Grounded (Diana Butler Bass) - A Review

GROUNDED: Finding God in the World -- A Spiritual Revolution. By Diana Butler Bass.  San Francisco: Harper One, 2015. 308 pages.

            A number of years ago, Diana Butler Bass (the author of the book under review) and I were comparing life stories. We noticed quite a number of parallels. We both started out our religious lives in traditional mainline Protestant churches, converted to evangelicalism, attended Christian colleges, graduated from evangelical seminaries, and then pursued doctorates in church history. While I pursued ordination, she didn’t. I ended up as a pastor and she became a noted speaker and author (often speaking to groups of pastors that included me). I have read most of her books and find her to be a thoughtful and provocative writer. Her book Christianity for the Rest of Us (her first with Harper One) offered a word of encouragement to those of us in the mainline. Despite declining numbers in our denominations good things were happening. God was at work. In her most recent book prior to Grounded, Christianity after Religion, the message wasn’t quite as positive. Perhaps those churches she profiled in Christianity for the Rest of Us were more the exception than the rule. Perhaps God was up to something that included the church, but wasn’t limited to the church. She spoke there of a “New Great Awakening.” I found her message compelling and drew upon it as I finished my own book on spiritual gifts (Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening). In this previous book the message seemed to be that one could and should be both spiritual and religious.

I approached her most recent book, titled Grounded, with a bit of trepidation. It seemed to me that Diana was taking a step further into that realm we call “spiritual but not religious.” I understand the angst with which many people look at the church, I’ve been of the opinion that being “spiritual but not religious” isn’t enough (a theme explored by Lillian Daniel). Perhaps it is because I am employed by the church that I’m not ready to let go of the importance of the church to Christian spirituality. Nonetheless I welcomed receipt of a set of proofs of the book, from which this review was written.

All of Diana’s book have a degree of autobiographical elements, but Grounded is the most personal of her books, at least since she published a set of memoirs several years ago. Diana still brings in to the conversation her keen observational skills that are rooted in her training as a historian, but this is more a testimony to a new direction in her spiritual journey. While she hasn't left Christianity or the church behind, she has begun to let go of some of the ties that bind her.  She has begun to dip her toes in the waters of the world of the spiritual but not religious.  She speaks here of a search for God in the world. The church can play a role, but God isn’t limited to the church (or any religious tradition). The future doesn’t lie, she believes, with institutions (at least not as essential components).

In one sense this is a book of theology, one that explores the question of who God is and where God might be encountered. It is a theological vision that is formed by a perspective called panentheism. Panenthism that assumes that while God and the world are not one and the same, God is to be found in the world and not outside the world. The focus is on immanence not transcendence. Part of her journey is rooted in the tradition of mysticism, and she draws upon Christian mystics, but she’s not limiting herself to this resource. She is open to the wisdom to be drawn from a wide variety of religious traditions. In seeking to be spiritually grounded, and thus connected to the one Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being, she discovers that the church isn’t the only sacred space in the world. She discovers as she moved through the world “how beautifully God was all around me: in nature and in my neighborhood, in considering the stars and by seeking my roots” (p. 23). Yes, the world itself is sacred space.  

With this premise in mind—the world is sacred space, she explores her subject under two primary headings: Natural Habitat and Human Geography.  In the first part she speaks of dirt, water, and sky (air). With regard to the dirt, she notes that we western folks are rather estranged from dirt. We clean it off as soon as possible. And yet, according to Genesis, we were created from the dirt (at least Adam was). It is the foundational ecosystem that supports life, though we are not doing a very good job taking care of it. From Dirt she moves to Water. Water plays an important role in Christian experience, for most Christians are baptized in some form of water. But she is interested in more than the waters of baptism. After all, seventy-one percent of the earth is covered in water. It too is essential for life, and Jesus speaks of himself as being living water. Like the dirt, the water is threatened by pollution (she tells about how the oceans are filling up with garbage. And of course there is the problem of drought. Diana knows Southern California and its recent drought. As she speaks of water, she speaks of a spiritual awakening that takes place as she along the banks of the Potomac, near her house.  From water she moves to sky. She notes that Christian faith has tended to be a vertical one. We live on the earth and God lives up there in the heavens (sky). Diana’s vision wants us to think more broadly, so that we can embrace our own connection to the stars. She takes note of the Big Bang theory and the idea that we are all made of stardust. This is a cosmic vision; of which we are a part.  Unfortunately, the sky too is polluted, and thus once again an ecological vision is brought into the conversation, for we should recognize our connectedness to the cosmos, for it is there too we encounter God.  

The second part of the book (and the longer of the two parts), speaks of Human Geography. While I have deep appreciation for nature and God’s presence in nature, I must admit that I found myself more comfortable in this part of the book. I especially found her chapter on roots to be insightful and inspiring. Perhaps it is because many of us have become so mobile that we are finding ourselves disconnected from our roots. So, we begin looking back in time to see from whence we’ve come. This past summer, my family and I took a trip to Upstate New York. While Cooperstown was the key attraction, I felt drawn to connect with the region in which my father had been born and raised.  I'd never been to Syracuse or Skaneateles, so going there seemed appropriate. Diana goes on her own journey and discovers among other things family roots in an early Quaker community in Maryland. Though she is an Episcopalian, her emerging spirituality seemed to resonate with this Quaker heritage. She speaks in this chapter about spiritual DNA, a concept that is intriguing to me and fits with one of my own projects. We are in many ways products of our heritage. As I think about this need for roots, I worry that as our institutions falter we will lose key resources for passing on the story of faith.

There is much to explore in the chapter on roots, but I must move on to the chapter titled "Home." Home is where we belong. Again, Diana brings into the conversation her own journey, that has been rather mobile (even more mobile I think than my own). So in a mobile society where is home? In part home is where I now dwell, but previous stops contribute to my identity. I live in Michigan but I think of the west coast, both California and Oregon as the homeland.  Diana makes mention here and there in the book of Santa Barbara, a place that we share in common though she left Santa Barbara shortly before I arrived in the late 1990s. When she speaks of a place like Mt. Calvary Retreat Center, that once sat up on a hill overlooking the Pacific, but which was destroyed by fire shortly after I left Santa Barbara, I resonate completely. Santa Barbara is home to us both!  Home is more than a place. It is relationships, but as h home and family change how will faith communities adapt? Marriage is being delayed and it’s no longer just male/female couples. While things changing, she speaks of a domestic awakening, a desire to connect with things local like farmer’s markets. As I read this part of the chapter I wondered if this a kind of middle class/upper middle class experience. People in the inner city often face food deserts, where the only access to food is a convenience store that might have a couple of apples along with plenty of junk food.

           From home we move to neighborhood. Jewish and Christian faith teaches us to love our neighbor. The question that we all face has been who is the neighbor. Jesus sought to broaden the vision with the parable of the Samaritan. She offers up in this chapter a common ground spirituality, one that expands the neighborhood. There need to be fences of sort, a way to both include and bring order. Noting our tendency toward tribalism, she offers us a sense of open tribes, one where hospitality to the stranger is paramount. Or, another way of putting it is Golden Rule Spirituality, one that seeks to break through boundaries.

           The final chapter under Human Geography is titled "Commons." The Commons is an old word, that speaks of a shared space, a place with open permeable borders. More than any chapter, this one speaks of a broader religious/spiritual vision. She envisions a world commons, one that allows us to embrace the world and all its peoples. She offers a spirit of unity, even as she recognizes that we're not all ready to share the common space. Interestingly, even as she embraces a broader spirituality, she is able to bring into the conversation the Christian practice of Communion. While Communion is often, perhaps most often, a rather exclusive experience for Christians, she notes that meals are places of community and thus an opportunity to broaden the Table fellowship. While fear dominates many of our conversations she offers compassion as an alternative. That is a vision to not only consider, but embrace.

The book has both a conclusion (titled Revelation -- the introduction is titled Genesis) and an afterword. The conclusion draws on the vision of Revelation of the Heavenly Jerusalem descending upon the Earth. What is needed in this age of religious decline is a spirituality that is grounded, earthy. It is there that we encounter God in an ever evolving and emerging journey. The Afterword is titled "A Note to the Church." It is a word of warning of sorts to the church to be aware that things are changing. What was isn't connecting people to God. Neither conservative nor liberal is working. So where is the God who isn't limited to the church? 

        I enjoyed reading this book, as I always do with Diana’s books. As I’ve said, Diana’s journey is more post-church than is mine. She is more comfortable with the idea of "spiritual but not religious" than am I. I worry that we could lose contact with the stories of faith. In a spiritual community that picks and chooses from various faith traditions does something get lost? I know that some Hindus are concerned about the secularization of yoga. I realize that down through history we have repackaged our stories. Christianity has repurposed Judaism to create something new, and did so in large part in conversation with Greek thought. These are questions worth asking, even as we recognize that things are changing. The old will give way to new entities, some of which will be empowering and others will not. So we must continually explore our spiritual DNA!

Once again Diana has written a winsome and thoughtful book. It is more personal than some of her earlier books. She shares much of her journey, including her discouragement at elements of her faith community that are less expressive of the Divine than she would like (and I would like). So even if you’re not completely in sync with everything she shares, I encourage you to take and read and begin looking for God in the world (and for Christians in the church as well). 


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