Food for Thought has started reading the new book by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion. As I read ahead, I’m going to offer some brief reflections.

In the introduction, Bass describes her own “born again” moment and her progress from evangelicalism back to the Methodist tradition in which she had grown up. She identifies in her own story and that of others a general “spiritual awakening” that began in the 1970s and is just maturing today. In this awakening, people are less inclined to self-identify as religious but more likely to have had a significant “spiritual experience.” In a world where religion is changing along with technology, society, and politics, we have to find a new way to be Christian. Vital Christianity, she says, “is not really seen as a ‘religion’ anymore. It is more of a spiritual thing.”

We got into this book by way of Bass’s articulate response to Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” This group is more or less the liberal core of a generally progressive congregation, so the idea that there’s value in rethinking Christianity has resonated with us. At the same time, we tend to struggle with what we actually mean by “Christianity.” We like the church as a building, a community, and a ritual space, but we’re less comfortable with talk of life-changing encounters with God. The idea of a more open, inclusive spiritual vision appeals to us, but the evangelical roots of much of the movement Bass describes will probably continue to unsettle us.

Coming from the traditional side of this emergence, I find myself asking a different question than the “spiritual but not religious” group. My question takes our religious institutions for granted, but I want to know what makes us different from any other social or service organization. We (mainline Christianity) have a tendency to undertake mission as if we were the Rotary Club, fellowship as if we were the country club, and evangelism as if we were a cash-strapped downtown business (if we evangelize at all). All these other institutions may be wonderful things, but our approach to solving institutional problems reflects a lack of clarity about why we’re ultimately here. In the denominational church, we’re very good at being institutions, but we’re not all that good at remembering why we’re an institution.

The liberal contribution to this spiritual awakening has been our awareness of mystery, our sense that life is much more complicated and less certain than we might wish. The traditional contribution is the wealth of theological understanding, faith practices, and interpersonal accountability that helps chart a way through the unknown. The spiritual/charismatic contribution – the piece that unsettles us – is the honesty about emotion and personal experience.

In our discussion yesterday, we asked an epistemological question: when you have this spiritual awakening, how do you know that the voice you hear belongs to God? One pat answer is to simply read the Bible for answers, but of course we Presbyterians have a somewhat more complicated view of biblical authority than that. We listen for God in scripture, yes, but also through the voice of our collective history and the present wisdom (reasoned and intuited) of the church. The trick is, we have to share our questions with each other before we can have help answering them, and that’s just what open-minded groups like ours can make possible.