By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Nobody thinks about water.
Until there’s no more.
Or, until—as is the case in the poor neighborhoods of Flint, Michigan—the tap water is poisoned. In that kind of crisis, we suddenly think a lot about water, because the only fresh water comes in plastic containers toted home by Moms and Dads—just as water is painstakingly fetched in countless indigenous communities around the world.
But one of the deep spiritual truths that undergirds all of us is our connection with water. “Throughout human history, the quest for God has often been connected with a quest for fresh water,” Diana Butler Bass writes in her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution.
It’s a truth in all world faiths, Bass tells us, and especially for Jews and Christians:
The Bible begins with the deep, when God’s spirit sweeps over the waters. From wind and the seas comes all of creation. For Christians, the Bible also ends with water: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” The final scene in the book of Revelation is the river of God, the water that heals and washes away all sorrow. … Water in the beginning, water at the end. God is the Alpha and Omega of the wells, rivers and seas.
Are you surprised by that passage from her new book? If you are familiar with Bass’s long and distinguished career as a historian, then you know that she has been a specialist in the history of Christianity and has adapted those insights into consulting with congregations. Compared with her past volumes, this book unfolds in a powerful new blend of prose and personal reflection. She moves seamlessly from scholarly observation—to active participation in finding spiritual awakenings in everyday life.
And Bass freely admits: She didn’t even think about water until a long-time friend coached her to spend a day along the banks of the Potomac River near her home.
She didn’t want to do it! She told her friend: “That’s not interesting. The Potomac is so polluted. Ugly, really.”
Her friend insisted: “You should write there some mornings. Take a journal and work at a bench along the river. It might change your perspective.”
A ‘SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION’
And therein lies at least one major spark of the “Spiritual Revolution” she’s talking about in the sub-title of her new book—a book so different from her past work that she calls it “the first book of the second half of my life.”
Intrigued? Go ahead and click on the book cover to order a copy from Amazon. This book is full of spiritual themes that Bass will be talking about nationwide this year. (Here’s a recent sermon she preached at the National Cathedral.)
Consider this: This new year, 2016, already is shaping up as a year when Americans will be talking about the nature of water coast to coast. Just yesterday, the poisoned water in Flint Michigan was the main front-page story in the Sunday New York Times. There’s already extensive Wikipedia coverage of that crisis, complete with more than 100 citations. And this is just one of many water crises emerging in America—droughts, cut-offs of water service in many poor neighborhoods, toxic leakages into our sources of fresh water, on and on.
So, the “Water” section in this new book is prophetic—speaking urgent truths about the emerging state of our world. Throughout this new book, you’ll be intrigued by what Bass tells us about discovering a new, stronger, “grounded” spirituality in equally prophetic chapters with titles such as Dirt, Water, Sky, Roots, Home, Neighborhood and Commons.
What’s more—you’re likely to find yourself doing some of the things she does in this book—like her pilgrimage to the riverside.
A CHORUS OF RELIGIOUS VOICES
She opens the book with two quotes:
The whole universe is God’s dwelling. Earth, a very small, uniquely blessed corner of that universe, gifted with unique natural blessings, is humanity’s home, and humans are never so much at home as when God dwells with them. —U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth 1991
Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each … and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth. —Pope Francis, Laudato Si 2015
That first page will surprise long-time readers who know Bass, a member of the Episcopal church, as speaking and writing primarily to a Protestant audience throughout her career.
“I chose those two passages to open the book, because I wanted my readers to know that this book is a departure,” she says now in an interview about the book. “Most of my work so far has been about church history and congregations and, here, I’m writing theology for people who might describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. So, Francis and the Catholic bishops wind up on the front page because I wanted to signal that, while I am writing about theology in a new way, this is part of a larger discussion throughout Christianity.
“Together we are pressing people toward a new vision of God. If we really believe, as Christians, that God has come to earth and dwelt among us, then that sacralizes the world in a profound and beautiful way. We have to be attentive to that, just as these bishops and the pope are saying. As readers open this book, they may think these pages are radical—but this message comes from deep within the heart of the Christian tradition. I’m summoning the voice of the church to help support this invitation to readers.”
And, Diana admits: “Pope Francis already has become a hero of mine. This book was all written and ready to go to press before Laudato Si was published in May 2015. But we held off finalizing the book until after I could download Francis’s encyclical and read it. As I read what he had written, I sat there weeping because he was saying pretty much the same thing I’m saying in this book—except in his encyclical we hear it from a very traditional Catholic position.”
What does that mean? How does Francis’s perspective differ from hers in Grounded? “The main difference I would point to is that I’m less afraid of making God as intimate as I do in these pages, because I come from a Protestant tradition. Like John Wesley describes it, I’m happy to have a God who is within my heart. And, in his writing, Francis still tries to preserve a bit of the distant God from the Catholic tradition. But I don’t want to over-emphasize that difference. I closed his encyclical and said to myself: ‘Wow! How great is this! The pope is confirming what I’m saying about living inside a sacred environment.’ So we share far more than divides us.”
HOW WE KNOW PEOPLE ARE READY FOR THIS
One strong indication that Americans are ready for this kind of message comes from the massive new Pew Center report on trends in religious life. (Here’s a link to download the entire 266-page Pew report based on 35,000 interviews with Americans in all 50 states.) The main headline on that Pew report, U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious, points to a continuing rise in the number of Americans who give no specific religious affiliation—but the real news lies deeper in the report. In fact, the study shows that millions of Americans are deepening their spiritual and religious practices.
Among those key findings, Pew reports:
Roughly six-in-ten adults now say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week, up 7 percentage points since 2007. And 46% of adults say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis, also up sharply since 2007. … The new study also asked respondents how often they think about the meaning and purpose of life. Slightly more than half of Americans (55%)–including 59% of Christians, 53% of members of non-Christian faiths and 45% of religious “nones”—say they think about the meaning and purpose of life at least once a week.
“It doesn’t surprise me that more Americans are telling pollsters that they don’t have a specific religious affiliation,” Diana says. “Many people don’t like the old labels to describe their faith lives. It is stunning how fast this has been moving since 2000—more and more people are leaving behind these conventional labels. This is hard for people who care about their traditional congregations to hear—but there are very high and stable numbers of people who say they have a strong faith life. And we still get 90 percent of the population who say they believe in God in some form.”
The challenge, Diana says, is recognizing that “organized religion is presenting faith in a way that is not satisfying to many people. And that’s where this set of numbers about a ‘deep sense of wonder’ and a ‘deep sense of spiritual peace’ and ‘thinking about the meaning and purpose of life’ is head spinning to me.
“These are measurements of what we might call spirituality and those numbers are on the rise. So that’s why this new book is written as an invitation to go out into the world and rediscover what we might prefer to call spirituality. I’m wondering what words will emerge to describe this. I’m wondering if one day we’ll be talking about this period as something like ‘the rise of the mystics.'”
‘WHERE PEACE WILL EMERGE’
But Grounded takes this opportunity—the dramatic change in American religious life—to offer some very practical ideas for exploring faith in new ways. “Millions of Americans still are very involved in their congregations,” Diana says. “Pew tells us they’re reading the Bible more and praying more—and they enjoy their small groups. But, each week, people also are wanting to make room for religious and spiritual practices that are really meaningful to them.
“And there’s a lot people can do. If you do have a high sense of awe in the world around you, then you’re more likely to be involved in acts of compassion and ethical work. And that takes us back to what we were talking about earlier—the challenges we all face around water and land and all of these concerns of what I would call human geography.”
There is very good news in these pages. “Yes, you’re right, this book is ‘urgent,’ but it is beautiful and useful as well,” Diana says. “We’re not at our best when we feel threatened. I want people to know that, if we pay attention to those things, I think that’s where spiritual peace and wellbeing on a global scale will emerge.”
Taking readers full circle, here are the final two paragraphs of this new book:
The spiritual revolution, finding God in the world, is an invitation to new birth, most especially for religion. There is no better place to start than in your synagogue, mosque, temple, or church.
And that new birth is happening. You can hear it as the earth groans for salvation, as poets and philosophers tell its stories, as scientists search the soil and the cosmos for life, as the oppressed, poor and marginalized push for dignity and economic justice. It is time for the church to wake up. There is nothing worse than sleeping through a revolution.