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Grace Presbytery » Diana Butler Bass, changes in the American religious culture

Diana Butler Bass, changes in the American religious culture

by The Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford
Senior Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Dallas

DBB_6565A_Lee_Baker_croppedHow’s the weather? What’s the climate like? These are two very different questions. They are both important. Weather involves the short term and immediate context. Climate describes an overarching theme of weather over a long period of time. On April 5 & 6, Diana Butler Bass utilized the metaphor of climate to describe the change underway in the American religious culture. Through her three lectures participants were invited to:

  • See the world as it is.
  • Nurture a more compassionate and insightful form of faith that resonates with life as it is lived.
  • Understand the changing climate as a spiritual awakening, especially when embodied in communities that practice God’s dream for creation.

On Saturday we explored an analysis of the 2012 election by the Public Religion Research Institute. Their interest in analyzing the 2012 election was the role of white Christians in the election. Barack Obama is the first candidate in our history to win the election but lose the “white Christian vote.” This represents a climate change politically.

DBB_9841A_Lee_BakerDiana Butler Bass’ interest in the poll was not political, but religious. Particularly illuminating was the decline of white Christians (shades of orange) as the “lines” on the chart got younger. Put simply, the country is getting less Christian, particularly among Anglos, and much more racially diverse. This represents a climate change religiously. In a particularly poignant moment of Saturday’s lecture, she posed the question, “Are we equipping our children for their future or for our past?”

On Sunday morning, we took another look at the world as it is through the categories of spirituality and religion. For the purposes of the lecture, religion was defined as “an institution that has organized matters pertaining to belief and that derives authority from external sources.” Spirituality was defined as, “an experience that connects one with a deeper sense of self or the divine wherein authority is validated through internalsources.” While it is often reported that the number of people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” is on the rise, surveys indicate this is not true. From 1999 to 2009, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves this way remained at about 30%. Likewise, the percentage of people who describe themselves as neither spiritual nor religious remained at about 9%. However, a dramatic change happened among those who describe themselves as “religious but not spiritual.” They declined from 54% of the population to 9%. Conversely, the number of people who describe themselves as both spiritual AND religious increased from 6% in 1999 to 48% in 2009. Dr. Butler Bass concluded, “If you are in the religious business alone, that is not a course for success.” If, however, you can embody both a religious and spiritual community, you are more likely to offer a witness that resonates with a rapidly growing segment of our society.


In her final lecture Sunday evening we began to consider how this emerging pattern reveals a spiritual awakening in our culture, a shift from what Harvey Cox described as “The Age of Belief,” to “The Age of the Spirit.” She focused on analyzing the three basic components of any religious system: belief, behavior, and belonging. For at least 500 years, throughout the Age of Belief, belief was about dogma, with the question being “What do you believe about God?” Behavior was defined by rules established by institutions in response to the question, “How do we behave?” If one expressed the right beliefs, and behaved in the right way, then one belonged to the group, which defined who they were.

Diana Butler Bass suggests that in the emerging “Age of the Spirit,” the questions around belief, behavior and belonging have changed, as well as the order in which we answer them. Increasingly people begin with questions of belonging. And those questions have shifted from “Who am I?” to “Whose am I?” Identity is inherently linked far more with relationships, networks, and communities, rather than abstract concepts of identity like “membership.” Questions of behavior have shifted from how we act, to what we do, the practices that draw participants into a way of life. Having found a sense of belonging, and lived into the practices of the community, the final step is belief. But belief is no longer about dogma or doctrine, it is about conviction born of encounters within the context of life experiences. Put simply, belonging as defined through relationship has become the first step toward discipleship. As she points out in her book, Christianity After Religion, that’s much more consistent with the way Jesus called his first disciples. He did not suggest a series of intellectual propositions to accept, rather he invited people to follow him. He invited them into relationship.

These lectures called us to take an honest look at our world and how our congregation engages the world. Rather than propose seven steps to church growth, we were invited to consider the key questions that must be asked if the church is to nurture a more compassionate and insightful witness to contemporary culture that will participate in the spiritual awakening unfolding in our world.