By Julia Polese
Renowned Emergent author Diana Butler Bass has been everywhere lately promoting her new book Christianity After Religion. She articulated a much-talked about response to Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” and will be the special guest at DC’s Emergent meetup group tomorrow. Responses to these appearances will be forthcoming, but today I will focus on her latest appearance on the progressive podcast, Homebrewed Christianity.
I give Butler Bass credit for her concern for the diminution of the church’s influence in culture. The initial thesis of her book argued that “the idea of religion ‘as it is’ is declining,” not just “institutional” Christianity. The number of “Nones” in the United States – those who claim no religious affiliation – has risen to an all-time high of 19%, indicating the shrinking presence of belief in the West. Butler Bass cites the European model of “post-World War II collapse” of institutional religion and postulates what this might look like for American institutional religion.
She defines institutional religion as “structural, legislative, and partisan” and says that these giant “brand-name” bureaucratic churches – you guessed it, the mainline – are on the brink of collapse because of their structure. “What happened in the latter part of the twentieth century was that the mainline got focused on the buildings and structures and began to pay less and less attention to the theology…that these buildings once stood for.” This is very apt and very true; however, her solutions to this problem seem to only perpetuate the problem. She claims she has talked to many people who were drawn back into the church by “ancient traditions” that have such a “spiritual energy.” She likes to say that her own Episcopalian Church is “so old, it’s new” and has a “stunningly spiritual ancient liturgy,” which begs the question of when we started calling Thomas Cranmer an “ancient.” As the modern religious landscape has shifted somewhat away from the “ancient traditions,” the liturgy held up by the mainline becomes a novelty again.
In her estimation, the congregations that use the traditions well get that it’s about “ancient wisdom, the beauty of God, and creating community,” but the bureaucratic denominations “have failed to understand” this “different way of being church.”
I’ve learned from my Latin Mass devotee friends that liturgy is rich in theology when done well. While the bells and smells make my iconoclastic scalp itch, I have to admit it is a beautiful picture of the gospel: man’s sin in the Penitential prayer, giving glory to God in the Alleluia, the reading of the Old Testament to symbolize the wait for a Messiah, the reading of a Gospel text and, finally, the arrival of Christ in the Eucharist. What makes liturgy intensely beautiful is not the liturgy itself or the “spiritual energy,” but the reminder of who man is (sinful), who God is (holy and beautiful), and how Christ has reconciled the two. I think of the Psalmist’s words:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
God ordained sacrifices and burnt offerings as true religion for the Israelites; but he desires a contrite heart more than these things alone. Cafeteria liturgy with “spiritual energy” and no meaning is simply a silly dance.
This is why, yes, when Diana Butler Bass encourages a member of her audience to embrace “cafeteria Christianity,” especially regarding the liturgy, she can “hear the Institute on Religion & Democracy now. Those are the people who always call me a heretic.” (For the record, we never have called her a “heretic.”)
We do share a common frustration with the general conferences of the big mainline denominations. Butler Bass commented on the United Methodist Church’s General Conference earlier this summer. “It was an absolute public travesty of Christians not getting the point,” she lamented and claimed that Congress moves at a faster pace than the UMC. The Methodists are a particular point of sadness for her as they started out as a “fringe and frontier” movement. “It makes me really sad to see a tradition that used to be a dynamic religious movement being hog-tied by being a legislative body.” She pointed out that Methodism started out as a spiritual movement within the Church of England and that “John Wesley was pressing against the institution.” We must remember, however, that Wesley never wanted disestablishment or for the Church of England to split. Methodism was meant as a revival movement within the established church.
Still, Butler Bass compares a new movement (presumably the progressives) in the mainline to Wesley and says “the institutional and structural religious groups need to pay attention to that creativity on the fringe,” by which she means cafeteria liturgy. The Episcopalians incorporated the fringes in their recent affirmation of transgender ordination. “You can look at it as a trendy political correctness move, but it wasn’t. It was looking to the fringes of our world and think ‘whose voices aren’t we hearing?’” She ended with an encouragement to check our human privilege to listen to other fringe voices: animals.
“Non-human animals and their experience of our environment of the divine are a place that human animals need to listen in order to create more full understanding of God’s creation. […] They don’t have voices like humans do, but isn’t that part of my prejudice?”
I don’t like to bring up the slippery slope, but the mud’s looking pretty slick from here.