Cover Story: Diana Butler Bass asks, ‘What if we’ve got the story wrong?’

ReadTheSpirit Editor

“What if we’ve been getting the story wrong?”

That’s the most provocative question historian, author and educator Diana Butler Bass asked a crowd at the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, across the street from the University of Michigan’s main campus.

What is the “story”? In the middle of a day-long series of talks on a rainy Saturday, Bass tackled the nationwide news story about millions of Americans who are abandoning their traditional religious identifications. Now, according to Pew research, nearly 1 in 4 Americans respond with the option, “None,” when asked by pollsters to give their religious affiliation.

“A lot has been written about the rise of the Nones. But, what if we’re living in an age of mystics—and not really Nones? What if we’ve been getting that story wrong?” Bass asked the crowd of men and women, drawn mainly from southeast Michigan but including visitors from other parts of the Midwest as well.

This was part of a special weekend appearance by the popular Christian author and scholar at the university church. Mainly, she talked about themes raised in her book, Grounded, which just debuted in paperback. Her central argument in this weekend of teaching was, as her book suggests: There is a historic spiritual movement unfolding at the grassroots—among everyday lay people—that is “grounding” Christianity in a new way.


Hierarchical religious structures—or “vertical churches,” as Bass likes to describe them—are crumbling and new religious networks and movements of spirit are growing, she says in her book and talks. To illustrate her arguments, Bass often demonstrates old hierarchies by holding one arm straight up—or sometimes she forms a two-armed pyramid in the air. In contrast, she sweeps her hands horizontally from side to side to illustrate the new grassroots or “grounded” movement of spirit.

One image she projected on a big screen showed someone paddling across a beautiful lake. The caption read: “Religion is a person sitting in church thinking about kayaking. Spirituality is a person sitting in a kayak, thinking about God.”

Anyone who cares about the religious life of our communities should be grappling with these dramatic shifts in perspective, Bass said. “It’s about learning to make new connections and to be aware of things we weren’t previously aware of.”

The alternative, she warned, is a scramble to rebuild traditional hierarchical structures. “This is a time of great turbulence, anxiety and dislocation,” she said. Many people react out of fear during such a transformation, Bass said.

“So many people are feeling like they’re dislocated and even deeply abandoned. They wonder: Where is God?” she said. “People can start acting insane when they feel abandoned. They don’t know what to do. So they go about trying to rebuild structures they once depended on.”


A healthier alternative to fearful retrenchment is welcoming the rise of the spiritual insights that millions of Americans seem willing to share with each other, these days, Bass said. She cited Pew research on the growing number of men and women who say they have weekly experiences of awe about the world around them—signs of a spiritual movement in the general population.

In a 2016 report, Pew summarized the trend this way: “There has been an increase of 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 in the share who say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly (from 38% to 45%). And there has been a similar rise in the share of religious Nones who say the same (from 39% to 47%).”

“We are all mystic,” Bass said, spreading her arms wide as if to embrace the crowd and the world beyond the walls of the church in which she was speaking. “We all have a capacity to see. Seeing is part of being a mystic. … People often talk about this as mindfulness. We all have a capacity for mindfulness.”

A sure sign that this movement is taking root in our culture is that religious scholars, writers and teachers are no longer alone in talking about mindfulness and spirituality in everyday life, Bass said. “This idea now is showing up more and more across our culture. This is showing up in psychological language. It’s showing up in business language.”

This new language signals “a truly new theological territory … in which our deepest spiritual connections revolve around our relationships with other people and the natural world.”


“The strongest millennial language is about friendship,” Bass said. “If you ask a millennial about an important ethical question, a millennial eventually will say to you something like, ‘I am in favor of—because my friend Sue—’ One of the primary ways of organizing their ethical universe is around friends.”

So, as research by Pew and other groups has shown in recent years, huge numbers of millennials aren’t interested in traditional churches because they perceive them as mean to their friends—especially gay friends and those in other vulnerable minority groups. Pew reports that nearly half of millennials now say that churches do not have a positive impact on the country. That’s a significant change. As recently as 2010, 73 percent of millennials saw churches as generally positive.

Bass challenged people who care about their congregations to begin thinking about the question: “What is the theology of friendship?” There is a treasure trove of religious associations with friendship, she pointed out, including the strong evangelical and Pentecostal notion that Jesus can become a friend.


Ultimately, Bass said, these emerging experiences and terms for spirituality center on one question: “Where is God? That’s one of the most consequential questions of our time. … When people ask me theological questions, I find the most common questions are about God’s location.” For example, someone might describe a personal challenge, tragedy or global conflict and wonder: Where is God in this situation?

These aren’t abstract questions we can ignore, Bass argued. “Our conception of God—the way we conceive of God—shapes the whole character of our lives and ultimately our culture.”

As she does in her book Grounded, Bass devoted one portion of her talks to describing concentric circles that connect us with family, friends, neighbors—and eventually with men and women around the world. As the circles move outward, that awareness of global unity becomes a sense of a global “commons,” she says in her book and her talks.

God is not a captive of vertical religious structures, Bass said on Saturday. God isn’t limited to the sky or the upper reaches of traditional church steeples. God is among us in the commons—wherever people live their everyday lives.

In the age of smart-phone connections to the worldwide Web and social media that circles the planet instantly, this idea of a real global commons is no longer wistful thinking, Bass argued. “We’ve actually built this structure around the world. We can see the physical pattern of our individual nodes connecting all of us through the worldwide Web, the Internet. This is a natural architecture of community to my college-age daughter.”

The historic shift, she concluded, is “from a distant God at the peak of a vertical universe, high above us, toward an intimate God hovering with us and around us.”

In our chaotic culture, today, she warned: “There are a lot of people still hankering for the old verticality. They want to rebuild those old vertical structures.”

“But I think our faith should call us to a place where we really feel our feet on the ground,” she concluded, moving her hands toward the horizon. “We are called to realize that God is with all of us—here—and now.”

Care to read more?

Here is our 2016 interview with Diana Butler Bass on her book Grounded.


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  1. Benjamin Pratt says

    Bass argues a convincing case in her lengthy, but very compelling book, Grounded. A must read for serious searchers of faith and community. I envy those of you who had the weekend experience with her.

  2. Nash Smith says

    Diana’s “Theology of Friendship” is spot-on. An aspect that needs to be trumpeted is how congregations see their clergy. Where those at the top are seen for their lack of compassion, lack of pastoral care, nepotism, vindictiveness, racism and mere calousness, these create lack of trust and people leave the church. When those in charge think they are “gods” and are not accountable to anyone, to avoid losing faith in God, people leave the church and continue their faith somewhere else.

    This is an aspect that Diana needs to bring into her reasons for the decline of the mainstream church. Leaders who walk in the footsteps of Christ are in limited supply. We have leaders who lack what made Our Lord the God that He is- His humility, compassion, love for others, treating everyone the same and being long-suffering. Church leaders use the “power of the purse” to buy loyalty and destroy people below them. They are there to be served and not to serve. They are the complete opposite of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I sometimes wonder if they actually believe in God because their actions really begs that question.

    We expect our leaders to live by example. When they behave without compassion, humility and fairness, the people get dissolutioned, question the spirituality (and not religiosity)of these leaders and then lose faith in them. Poll a lot of those who leave the church and ask them if the behaviours of these leaders is not a major factor for them leaving the church.

    I pray these leaders change their horrible behaviours for judgment awaits us all.