Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Empty Cross, empty spirituality," a review of Christianity After Religion

“Empty cross, empty spirituality” a review of
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
By Dianna Butler Bass, HarperOne, 2012

Dianna Butler Bass, author and blogger for The Huffington Post with a PhD in Religious Studies writes of what she sees as the end of the Church and religion, but with a gloss that transforms Christianity into a faith that welcomes multiple visions of divinity and spirituality. Her book, Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, begins with what to many are depressing statistics showing how evangelical and orthodox faith is declining. In fact the statistics show most religious faith in the United States is in decline. However, Bass sees this as a new awaking of spirituality which includes not just Christianity, but all faiths. Bass’s vision is one of pluralism minus doctrine and absolutes.

While I admit I generally find statistics boring, Bass held my attention with her constant optimism and her push toward what might be the answer to some rather dark tomorrows. But there were too many redefinitions of Christian history, the aspirations of faithfulness and the very meaning of Christian faith. Bass, while rejecting outer kinds of religious trappings like structures, buildings and even beliefs, favors good works, (spiritual practices),  and community making. She never sees transformation lodged in divine redemption, but rather in inner or outer human practice.

Focusing on the practice of prayer and/or meditation, Bass writes, “In spite of variation, the tradition still insists that a faithful spiritual life consists of practices of both devotion and ethics, and it is through such practices that one will, as Jesus promised, experience ‘eternal life.’ (148) Bass goes further:

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven.  … Members of the community were not held accountable for their opinion about God or Jesus; rather, the community measured faithfulness by how well its members practiced loving God and neighbor. Not offering hospitality was a much greater failure than not believing that Jesus was ‘truly God and truly human.’ Early Christians judged ethical failings as the most serious breach of community, even as they accepted a significant amount of theological diversity in their midst. (149)

The first five centuries of Christianity did entail Christian practice and love of neighbor and God. But members of the early church were held accountable for their theological opinions. In fact, most New Testament letters were written as a means of correcting misunderstandings about the faith. For example, John in his first letter not only insists on love of one another, he also calls those who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, antichrists. (1 John 2:22-23, 4:23)

Peter refers to those who make fun of the second coming of Christ as mockers. (2 Peter 3) Paul rebukes those who insist that salvation is possible through the law. (Galatians) Colossians is clearly aimed at gnostic like ideas. As Dorothy Sayers correctly put it, “The drama is in the dogma.” One does not live out the faith well in community without the beauty and wholeness of the right set of doctrines.

Writing about the Christian experience of God, Bass dwells on the idea of God in us. She writes of the disciples, in particular Peter and then Thomas identifying who Jesus and the Father are. She moves from the importance of knowing who Christ is, to knowing who we are, but believes that knowing the God within is the ultimate encounter with our own spiritual position. As Bass puts it, “Finding one’s self in God is also to find God in one’s self. There is biblical truth in this but Bass ruins it with her final statement in this section:

God is not only “in” the Body of Christ, that is the church, but God is in each and every human being ever born. That image is intrinsic to our identity. We belong to God, because God is in each and every one of us. (190)

Bass’ thoughts, after connecting self to all of creation, leads in a rather Buddhist direction and one feels as though they are reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as Bass writes, “Thus the self is discovered in Christ, with others, through the nature on the river of change. Everything is connected. A spiritual awakening entails experiencing the full range of prepositional relationships in which we live and move and discover our being.” One must ask, where is the cross—the death of Jesus, the resurrection?

It is true; all are created in the image of God. It is the image that gives dignity to all humanity. But this is not the same as saying that God is in everyone. The in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit was promised to all those who trust in Christ. Jesus states:

“I  will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper, that he may be with  you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see him or know him, but you know him because he abides with you and will be in you. (John 14: 16-17)

Finally toward the end of her book Bass, summarizes what she sees as the final outcome of a new awakening-which is surly her vision of universal wholeness:

Conventional religion is failing and a new form of faith, which some call “spirituality” and can also be called religio, is being born. This is a new spiritual awakening in line with other American awakenings, part of a complex web of spiritual renewal throughout the world, which is in process of reshaping most religions by emphasizing relationships, practices, and experience that connects people to a deeper awareness of self, to their neighbors in global community, and to God. There are powerful new forces of egalitarianism, communalism, environmentalism, economic life, and mutual responsibility being born from the emerging spirituality, opening the possibilities for new forms of compassion toward others and toward the planet. (259)

Bass makes this rather new age spirituality seem compatible with Christianity by never referring to the gospel of the cross and redemption but only referring to discarded and unwanted dogma, systemization of beliefs and a set of doctrines. Of course this has to  entail rejecting the atonement, the deity of Christ, the resurrection and the Trinity. And orthodox belief is defined as old light while progressive awakening becomes new light.

All true revivals are seen as progressive with an element of old light trying to reinsert order and the faith as it was once known. As usual the main conservative religious persons that are used are those who have made headlines as televangelists. At the end, for Bass, all conservative religion becomes political. All new spirituality is creative, life giving and communal. But it isn’t truthful and it isn’t Christianity.

The new spiritual awakening that Bass writes about is not new. Over and over in the history of the church, God’s people have stood within the darkness of such times. The Arians almost over ran the church from the fourth to the sixth century. The Christians of 17th century Japan were mostly annihilated. True Christianity in Germany would have disappeared had Hitler lived on. Christianity in North Korea is hidden and suffering. And yes, Christianity in the United States is under attack, broken by false teaching and antinomianism. But the church prevails because of Christ who is known in the Holy Scriptures and the proclamation of his word.  If the light dims in one corner of the world it shines bright in another. The next Christianity is always the church under the Lord Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Viola. The quote from page 149 alone is enough to demonstrate to me that this woman, no matter what her academic credentials, knows no more about her subject than I do about field-stripping an M16. She's simply an ideologue trying to make a case for her own peculiar vision, and if truth gets in the way, she'll just run it over.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...

As I stated in another place having a PhD in Religious Studies does not make one an expert in either Church History or Christian theology. I know I have a BA in Religious Studies. I had to fight for every bit of clarity I received in a secular institution. In fact many of my philosophy classes were far more Christian than my religious classes even when it was about Christianity.