In the current issue of my denomination’s magazine, The Covenant Companion, Jay Phelan reviews the newest book from historian Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (Alas, the review isn’t available for download at the Companion site.) As summarized by Phelan, Bass stresses that even as denominational membership and church attendance have diminished in many quarters, the skyrocketing number of young Americans citing “none” as their religious affiliation actually provides hope for a new kind of awakening. (I wouldn’t be the first or last blogger to point out that this narrative of declension is rather simplistic, but we’ll move on, understanding that Phelan was working within a word limit and didn’t have time to interrogate such claims, if he wanted to do so.) “Nones” who have little use for “organized religion” profess themselves to be quite open to spirituality. Phelan summarizes Bass’ argument:
Ironically it may be this group, often accused of being self-indulgent and narcissistic, that will offer the Christian church a way forward in the coming century. The “spirituals” are looking for an experience of God, not just information about God. They are looking for a community, not just a collection of disparate individuals. They are looking for ways to engage the world and not simply words to condemn the world.
Rather than recommending any kind of quick-fix program, Bass emphasizes a “small, personal, communal, and local commitment to follow the way of Jesus.” (Go back to 2007’s Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith for an early example of Bass’ idea that “small, personal, communal, and local commitment” is central to renewal. It shows up as well in her response to Ross Douthat’s New York Times column on the Episcopal Church, quoted in my recent post on liberal mainline decline.) Those seeking “authentic experience of God and community,” Phelan suggests, “will begin with the practices of faith and community and end with belief.”
And this brings him back to a favorite theme of his, and mine:
I would suggest that Bass is recommending, in perhaps different language, what the historic Pietists insisted upon to renew the increasingly rigid Lutheran churches of northern Europe: an experience of God, holy practices, nurturing small groups, theological generosity, and care for the poorest and most desperate of society. Perhaps Bass would not put it this way, but she is asking for a kind of “neo-Pietism” (perhaps without some of the overly sober rhetoric and occasional sense of spiritual superiority).
Before going any further, I need to underline that I haven’t read Bass’ book, so any comments on it — or on the notion that what she’s recommending is akin to Phelan’s “neo-Pietism” (that’s certainly not terminology she employs, here or in earlier books) — I’m going to advance hesitantly and provisionally…
But, that said… Amen! I’ve already written that a “Pietist vision” would have wide appeal to a number of groups disgruntled with the current state of American Christianity, and I’d love to see Phelan’s logic about the “Nones” (or Bass’ “Spirituals”) play out.
I’ve also got several reservations…
As a group of Westmont College professors asked in their sympathetic review of David Smith and Jamie Smith’s Teaching and Christian Practices, “What, precisely, makes a practice ‘Christian’?” They don’t mean to split hairs; they point out that “the kinds of practices at issue are not religiously neutral, encoding a generic, featureless spirituality which becomes ‘Christian’ simply by virtue of being exercised by Christians.” The practices that Phelan describes as being “keys to spiritual awakening” (“prayer, worship, engagement with Scripture, service of the poor, care for the world, communal generosity…”) certainly have been practiced historically by Christians, but that by itself doesn’t make them “Christian practices.”
Two points those reviewers emphasized… First, that Christian practices are trinitarian and aspire to Christ-likeness, in that they “conform persons to Christ as they enter by the Spirit into Jesus’ concrete life of obedience to his Father, the God of Israel” (emphases mine). Second, such “practices find their meaning and coherence in a community” that has a “historical memory.”
Do these characteristics describe the practices of Bass’ (re)new(ed) Christianity? Phelan (again, for space limits, surely) is rather vague on the nature of the practices that provide the common ground between Bass’ new Christianity and his “neo-Pietism.”
It’s also worth emphasizing, then, that Phelans’ “historic Pietists” pursued Johann Arndt’s “true Christianity” within a church that not only had a deep (if conflicted) historical memory but was highly institutional. They sought to enliven “dead orthodoxy” by returning to the written Word and avoiding “heresy-hunting”; they did not abandon creeds and confessions altogether. The Pietists lamented that the pulpit, baptismal font, confessional, and altar had become the “four dumb idols” of the state church, but they kept listening to (and preaching) sermons, baptizing their children, confessing their sins, and partaking of Communion within communities that were ordered by the same kind of church that Phelan has elsewhere criticized as being “imperial.” In short, the ecclesiolae remained in ecclesia.
As you might guess, I’m leery of those who treat “religion” and “church” as bugaboos, only to recommend their own form of both. The title of Bass’ book comes from its opening chapter, as she reflects on her own journey as it stood in the 1970s. Having moved from a rather coldly Methodist upbringing into a phase of her life when she called herself “spiritual” and emphasized “relationship” with Jesus, she found similar stories all around her: “For those of us who followed Jesus, we had stumbled into a world of Christianity after religion, a spiritual space beyond institutions, buildings, and organizations, a different kind of faith.” How she can then recommend as “Christianity after religion” that follows “the end of the church” a faith that emphasizes practices within community is a paradox I’ll need to read to understand. Suffice it to say that I’m not sure I believe in religion-less Christian practice, or institution-less community. To be sure, it depends how you define such terms…
As it happens, Scot McKnight posted his own preliminary response to Bass’ book this morning. In it, he calls back to a critique of religious individualism advanced by sociologist Robert Bellah and the other authors of Habits of the Heart. Bellah wrote of “Sheilaism” (after a woman named Sheila who sought to remake her own version of religion); Bass tells of an “Ellen,” and so Scot calls her religion “Ellenism”:
Ellenism is a form of Sheilaism; Ellenism takes Sheilaism into non-institutional, anti-institutional forms without minimizing one’s religious affection.
All this brought to mind Scot’s keynote talk at Bethel’s Pietism colloquium last April. (Listen to it here, and stay tuned for news of a published version next year.) First, Scot criticized the idea that Pietism is simply a kind of private spirituality absent any desire to renew the Church, or any commitment to the kinds of historic, Christian practices that Spener and Francke emphasized: Bible study and prayer. Pietism, as Scot defined it (and as I understand it) is not “Sheilaism,” but it might have something in common with an “Ellenism” that seeks God in community.
But what kind of community? If “Christian practices” form their practitioners in the likeness of a Son who lived in obedience to his Father, does “Christianity after religion” value such obedience, even obedience to the point of death on a cross? (And is this what “Nones” and “Spirituals” are seeking?)
Back to Scot McKnight’s Bethel talk, which also dealt with a tradition that, unlike Spener and Francke, did reject the imperial, institutional church: the Anabaptists. At the conclusion of his keynote, Scot encouraged evangelicals to draw on classic Anabaptist ecclesiology, which emphasizes a kind of Christian fellowship that would seem utterly foreign to Sheilaists, since it rejects modern notions of individual freedom in favor of accountability and a cross-shaped discipleship.
But perhaps that’s too much like “organized religion” for Ellenists, too. And why, in this morning’s brief response to Bass, Scot concludes that he “simply can’t agree with Diana that Ellen is not Sheila; she is, twenty to thirty years later.”