Having chronicled the crisis of institutional religion, Diana Butler Bass turns now to the new vision taking shape for believing (behaving and belonging are next) in a new Christianity. She describes a shift in our understanding of belief, from the deeply problematic idea of “belief about” to a more vibrant set of questions: how does what I believe make a difference, and whom do I trust to accompany me in this journey? She recalls Jonathan Edwards’ argument for an “experimental religion,” where “truthful religious experience started with the affections and deepened one’s character, one’s love of God, and service to neighbor; it unified and balanced head and heart.” Framed in this way, we can think of “belief” in its root meaning of “trust” or the orientation of one’s heart; this way of understanding doesn’t always solve our intellectual problems, but it offers a more grounded and authentic way of talking about what matters.

This reconstruction of “belief” as “trust” captures much of my own relationship with my religious tradition: it offers amazing resources and deep interpretations of life, but it’s not the final answer. That’s a longstanding Presbyterian idea – using tradition to interpret scripture (and life) – although Presbyterian approaches could stand to give more validity to experience as Bass describes it.  The recovery of Edwards’ “experimental religion” will resonate well with our group, too: “being good” seems to sell pretty well around here.

It’s more difficult to get at the difference between experimental religion and ethical dogma. Even if we boil our ethics down as far as possible – the Golden Rule, say – I’m usually just uninspired by talk about how we should treat each other. Of course we should treat each other nicely, but that doesn’t tend to get me out of bed in the morning. There are calls to recover the power of the biblical story, but our doctrines and practices could use some recovery too. Bass quotes an Episcopal bishop who said about the resurrection, “Believe it? I’ve seen it too many times not to!” We need these powerful words and ideas to help shape our new spiritual-religious reality. We need to find ways to teach experiential faith practices without suggesting either that these are personal therapeutic techniques or that we all have to experience them in just the right way.

I struggle to work in this new space, because I’m not sure how to talk my way out of the false modernist binary between intellect and emotion. And yes, I imagine the next chapter on “behaving” will give me some tools to work with.

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