One of the most vocal participants in the discussion on American Christianity is Diana Butler Bass, author of the recent book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Beginning of a New Spiritual Awakening. Bass, an Episcopalian, author, and historian, argues that Christianity must adapt and progress or die. This is necessary, she says, because fewer Americans today identify with a particular denomination than did fifty years ago, more are likely to espouse a “spiritual but not religious” orientation, and growing numbers identify as agnostic or atheist.
Bass recently elaborated on her hopes for the future of American Christianity in an interview with Chris Yaw of Church Next. In light of increasing skepticism, Bass claimed “We need to create communities with honest engagement. With doubt, with levels of certainty … any religious community today is going to have some level of real questioning going on among people.” According to Bass, expecting people to accept particular doctrines or creeds “[Creates] a dishonest community.” In addition, she said: “We need to create communities that are based on honest engagement” on matters like “the language of theism, [and] about how we talk about God.”
Bass clarified, “I actually do believe that theology is important.” According to the author, “belief is important … [but] only in the right order.” She disparaged those who reaffirm traditional, orthodox faith in response to waning church affiliation. “I do not think that putting that kind of dogmatic creed out front as a test for whether one should be welcome in a congregation … [is] a solution to the problems we are facing,” Bass said.
Most Christians would likely agree with Bass that “belief is actually something we have to practice … rather than propositions to which we have to adhere.” Those who have a healthy view of faith and reason would also agree (to a point) churches should allow for open discussion and doubt about theological matters. But Bass goes beyond a balanced approach and subordinates belief to practice, and hopes for communities “based on honest engagement” (emphasis added).
To Bass and others who believe Christianity must evolve or go extinct, a faith that is “much more experiential, much more based in practices” is the way of the future. In her view, belief should not be “constructed as creed and dogma, as it was in conventional church, but … as conviction and meaningful experience.”
Further, Bass envisions an “open community … wiki-church or non-geographical church,” where “we’re going to be a lot more open to the wisdom of a lot more traditions while maintaining our core.” She said congregations should “throw open everything in a church that would exclude people,” and hopes that the Episcopal Church will have “completely open communion in 100 years.”
“Churches are communities that are on the cutting edge,” Bass asserted. But how and when progressive Christian “spirituality” will take off as the way of the future is still unclear. Some of the most “cutting edge,” least dogmatic, and “open to questioning” denominations have seen the steepest decline over the past few decades. Bass’s own Episcopal Church, which prides itself as open and inclusive has shrunk dramatically even in the past decade. With these trends in view, continuing down the path already taken by the dramatically shrinking mainlines will likely not lead to a vibrant future for Christianity.