Feminism and the Fourth Great Awakening

on March 19, 2013
(Photo Credit: Bayne Stanley)

By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)

In a recent lecture, Diana Butler Bass told Claremont School of Theology that our society’s shift away from organized religion and toward spirituality “is an indication of the success of women in leadership and feminist theology.”

Bass sees the rising phenomena of ‘spiritual but not religious’ as a result of the triumphs of feminism. “As feminism was doing its work in the 1960 and the 1970s it was actually seeding the space for a new birth of experiential, personal faith that would have a sense of validation that would trust the individual as the primary locus of authority over and against inherited institutional structure.”

Christian Historian and Author, Diana Butler Bass gave the keynote lecture entitled, “Christianity as Spiritual Experience, a ‘Feminine’ Faith for the Future” as part of Claremont’s Alumni/ae and Friends Day 2013. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion on themes from her lecture.

Bass showed two trends in religion in America: the rise of the ‘nones’ and the rise of pluralism. She revealed Pew Research Center data that shows Protestants now only make up 48% of the U.S. population (she did point out that Protestants and Catholics combined still make up a majority). “[I]n the early 21st century, the U.S. has moved from being a religiously diverse protestant country to being a genuinely pluralistic nation.”

Though she did comment on pluralism, she focused her talk on the rise of the ‘nones.’ Today 1 in 5 Americans claim no religious affiliation. These ‘nones’ see too much political involvement, among other things, as being a main reason for not associating with the institutional church.

Bass attributes this negative feeling as reaction to the religious right: “And here we can see that the Religious Right has done what many of mainline and mainstream ministers and theologian feared it would do, and that is it turned people out of religion.”

The ‘nones’ are seeking to rediscover a mystical personal encounter with God in which “authority is validated by you…You know it is true because it is true for you and to you.” Bass sees the focus of the unaffiliated on the experiential to be the same thing that made evangelicalism so popular in the past. “The reason why evangelicalism was so strong for so long in the 20th century was because of this. It was that Evangelicalism was presented to Americans as an experience that was self validating.” With a shift towards rules and doctrines, the evangelical church has been declining.

She then calls this change in spirituality the “Fourth Great Awakening”. Borrowing the phrase from historian, William McLoughlin, she goes on to explain what he forecasted the next awakening would look like:

“The Fourth Great Awakening would indeed be an awakening where we would stop understanding God as Father and stop understanding the church in patriarchal ways. But instead a vision of God that would emerge would be a god that was motherly as well as fatherly, to quote him exactly. And that that God would be much closer to and imminent with a people in and through their relationships, and nature, and their spiritual journeys than the God of traditional Roman Catholicism and traditional Protestantism.”

This new religious phenomena, in her estimation, is the continuation of the trend of previous awakenings to expand “the sphere of personal faith” and bring “women to new places of leadership in the world and in the church.”

“[F]eminism opened the way for some new languages, and new understandings of the self, and community and faith and God to emerge. Those things have and are emerging and now those things are bursting open the doors for a new civil life in America.”

This connection between spiritual but not religious and feminism is a very interesting claim. I wish she would have substantiated the claim a bit more. What type of feminism has sparked this movement? Is she referring to radical feminism, which defines itself in reaction to patriarchy? Or is she referring to something more along the lines of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Feminism, which seeks to transcend the confines of gender and dualism? And what about the relationship between postmodernism and the ‘nones’? Is the move away from religion more due to postmodernism’s “incredulity toward metanarratives” (to quote Jean-François Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism) or the rise of feminism?

Though I do not doubt that there is some connection between feminism and this new spirituality, it seems that the connection may be more periphery and loose than she suggests.

Yet regardless of the connection, will this trend toward non-institutional spirituality continue to grow and change the religious landscape? I say no. History has shown that the institutionalized church, though suffering trials and dark periods lives on and prevails over fringe movements. Furthermore, structure is completely necessary in society. The extreme and controversial feminist, Camille Paglia, has some insight on this issue. Though I take issue with the seeming celebration of depravity in her work, I think her understanding of nature and structure is accurate. Instead of seeing structure and society as the cause of evil she sees them as restrainers of evil. Though she is talking specifically about sexuality, she makes valid points that can be applied to hierarchy in general:

“We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first. There are hierarchies in nature and alternate hierarchies in society. In nature, brute force is the law, a survival of the fittest. In society, there are protections for the weak. Society is our frail barrier against nature.”( from Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia, pg. 3)

We as human beings need structure and rules. Though hierarchy and structure has been greatly perverted, it is not the problem; our propensity towards evil is the problem. Though many may spurn institutions or structure for a while, people end up returning to them or forming new ones.

Though authority, doctrine, and rules can be and have been greatly abused, they are a part of Christianity we cannot remove. I completely agree that the church needs an awakening, but we need an awakening that doesn’t remove authority, doctrine, and rules. We need an awakening that juxtaposes these in Scriptural harmony with true spirituality. We need to rediscover a vital faith that embraces both spirituality and doctrine. Any rethinking of church that seeks to remove authority, doctrine, and/or rules is a departure from the truth.

Here is a link to the full lecture.

  1. Comment by frederick johnsen on March 19, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Reblogged this on Revving It Up and commented:
    While the religious right certainly turned many away from the church, religion and Christianity, the left is equally guilty of turning many a faithful Christian away, or more likely driving them in to the hands of the fanatical right. The word “gastly” comes to mind when I see what the mainline churches have become because of an adoption of the “divine feminine” and demonizing of all things masculine. Optimally, there should be a balance between the two in order to produce a church with room for spirituality and structure – a structure that provides a sound basis for determining just which spirit is on the move so people will not be lead by some other spirit. Sadly, when the emphasis is on spirituality the tendency is to make belief about oneself rather than God.

  2. Comment by ericvlytle on March 19, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Bass is the Pollyanna of the Religious Left – whatever is happening in the world, it’s all for the best! If the churches are emptying out and people are becoming “spiritual,” well, isn’t that wonderful! But of course, she inconsistently blames the nasty old Religious Right for causing the churches to “empty out” – a very odd statement coming from someone whose gushily “inclusive” denomination, the Episcopalians, are trying to set some kind of record for empty pews. She says the evangelical churches are “declining” due to our emphasis on rules. So how is it her rule-less denomination is sinking like a stone?

    Bass sounds like some “retro 1970s” routine. All will be well if Christians will get rid of Father God and all that tiresome “patriarchal” baggage. Can’t she come up with something more original?

    She usually gets her history, and her interpretation of present trends, completely wrong, but I will agree with her on one point: the feminists are definitely responsible as probably THE major cause of people turning from church to “spirituality.” For someone who is connected to a church famous for its attachment to locales and buildings, it’s odd she would celebrate this. “Spirituality” doesn’t build a lot of cathedrals, does it?

    Aside from finding her clueless about what is really going on in Christianity today, I find myself genuinely offended at her ridiculous contention that “personal” faith didn’t being until the feminists started making churches unpleasant places. How could anyone be that blind to the many stories of deep personal relationship with God over 2000 years? A lot of our spiritual heroes and heroines had no difficulty referring to their relationship with “the Father,” so maybe she and her “spiritual” cronies are the ones who are out of step with the eternal standards. If you could poll all Christians, living and dead, about the source of their deepest satisfaction, I think it’s safe to say that those with ties to their Father vastly outnumber the Mother devotees, if, indeed, the matriarch faction even believes in God at all (and I have my doubts).

    Bass likes to include loads of personal anecdotes in her “history” books, so here’s my own anecdotal history: I’m not impressed with the “spiritual” people I meet, most of them being just as shallow and self-absorbed as anyone with no spiritual connection, although they do tend to be more self-righteous (and, Lord knows, that takes much less effort than being righteous). Maybe the “spirituals” aren’t any worse than the population at large, but it’s hardly some kind of breakthrough that people drop out of church, live like pagans, and toss a few words into the conversation like “grace” and “unconditional love” and “compassion.” If she thinks this kind of insipid “faith” is a Fourth Great Awakening, maybe she ought to bone up on her history and see the depth of the first three. Other than narcissism and hatred for evangelicals, what does this “awakening” even consist of?

  3. Comment by apcroft33 on March 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    The Great Divide in Christianity in America could be shown in how people would react to such a statement as this:
    “a sense of validation that would trust the individual as the primary locus of authority over and against inherited institutional structure.”
    On the one side are those who could hear phrases like that and think, “Ooooh, deeeep!”
    On the other side are those who sees this as pretentious, empty seminary-babble at its most comical, not just nonsense, but MDiv PhD nonsense, nonsense on steroids. Throw out some five-syllable words and watch the pseudo-intellectuals faint in the aisles.
    I wonder if she and her admirers can concoct any “spirituality” that could even come close to the depth of the Bible? “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” “Be still, and know that I am God.” If you want a real “locus of authority,” this is where it’s at.

    Kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? This watery, vapid “spirituality” or the real God-meets-man religion that gives us firm ground to stand on.

  4. Comment by Ron Starbuck on March 19, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    I think that you are missing the point on pluralism and an interfaith dialog in the context of a society that is ever changing and ever evolving. And what may be a more fear based theology that is afraid of these changes and unwilling to change or understand new points of view, even new revelations in the context of such a dialog and exchange with other cultures and faiths. So, I would ask for you to reflect on the following please. God in more than a noun, God is actively at work across creation, the Holy Spirit dwells within us all, Christ is alive within the world and interacting with the world, across all faiths, even if you cannot see it, it is still happening in a visible universe that is 28 billion parsecs in diameter. The universe is a big place, and the ultimate divine mystery of creation is eternal. Imaging the diversity that is found within such a creation, of both thought and life.


  5. Comment by skotiad on March 20, 2013 at 7:49 am

    What does the size of the universe’s diameter have to do with Christian theology? If it is bigger than our ancestors believed, so what? Christians believe that God created the universe, and if that creation is larger than our ancestors imagined, what bearing does that have on the belief in God? Does that make him smaller in proportion?

    I had the misfortune to live in a building with three liberal Vanderbilt Divinity students years ago, and this was the kind of nonsense they were constantly spouting. “God is more than a noun.” Meaning what, exactly? And who is on the record as saying “God is just a noun”? All the Christians I know believe God is actively at work in creation, but how exactly does that support Diana Bass and her post-Christian “spiritual” alternative religion. Basically this “spiritual” nonsense is just a cover for people’s immoral lifestyles.

    We have not missed the “point in pluralism.” The point is rather clear: the Religious Left is completely sucked in by all the “diversity” and “multiculti” propaganda and completely accepts the culture’s definition of Christians as evil, intolerant, narrowminded people, so you distance yourself from them and try to make them sound like idiots for believing in the God of the Bible, even though there is no conflict at all between the vastness of the universe and “In the beginning, God created.” I don’t care if you find some way to measure the universe down to the millimeter, that doesn’t exactly prop up your belief that Christianity is untrue.

    Pluralism is Bass’s excuse for her own trendy denomination and its serious loss in numbers. Christianity is dying a slow death in America, so she is whistling in the dark, gushing about how wonderful all this “pluralism” is, trying to put a brave face on the Religious Left’s decline. Liberal religion has almost zero appeal to the population at large, they can get that “diversity” and “multiculti” goofiness without having to hear it from their pastors.

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  7. Comment by gregpaley on March 24, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I don’t share Bass’s high opinion of feminism (nor any of her other opinions, as far as that goes). She is correct in feminism redefining God – or, to put it more bluntly, it makes the female self into God. One of my professors opined that feminism is not, at its core, just a matter of hating men or envying men (though those are definitely present), but of hating God, the ultimate Authority figure, and I agree with him that the hatred of the “Father” image isn’t just a matter of names for God, but hatred for God Almighty, the one Person who cannot be nagged or shouted or whined into compliance. Instead of bringing herself into right relationship with God Almighty, the feminist puts herself at the center – she’s a saint by virtue of being a victim, with no sins to repent of, just a finger of accusation pointed at all men – and the God that the Bible depicts in male terms. How dare God be All-powerful – the feminist self cannot abide competition, and all the hogwash about “the goddess” is just a smokescreen for “I want to worship wonderful ME!”

    If Bass thinks this is some kind of spiritual advance – to replace God with a grievance-mongering, power-hungry self – I wonder how she can still regard her religion as Christianity. I never met a whiner that I thought deserved to be worshipped, but apparently some do.

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