to look like for the future and who should be ordained and, you know, can we marry these people and not these people, and what happens if we pray for this in public prayers… And so the whole level of energy and fervor and even argument is, to me, the place of enthusiasm – because it opens up a possibility that people are ready to change. And that people do actually still love these old institutions, and see them as valuable, and want them to continue in some fashion for the future. But they don’t really know how to do it – so it’s a great time for imagination and creativity.
[WG]: Mr. Douthat.
[RD]: Yeah, I think to come to somewhere where we agree again, I think that in decline there is the possibility and the reality that Christianity becomes countercultural in a stronger way than it’s been at certain points in the American past, and Christianity is supposed to be a countercultural religion. It’s a religion that was founded on the crucifixion of somebody we believe to be the Son of God alongside two common criminals. You can’t really get much more, sort of, counter the institutions of the age than that. And I think you can take that line too far – I mean, I’ll have people say to me, you know, well because Christianity is more countercultural today, that shows we haven’t really lost anything and so on. I don’t think that’s right; I think we have lost a lot of things over the last 50 years, but it’s still the case that a crisis is an opportunity, and it’s a particular opportunity for a faith like Christianity that isn’t supposed to get too comfortable in any particular culture, any particular time and place. And it’s true for the mainline and their struggles, it’s true for more theologically conservative Christians who feel sort of marginalized. You know, you’re supposed to be the salt of the earth and all that, and there’re real chances to do that in a society that is a little more hostile to your faith than it used to be.
[WG]: What about the discussion that we’ve just had? Any surprises, any new insights, any sense of where the next stage or step of your ongoing dialogue, debate will be?
[RD]: I mean, I sometimes like to think – and I go back and forth on this, depending on which blog post I’ve read in a particular day – but we’ve lived through an era of incredible polarization and real culture war and so on, that was driven, I think, by these deep tectonic shifts in the 1960’s and 70’s. And so in my own Catholic Church, the previous generation of Catholics is just completely polarized between Liberal Catholics who are like, you know, it’s the spirit of Vatican II and we need to keep pushing that ahead; and Conservative Catholics who are all about John Paul II and sort of shifting the direction of the Church. And in my generation, I do at least see a possibility – and you can see this in some of the common ground we found in this conversation – that at least some of that polarization can become less important, and that certain forms of common ground can be rediscovered by people who aren’t personally invested in something that happened in 1968. So that’s sort of my hope.
On the downside, you know, with my own book I would sort of go up and down on that, depending on which review I was reading, right? And sometimes I’d read more liberal Christians saying: “Oh, Douthat is really saying some interesting things,” and I’d be like, “Yes, there’s some common ground there!” And then I read what I thought was a viciously unfair attack from someone on the liberal side, and I’d say: “Oh, to the barricades, Sarah Palin for president.” So, you know, you go back and forth depending on the day.
[WG]: And what about you Diana?
[DB]: Well, I actually, part of the reason I do what I do in working with these institutions and writing these books and all is certainly not because you get rich doing it. You know, hey yeah, I get paid by mainline Churches, you know, it’s a great income stream! But part of the reason I do what I do is because I really honestly and deeply understand that religious life in the United States is the underpinning of our democratic life. And anybody that cares about our life as community and the common good over the last 20 or 30 years really, truly has to be heartbroken. By the way, religion has been sort of forced into boxes to serve agendas that wind up breaking us apart and not allowing us to really try to create a different kind of America for the future: a good America, that picks up all the things that we love the most about what it means to be American. And so I care about religion, and I do care about finding these kinds of conversations and creating some theological understanding. And I think that the only way that common ground can begin to be achieved in religion – so that it functions as a seedbed for a larger common ground across the culture – is that when we address these issues in public, as we’re both responsible to do, that we don’t start with stereotypes and straw men and women of each other’s positions. It’s interesting – I can tell them this on air – my publisher, when your book came out, they wanted me to write an editorial attacking your book so I could sell my book. And I…
[RD]: My publisher wanted me on the nasty reviews I mentioned; of course they want you to respond immediately and so on.
[DB]: Right. And so you know…
[RD]: It’s though times for the book business, so it’s all hands on deck – if you had done so, I would not have been offended. Well, I would’ve tried not.
[DB]: Well I do understand that – but I’ve read your book, and I actually tried to write something that would be edgy and negative and mean to get attention to my work – and I literally sat at my computer, and I couldn’t do it. And my publisher was standing there going: “Where is that editorial? Where is that editorial, we want to send it to the New York Times” – and I finally said to them after the longest time, I said there is not going to be any editorial. And I said, you know, he has a perspective on this; I disagree with it, I think he’s missing some of the point, and that he stereotyped some of the things that I am deeply passionate about, but I don’t think that it helps for me to come out and attack this person who I’ve never met just in the sheer commercial enterprise of selling books.
[RD]: And she just guarantees herself entrance into heaven right there.
[WG]: Well let me tell you I…
[DB]: When you did write the thing about the Episcopal Church, it was a natural opening to engage in a real discussion – and so, well, that’s the answer for me, is that I want a real discussion with people who are truly open to not just stereotype, but to have conversations about the importance of religion in American society so that we can be a better America.
[WG]: I really appreciate both of you coming to the studio. I appreciate the kind of conversation we’ve had. One of my hopes, always, for State of Belief Radio is that we can model in some way the kind of conversation that needs to go on in America – whether the issue is religion or politics or some other item – and I think you all have done that well. I want to say in closing – and I’ll give you an opportunity to rebut if you don’t like my closing – it occurs to me that for a person concerned about authentic Christianity, that whether you start with where Ross is or whether you start with where Diana is, if you’re going to be thorough in your thought, you have to give attention to what each one of you has said in order to keep the whole thing together – because there is a tension in religion, always, that requires both an interest in the core and an interest in the relevance, and those two have to be held in some kind of tension – whether the application comes first, the practice comes first as Diana says or whether the core comes first as Ross says. Thank you all very much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.
Now this is a GREAT interview….
Interviewer: Tracy Schier
Diana Butler Bass is currently a senior research fellow at Virginia Theological Seminary where she directs the Lilly
Endowment funded Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice: A Study of Mainline Vitality (see the website:
http://www.practicingcongregations.org). She also is an adjunct faculty member at the seminary, teaching courses on
Religion, Race, and Gender; Religion and Public Life; History of the Episcopal Church; Religion in America; and
American Congregations among others. Her Ph.D. from Duke University is in the field of American religious history
with additional emphases in American social and intellectual history, 17th-19th century English religious history, and
historical theology. She holds her M.A.T.S. from Gordon Conwell and her B.A. from Westmont College.
From 1997 to 2000 Bass was an associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College. Prior to that she taught at Macalester College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Westmont College. She has had a number of grants and fellowships including a research grants from the Louisville Institute and a dissertation grant from Duke University. Bass is the author of Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community (Jossey-Bass, 2002) which received numerous “best book” and “recommended reading” notices. For her 1995 book, Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press), she was awarded the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History. She currently has three books slated for publication between 2004 and 2006.
Q. Before we talk about the essence of your study of congregations of intentional practice, please give us some details about the denominations you are looking at and also the numbers and size of congregations.
A. As of right now we are studying 45 congregations, but that number may go as high as 70. That includes mostly Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian congregations, a few UCC churches, two Disciples congregations and one Reformed Church in America. The group is geographically and racially diverse. We have attempted to cover a wide spectrum of mainline churches: working class, upper middle class, inner city, suburban, a church in a mining town, rural. The smallest congregation has an average Sunday attendance of 75, the largest, over 2,500.
Q. Your project is looking at “intentional practices that foster vitality” in mainline Protestant congregations. How are you defining intentional practices?
A. Our understanding of practices draws from two bodies of literature: those who, like Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra, define practices as theological or ethical; and those who, like some Anglican and Catholic theologians, define practices as classical spiritual disciplines. But the basic definition — practices are things that Christian people do together that connect them to God and one another, and that address fundamental human needs, thus forming a way of life — leans on the definition found in Practicing Our Faith.
In the congregations we are studying there exists an enormous range of practices — those that are primarily devotional such as centering prayer or following a daily rule of life, and those that arise out of the desire for moral meaning such as forgiveness and hospitality. In addition to practices that are within the rubric of “moral” or “ascetic,” we see some churches being purposeful about leadership or administrative practices, that is, they are thinking of leadership as discipleship in areas of preaching, decision making, discernment, and even congregational budgets and elections. Ultimately, however, this project is trying to work from congregational practices up; not definitions down. Thus, we intend to explore practices-as-lived. This approach, I suspect, may enrich or enlarge the theological definitions of Christian practices.
Regarding intentionality: there is a difference between accidental practices and purposeful ones. Accidental practices are, as novelist Anne Tyler suggests, ancient “grooves of habit and neighborhood,” that provide comfort and continuity in life. Such “grooves of habit” exist everywhere in churches — caring for the sick, assisting the
bereaved, giving money to the poor, following inherited forms of worship — but people do not typically reflect on received habits. Intentional practices, on the other hand, are consciously chosen in reflective and reflexive ways — they shape the lives of those who are doing them and there is a purposefulness and clarity about them. In a sense,
intentional Christian practices are new habits, habits born in baptism, strengthened in eucharist, “mastered” through discipleship. They are not “grooves of habit,” but they are like an art of habit. Because they are chosen, people have to know why they have embraced a particular way of life, to articulate it, and to be able to teach and share the
practices that have been meaningful to them.
Q. Can you talk about the “vitality” you are looking for in congregations—how do you recognize it?
A. We are not looking primarily at numbers. Neither size nor budget necessarily translates into congregational vitality. Instead, the project has identified three qualitative markers, or touchstones, that we believe communicate congregational vitality: coherence, authenticity, and transformation.
First, we are looking for coherence: does a particular practice cohere across a congregation? When you walk through the door of a congregation that has coherence this is visible in their use of language, in their symbols, in architecture, in the bulletin, in mission statements. Coherence among such things shows that these churches are really serious about hospitality or forgiveness or whatever practices they have embraced. Through these things, they introduce newcomers to the practice – teaching and forming others in faith in verbal and non-verbal ways.
Second, we are looking for authenticity. Is a particular practice connected to the life of the congregation as lived experience and not just the hope of a board of elders or the person who wrote the mission statement? In such churches the congregational history is important — the people know how they arrived at where they are. Also, the stories of the members of these congregations are important because these stories witness or testify to its faith practices. The practices are authentic to the congregation’s fundamental identity.
A third marker is transformation. Have the practices changed the lives of the people who are participating? Have the structures of the church, the way things are done, changed in relation to the practices? Has the community around the congregation changed in some way by the church’s practice of faith? And finally, we look at how the
congregation connects its stories to biblical stories. Are people articulate about the connection between what they are doing and the larger Christian story?
Q. You also use the term “neo traditional” to describe the churches you are studying. Can you talk about the nuances of that term?
A. Actually we are moving away from that term and substituting “retraditioning” which is more of a sociological term. Some theorists talk about how Western culture has gone through “detraditioning” and broken away from its religious moorings. But this really is not the whole story. There are many places, in the churches we are studying for
example, where people are re-looking at tradition and re-fashioning it in meaningful ways for today. These congregations are reaching back to the past, identifying practices that were an important part of that past, and bringing them to the present where they can reshape contemporary life. One simple example of this is walking a
labyrinth, a devotional discipline that combines practices of silence, pilgrimage, healing, and prayer. Walking prayer is a tool from the past. When borrowing the labyrinth as a contemporary discipline, Christians engage in an act of retraditioning and invest an ancient practice with new meaning.
Another example comes from a Methodist church we are studying. That congregation is attempting to emphasize the apostolic core of faith in everything that they do. They have chosen Acts 2:41-43 as the place where they can see themselves and model their behavior accordingly. It is more than a mission statement. It has become the guiding
principle of discipleship in community for them. This is clear in their worship, in their practice of hospitality and in the ways that the church members relate to one another and to others outside of the congregation. Again, they have taken an ancient pattern, in this case one found in the New Testament, and reinterpreted it for contemporary people
as an ordering point of Christian way of life. That is retraditioning.
Unlike the churches we are studying, most mainline Protestants didn’t talk about tradition a few decades ago — they tended to be more interested in contemporary issues, problems, and theologies. Congregations disengaged from or muted tradition.
But now some mainline Protestants appear to be asking new questions of the old traditions — often in the context of important changes in our praxis. Our concerns with things like social justice and women’s ordination, for example, changed the way mainliners understood the Gospel, ministry, and discipleship. In this study we are looking at churches that honor the recent past of Protestant experience — the justice and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s — and are fusing those concerns with a developing appreciation of older patterns of practice. In a very real sense, American mainline Protestantism was “detraditioned” in the 1960s, and appears to be engaged in “retraditioning” itself now. It is in these “retraditioning” churches that we are discovering new patterns of vitality.
Q. What is the catalysis that turns an existing congregation into a church that would fit the definitions of those in your study?
A. It often develops as a result of some kind of crisis in the congregation, a precipitating event that teaches the leadership and the membership that the church cannot continue in its received ways of doing things. These crises are varied — some are financial, some have to do with declining membership, or a leadership crisis. We are studying one church that was burned to the ground in a lightening strike, another where the deaths of teen-aged members shook the congregation to its core. But in all of the instances, the people had to consider what it means to be Christian, why it matters to live faithfully, and why their church should even continue to exist. We have a small number of churches where charismatic leadership sparked change, and a couple where there was no definitive, precipitating event. Rather, congregants had a collective spiritual hunger to go deeper.
Theologically, I would like to say the catalyst appears to be the Holy Spirit!
Q. You have been fascinated by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra’s description of practicing congregations as being like monastic communities with porous boundaries. Please talk about that.
A. That is an important observation — and a deeply Protestant hope for serious spirituality to shape the life of Christian communities in the world. One of the churches that we are studying calls itself an “urban abbey.” They have developed a congregational “rule of life” that is given to all members, including newcomers, and the members adopt at varying levels. It consists of things like reading scripture, daily prayer, working with the poor. This church was in a state of decline in a rapidly urbanizing neighborhood and is now experiencing new life through this vision.
Intentional and practicing congregations have an earnestness about them and a sense of discipline that applies to their individual lives as well as to their lives in community. That, in turn, makes them vital places, attractive to others seeking meaning in life.
Q. What have you learned about the relationship between “spirituality” and “religion” in studying these churches?
A. I believe that the dichotomy between spirituality and religion in our culture is a false one. People who discover meaning through some sort of spirituality or spiritual practice usually look for others with the same experience and, if several spiritual practitioners gather to share insights and their craft, it becomes “formalized,” usually in the form of religion. The churches participating in this study are influenced by the culture of spiritual seeking. These congregations have intuited the need for connecting people to God and to others, and they are doing it within received theology and the reexamining of old traditions. Spiritual hunger and cultural restlessness are changing the mainline. Churches are responding to that. And in doing so, they defy all the current categorizations we have for American Protestantism. They are not really “liberal” or “conservative,” “progressive” or evangelical.” They are something else altogether.
Q. What differences are there between the churches you are studying and other mainline churches?
A. We definitely see more hands-on service. The members of the churches we are studying are not just writing checks. These people are getting into the messiness of going on mission, not just sending money to the mission. What we term “charity” and “policy advocacy” are seen as the old way of doing social justice and as being
disconnected from the people. The congregations we are looking at would rather do justice work than pay for someone else to do it. One of the Methodist churches we are studying is helping its people to develop a commitment to a life of service by sponsoring a one-week mission to urban areas or Appalachia. Of course, not all people can do this — but those who can are deeply affected — both in their prayer life and in the way that they understand their commitment to God and to other people in and out of their congregation.
Q. Are there aspects of contemporary American culture that are helpful to the development of the congregations you are looking at?
A. There are four trends I believe are helpful. First is the detraditioning I spoke of earlier. That has forced people to ask, “what have we done and what can we do with tradition?”
Second, what scholars call the “third disestablishment of religion,” that shift from external to internal authority, has been influential. Sometimes church leaders bemoan the decline of religious authority in our culture, but that same “decline” has forced people to be more pro-active in making religious choices and moral decisions. The switch to personal autonomy gives congregants a bigger stake in their religious commitments and promotes seriousness in congregational involvement.
Third, the development of post-liberalism, which is a profound trend both religiously and politically, has helped many people to evaluate both the blessings and the banes of the old liberal culture — a cultural worldview that was tied to the mainline tradition — in relation to the Gospel. Mainline Protestants are learning to distinguish between the church and the world more clearly.
And fourth, there is a real interest in developing mastery of practice. There is a whole cultural stream looking at practice and communities of practice and seeing how that can be incorporated into daily life. This is translating into congregational life.
Q. What aspects of contemporary American culture might you see as a hindrance to developing congregations of intentional practice?
A. We really are a materialistic society, and we are numbers driven. If the mainline gets caught up in the numbers game — whoever has the most members is the winner — then we are in trouble. The emphasis has to be on God and neighbor and loving people. There are so many distractions in the U.S. that it is hard for people to keep
their attention on that.
Q. If a congregation is intentional about being a practicing congregation, how does it know when it is successful?
A. These congregations don’t use the language of success. They use words like process and journey. They have come to understand that the Christian life is an incomplete project, and they are constantly open and wanting to learn new things. They are not closed to new ways, and they would not ever say that they have “arrived.” And certainly, these are not the biggest churches or the churches with the biggest budgets. The people in these churches are concerned with how they relate to the Christian tradition in their lived, congregational life. These congregations are intent on finding out what God is calling them to do and how they can respond to that call through their prayer lives and through their practices. They are concerned with being faithful Christians rather than being successful ones.
Q. As you look at your study of these churches so far, what surprises have you had?
A. One of the biggest is the response of pastors and lay leaders when we call them to ask if we can spend time with them. We are greeted with surprise—a kind of “Really? Us?” reaction.
I would also say that I am surprised by the aggregate of the stories we hear from these congregations. We are not really talking about any new programs here — no magic bullets. It is all about these congregations finding their own way of being church. This is not a program. It is a way of life. This is something that cannot be planned. It cannot
be charted. It is about adventure and risk taking, accepting the funny and accepting the tragic, all the while being open to the Holy Spirit.