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(Photo Credit: Bayne Stanley)

By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)

In a recent lecture, Diana Butler Bass told Claremont School of Theology that our society’s shift away from organized religion and toward spirituality “is an indication of the success of women in leadership and feminist theology.”

Bass sees the rising phenomena of ‘spiritual but not religious’ as a result of the triumphs of feminism. “As feminism was doing its work in the 1960 and the 1970s it was actually seeding the space for a new birth of experiential, personal faith that would have a sense of validation that would trust the individual as the primary locus of authority over and against inherited institutional structure.”

Christian Historian and Author, Diana Butler Bass gave the keynote lecture entitled, “Christianity as Spiritual Experience, a ‘Feminine’ Faith for the Future” as part of Claremont’s Alumni/ae and Friends Day 2013. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion on themes from her lecture.

Bass showed two trends in religion in America: the rise of the ‘nones’ and the rise of pluralism. She revealed Pew Research Center data that shows Protestants now only make up 48% of the U.S. population (she did point out that Protestants and Catholics combined still make up a majority). “[I]n the early 21st century, the U.S. has moved from being a religiously diverse protestant country to being a genuinely pluralistic nation.”

Though she did comment on pluralism, she focused her talk on the rise of the ‘nones.’ Today 1 in 5 Americans claim no religious affiliation. These ‘nones’ see too much political involvement, among other things, as being a main reason for not associating with the institutional church.

Bass attributes this negative feeling as reaction to the religious right: “And here we can see that the Religious Right has done what many of mainline and mainstream ministers and theologian feared it would do, and that is it turned people out of religion.”

The ‘nones’ are seeking to rediscover a mystical personal encounter with God in which “authority is validated by you…You know it is true because it is true for you and to you.” Bass sees the focus of the unaffiliated on the experiential to be the same thing that made evangelicalism so popular in the past. “The reason why evangelicalism was so strong for so long in the 20th century was because of this. It was that Evangelicalism was presented to Americans as an experience that was self validating.” With a shift towards rules and doctrines, the evangelical church has been declining.

She then calls this change in spirituality the “Fourth Great Awakening”. Borrowing the phrase from historian, William McLoughlin, she goes on to explain what he forecasted the next awakening would look like:

“The Fourth Great Awakening would indeed be an awakening where we would stop understanding God as Father and stop understanding the church in patriarchal ways. But instead a vision of God that would emerge would be a god that was motherly as well as fatherly, to quote him exactly. And that that God would be much closer to and imminent with a people in and through their relationships, and nature, and their spiritual journeys than the God of traditional Roman Catholicism and traditional Protestantism.”

This new religious phenomena, in her estimation, is the continuation of the trend of previous awakenings to expand “the sphere of personal faith” and bring “women to new places of leadership in the world and in the church.”

“[F]eminism opened the way for some new languages, and new understandings of the self, and community and faith and God to emerge. Those things have and are emerging and now those things are bursting open the doors for a new civil life in America.”

This connection between spiritual but not religious and feminism is a very interesting claim. I wish she would have substantiated the claim a bit more. What type of feminism has sparked this movement? Is she referring to radical feminism, which defines itself in reaction to patriarchy? Or is she referring to something more along the lines of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Feminism, which seeks to transcend the confines of gender and dualism? And what about the relationship between postmodernism and the ‘nones’? Is the move away from religion more due to postmodernism’s “incredulity toward metanarratives” (to quote Jean-François Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism) or the rise of feminism?

Though I do not doubt that there is some connection between feminism and this new spirituality, it seems that the connection may be more periphery and loose than she suggests.

Yet regardless of the connection, will this trend toward non-institutional spirituality continue to grow and change the religious landscape? I say no. History has shown that the institutionalized church, though suffering trials and dark periods lives on and prevails over fringe movements. Furthermore, structure is completely necessary in society. The extreme and controversial feminist, Camille Paglia, has some insight on this issue. Though I take issue with the seeming celebration of depravity in her work, I think her understanding of nature and structure is accurate. Instead of seeing structure and society as the cause of evil she sees them as restrainers of evil. Though she is talking specifically about sexuality, she makes valid points that can be applied to hierarchy in general:

“We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first. There are hierarchies in nature and alternate hierarchies in society. In nature, brute force is the law, a survival of the fittest. In society, there are protections for the weak. Society is our frail barrier against nature.”( from Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia, pg. 3)

We as human beings need structure and rules. Though hierarchy and structure has been greatly perverted, it is not the problem; our propensity towards evil is the problem. Though many may spurn institutions or structure for a while, people end up returning to them or forming new ones.

Though authority, doctrine, and rules can be and have been greatly abused, they are a part of Christianity we cannot remove. I completely agree that the church needs an awakening, but we need an awakening that doesn’t remove authority, doctrine, and rules. We need an awakening that juxtaposes these in Scriptural harmony with true spirituality. We need to rediscover a vital faith that embraces both spirituality and doctrine. Any rethinking of church that seeks to remove authority, doctrine, and/or rules is a departure from the truth.

Here is a link to the full lecture.