a book review of
Finding God in the World —
A Spiritual Revolution
by Diana Butler Bass
This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 39, number 03 (2016). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
A historian who has spent decades teaching and writing about history and current movements in the Christian church, Diana Butler Bass focuses primarily on trends in progressive and liberal mainline churches. Her thesis is that for too long, Christianity has “confidently asserted that God inhabited heaven, a distant place of eternal reward for the faithful” (p. 4).
This confidence was shattered by the two world wars and continues to be challenged by such events as 9/11 and Sandy Hook. According to Bass, fundamentalism has held on to this view of a distant, vertical God in a world where this no longer works: “Venerating a God of a vanished world is the very definition of fundamentalism, the sort of religion that is inflicting great pain and violence on many millions of people across the planet and is leading to the rejection of religion by millions of others” (5–6).
For Bass, the question of where to find God in this age of horrendous evil, profound fear, and anxiety is answered by the formation of spiritual—but not necessarily religious — communities. By focusing on caring for the soil, air, water, family, and neighborhood, these communities help us to honor our family roots and find our sense of “place” or “home” wherever we are located in this world.
An Earth-Indwelling God. Using as a metaphor the relocation of a monastery from a mountain in California (after it burned down) to a modest place in a city (1–12), this “turn from the vertical God has redirected our spiritual attention toward the world, the horizons of faith….Contemporary people are finding God in and with dirt, water and sky—as the fire of the Spirit illuminates the way throughout. This is the spiritual revolution” (124–25).
Bass locates her faith philosophically in panentheism, “the idea that God is with or in all things….Panentheism recognizes the distinctions between things, at the same time that it affirms the indwelling force of spirit (typically called God) that draws all things into relationship with all other things. To put it simply, a panentheist says, ‘God is not a tree; a tree is not God. But God is with the tree; and the tree is with God’ (prepositions matter)” (39).
With God’s spirit indwelling everything, the “stuff” of creation—earth, wind, water—becomes sacred; and this “wisdom” has always been the subtext for all religions (282–83). She speaks of soil as the “firstborn of creation” (51) and agrees with theologian Sallie McFague who sees “the earth as part of the body of God, not as separate from God (who dwells elsewhere) but as the visible reality of the invisible God” (51). Bass uses many of McFague’s concepts, including a view of the church that extends Christ’s incarnation, the Eucharist, and the church as elements of God’s embodiment in all faiths and in the entire cosmos.1
Bass believes that this approach will make us “both more responsible toward the soil and more aware of God-with-us” (51). She and others are “fashioning a way of faith between conventional theism and any kind of secularism devoid of the divine” (279). For Bass, this view becomes a necessary correction for the church.
While filled with great stories about communities of faith who have connected both with the earth and with people in helpful ways, as well as with good information on the environment, Grounded fails to provide an adequate response to the question she poses at the beginning and end of her book: In the face of unspeakable evil, anxiety, and fear, where is God? Other than a few references to Jesus, she ignores the central message of the New Testament, that God, in Jesus Christ, has taken all of the horrendous evil of human sin, suffering, grief, sickness, and shame into Himself on the cross, and has triumphed over it by the cross and resurrection. While she does mention God’s body and blood in the Eucharist at times, she does not reference the actual cross and resurrection of Christ.2
By ignoring what Christians worldwide believe to be the central events of world history (the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ), Bass fails to provide any real motivation or empowerment for why we should love the earth and other people. The biblical locus for the statement “God is love” is in God’s giving Himself to the world in Christ; and the empowerment to love in the same way God loves us is located in the giving of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension. Instead, Bass insists that “loving the atmosphere, knowing that it is God’s abode and God’s breath, will give us the courage to save it” (123).
Toward an Inclusive Ecological Spirituality. I do not think that Bass is attempting to construct a Christian spirituality so much as a general ecological spirituality that can attract people of all faiths and of no faith. Perhaps she is writing for other formerly “traditional Christians” like herself (she was raised Methodist, became evangelical for a while, and has been Episcopalian for years) who are embarrassed—as many of us are—by the theological, political, and antiscientific antics of many conservative churches. But she also seems embarrassed by the “scandal of particularity” in historical Christianity that proclaims the central message of the New Testament: that human beings need saving from their sins, that in a particular person, from a particular people at a particular time in history, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19 NIV).
In her attempt to build her case, she distorts and oversimplifies historical events, misrepresents several crucial biblical texts as well as other Christian writers and movements, and openly disdains any more traditional expressions of Christianity.3 I find this distressing because she makes a good case for the urgent necessity of radically caring for the earth, citing numerous examples of how to find meaning and relationships in those efforts. For example, while acknowledging that John 3:16 states “that God entered the cosmos in the form of a gift, the gift of Jesus, that we might trust in this divine presence and experience abundance” (122), Bass states that this is not a call to personal salvation or salvation from hell. Rather, “John 3:16 proclaims that this divine indwelling is life. Other religions say similar things in different ways—God is closer than we imagine, and the ever active spirit is animating the world” (123).
Sadly, Bass’s dishonesty with the biblical text gets in the way of a needed genuine corrective in the American church. I agree with many who say that the church has become increasingly irrelevant for a large number of deeply committed Christians.4 Orthodox Christian theology does need to refocus on God’s love for the entire creation, as well as a natural theology that recognizes in a general sense the work of God in other faiths throughout history. However, many church traditions have and continue to develop fresh understandings and actions regarding the ongoing destruction of our environment, which is inextricably linked with issues of justice and mercy, especially for the poorest of this world. Jesus’ person and work do have cosmic implications because God will “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10 NIV).
Dividing God and Spirit. But in her reductionism and revisionism, Bass posits a false dichotomy between God and Spirit, setting up a straw man argument that pictures God in a way that neither the text nor most of Christian history and tradition portrays. She says, “The distant patriarchal God [is] gone, replaced by the presence of the Spirit who dwells with creation and in us” (282). Instead, the God of the church has always been the One True God who reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. And Jesus is the real “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things were created… all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15–17 NIV).5 — Carole Ryan with editing help by Elizabeth Niedt
Carole Ryan (MDiv, Regent College/Carey Theological College) lives in Montana with her family, working as a hospice chaplain, tutor, writer, and editor.
- In her essay, “Human Beings, Embodiment and Our Home the Earth,” McFague develops the sentence Bass quotes, saying that Christian theology has traditionally disparaged the body and the physical world, focusing primarily on saving human souls, thus creating a false hierarchical dualism that has led to centuries of racism, sexism, classism, and the destruction of the environment. “And yet,” she says, “Christianity is the religion of the incarnation, the religion of embodiment, as proclaimed in its central doctrines of Christology (the Word made flesh), the Eucharist (the body and blood of Christ) and the church (the body of Christ).” McFague’s essay is found in Reconstructing Christian Theology, ed. Rebecca S. Chopp and Mark Lewis Taylor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 141–69.
- “The inner criterion of whether or not Christian theology is Christian lies in the crucified Christ…we come back to Luther’s lapidary statement, the cross is the test of everything: Crux probat omnia.” Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 7; as quoted in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 41.
- Bass dismisses the renewal of the 1950s around such figures as Billy Graham, as well as the Jesus Movement of the 1970s as having little to no permanent positive effect. She also quotes “traditional Christians,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jonathan Edwards, while attempting to make her case for a theology that is radically different from theirs.
- See Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2015).
- For excellent modern philosophical treatments of the necessity of a traditional Christian understanding of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, see Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) and Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).