During Lent 2015, the Rev. Vicki Hesse led a daytime forum on Wednesdays over 5 weeks. The title was “Embracing Spiritual Awakening: Diana Butler Bass on the Dynamics of Experiential Faith.” Bass is a well-known observer and commentator on overarching trends in the Christian church. The videos, study guide, and discussions opened our eyes to seeing some of these shifts at work all around us, and to identifying how we ourselves may have been participating in these changes — whether we were aware of it or not!
The religious landscape of the U.S. has changed dramatically in recent years. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a milieu where white Christians now make up only 26% of the population. That alone is a huge shift in just 1–2 generations. Religious and racial pluralism are now realities that we need to “wake up” to.
Another change is from “what you believe” (institutional doctrine) to “how you believe.” Dogma and abstract ideas about God are being replaced by conviction based on personal experience and encounter with God. Standardized behavior and rules are giving way to practices, which enables the individual to craft a way of life and bring more meaning to their spirituality. Discernment is favored over order, and engagement favored over techniques. Labels like “I am Epsicopalian” are being replaced by identity and belonging statements that go more like “I am a spiritual person who happens to go to an Episcopalian church, and also … [meditates, reads from other traditions, sometimes visits other churches or spiritual centers].” The identity focus is shifting from “who are you?” to “whose are you?” Instead of members submitting to the authority of others, it is now neighbors/equals who are claiming agency over the direction of their future.
It was interesting to hear what all of this brought up in the group discussions. One of the participants, Dr. Beth Stormont, commented: “The class brought me into a new awareness of the reality of the changes that have been taking place in the Church Universal all these many years, but are now being recognized as a major shift from within rather than just in outer form … which had been [in the 1970s] primarily ‘change for the sake of change’ and nothing more. With the embodiment in the Church of the new freedom allowed each of us as the unique individuals that we are, many of us can now honestly say we are both spiritual and religious … not just spiritual, as I used to say!”
Another participant, Dr. Ed Alexander, had this insight: “Very many of the topics covered and discussed in the videos and by our group are very real in St. Philip’s. Years ago, there was little interaction between Christians and their Jewish colleagues in the faiths based on the Bible. The trip to the Holy Land by a group of Moslems, Jews, and Christians would have simply not been considered. Years ago, Christians did NOT go to Synagogue! Likewise this church offers many ways of traveling the faith journey that would not have then been considered. We have shifted from a credo system to one of growing and exploring faith — and this series of sessions is one example of the change. Many times what and how we believe changes as we explore the many dimensions of Christianity … [For instance,] Centering Prayer would not have been available in many parishes, and meditation was strictly for monks.”
And the final word goes to attendee Bob Stanton: “It is easier to talk about different religions today than it used to be. Also, it isn’t just the seniors going to church today; the younger generation is attending to find out for themselves what to believe and what not to believe.”
If you’d like to experience this study guide for yourself but missed the forum series, you’re in luck! Our Renouf-Nelson Library has several copies of the 87-page Embracing Spiritual Awakening workbook, and one copy of the DVD. We also have 4 other books by Diana Butler Bass, including her well-known Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.