“Where is God?” Answer: “In the neighborhood.” This question-and-answer pair captures something of the spirit of Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. In several ways, this book and its predecessor, Christianity After Religion (2012), together trace a global journey from the Christianity of the 400 years or so preceding World War I to the now rapidly evolving Christianity of today—a Christianity being shaped “from the ground up” rather than one handed down by august authorities. She writes about the beliefs, activities, and self-identifications of ordinary people. In this regard, she cites surveys by Pew Research and other organizations that have sampled popular sentiment regarding religion over many decades.
Grounded is Bass’s account of the theology people are constructing for themselves—producing a theological revolution in which both God and world are re-conceived in ways that reflect more closely people’s own experiences and articulate more clearly their concerns and commitments. Toward this end, she examines in part 1 of Grounded emerging understandings of God and our “natural habitat,” and in part 2 emerging understandings of God and our “human geography.”
Part 1 is devoted to reclaiming the spiritual significance of the natural world through the shorthand of three ancient “elements”: earth (“dirt”), water, and air (“sky”). There is much in this part of Grounded that offers material for a rich theology of earthcare. One of the themes of the book is the substitution of a God with us in place of a God over us; it appears in part 1 in the form of Panentheism (her italics). While pantheism is the view that God is everything, panentheism is the view that God is in and with all things. Theism, as traditionally understood, she suggests, has characteristically promoted an image of a remote and transcendent God “up” in heaven—a god that professed nontheists pointedly reject. With this transcendent God came a hierarchical model of church, an emphasis on obedience to superiors within the church, and eventually a supplanting of life in Christ by acceptance of a set of beliefs.
Neither the hierarchy nor a set of beliefs suffice any longer to satisfy great numbers of self-professed Christians, let alone those who have drifted away from that self-identification. But many of these people cherish spiritual experience leading to commitment and a spirit-guided life. These people tend to articulate the “horizontal” theology of a god in and with us. The challenge they (and we) face, she argues, is that the privatization of spirituality has led to the loss of the “we” intrinsic to religion.
Religion, from the Latin religio, is a binding together of people with one another and the Divine. It is not a consumer good but a quality of community. This is the focus of part 2. The popular theology under construction involves a reconceptualization of humankind and God through our felt need for roots, home, neighborhood, and community. Our experience and understanding of all four are undergoing remarkable changes in the global society that is today’s world. The result is widespread disorientation, loss of confidence in traditional authorities, religious upheaval, and, often, fear. Fear tends to narrow one’s concern to survival. For the spiritual awakening to take hold, it must offer hope.
Toward this end she sketches a horizontal theology, replacing the “great [linear] chain of being” (descending from God, through angels, human beings, “lesser animals,” etc.) with a “great web of life” instead. Consider how different a linear patrimony is from a genealogical array recognizing all one’s ancestors. The habit of expecting each ancestor’s parents to be unrelated yields the mathematical projection that 40 generations ago the number of one’s ancestors would exceed the number of people living on the earth at that time. It follows that many of our ancestors must have had common ancestors and suggests strongly that we today are all related, having ancestors in common if one goes back far enough. This great web of life, as a result, is also “a great web of belonging” to the human family.
But why stop there? In this vein she quotes approvingly John of Damascus who wrote in the seventh century, “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” The concepts of home, neighborhood, and community are explored in a similar fashion: the increasingly frequent abandonment of nineteenth-century paradigms together with rediscovery of more plastic earlier social arrangements and the advent of even more varied technology-enabled “virtual” forms of social structures. The rapid changes are producing fear, but also offer opportunities to live into something more akin to the divine oikonomia, a divinely ordered household of God—or more prosaically, a virtuous cosmopolis. For this to happen, we need all to be drawn into a sense of belonging, one to another; we need, Bass suggests, a deep cosmopolitanism in which our unity as human beings transcends in our own hearts and minds the differences that we have permitted to separate us. The ultimate success of the spiritual revolution, she proclaims, depends in large measure “on whether it will comprehend the spiritual elements of community”: communitas (a collective feeling of unity), communion (a practice of deep listening and connection), and compassion (exemplified in providing care for strangers).
Grounded provides an interesting perspective on the larger context within which we live and practice our Quakerism, illuminating developments within the Religious Society of Friends. Friends feeling their way toward a fuller theology of earthcare may profit from reading this book, as might Friends who wonder who today may be ready to be “gathered.” But I particularly commend Grounded to meetings and churches seeking ways to stimulate deeper sharing among their theologically diverse members and attenders. Diana Butler Bass raises provocative questions in language that will engage a broad range of readers without alienating them.