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Liberal Religion Scholar Hopes for a “Religion-less Christianity”Kristin RudolphMarch 15, 2012
“Unmediated experience of God without an institution telling you how you’re supposed to interpret it or how you’re supposed to encounter God,” is the future of Christianity, according to Diana Butler Bass, author of the newly released book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. In an NPR radio interview on March 1, 2012, Bass explained how “the pews are emptying. But it's not all that terrible [because] people are asking for different things.” These “different things,” according to Bass, are leading people to “[reorganize] their faith lives around principles of experience and connection” rather than “institutional religion.” Bass is an independent scholar, writer, and speaker on religion in America, and a member of the Episcopal Church.
Although “there are declines across the board in America’s three largest sort of Christian bodies; Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Evangelical Protestant,” Bass does not see a decline in faith but merely a “new reformation.” What Bass describes is not exactly a “reformation,” though, but a complete elimination of tradition, structure, and authority. She discussed how this “reformation,” or “spiritual awakening” is about “people of faith ... [recognizing] the patterns of human beauty and human flourishing that are present in non-theistic and post-theistic communities.”
Aside from the well known decline in American Mainline Protestant denominations, Bass claimed there is a “huge number of Roman Catholics who have left their church ... and then there has also been a loss in evangelical denominations.” But it is not clear where those departing these Churches are going. At the same time, there has been significant growth in non-denominational Evangelical Churches, where it is more difficult to track membership and attendance. Bass asserted that those who have left Church traditions are joining a new demographic, called the “nones.” “Nones,” she explained, are people who are simply unaffiliated with any religion, and include atheists and agnostics.
In a recent article, Bass reported that “in 10 years, [Americans] willing to identify themselves primarily as "religious" plummeted by 45 percentage points,” from 54 percent in 1999 to only 9 percent in 2009. Bass sees this not as a mere trend, but the way of the future. She imagines “the religious traditions will be better friends with one another and they will be open to and in deep conversation with humanists, and agnostics and atheists.” The writer described this “reformed” community as “a new place for us all to be as human beings [where] some of us can be there with God and some of us can be there maybe with God and other people can be there without God in friendship and full commitment to the planet and a renewed sense of human community.”
Bass attributed the exodus from Mainline churches to the “institutional and authoritarian and hierarchical” elements of faith, which are supposedly intended “to control people.” Bass claimed “the people in the pews ... are saying we want something different, we want to be connected with God and our neighbor in new ways.” Bass claimed the issue is about controlling clergy and the “people’s” quest for freedom, as “the voice from the people, the voice from the pews is very powerful; it’s almost like it’s a spiritual spring.”
“Just because it’s the end of conventional church there is no reason to think this is the end of each one of these religions,” Bass explained, referencing Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and other major religions. She told how her “heart and soul and longing and passion is that we have a better more open, more inclusive, more peaceful, and more planet oriented form of Christianity across the world than the rather divisive, hierarchical, authoritarian one that we have in many places at the moment.”
The radio show host, Tom Ashbrook, asked Bass why she bothered specifying Christianity in naming her book Christianity After Religion, as she clearly envisions an “interfaith” spirituality, broadly open to both theists and atheists. Bass answered vaguely “what’s Christian about it is that Christianity remains even though it’s in this pattern of erosion and decay in the West even in the United States now as it has been in Europe for many, many, many decades now; Christianity remains to be the world’s largest religious faith.”
Bass ultimately prefers a “religion-less” Christianity, which she defined as “an experience of God … that happens primarily through some connection or understanding of Jesus. It’s an experience of God through or with Jesus that results in deep personal transformation and leads to doing justice in the world.”
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