Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Fourth Great Awakening?

Diana Butler Bass is a perceptive religious scholar and a good writer. Her newest book is “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” (2012), and it is an interesting read.
Dr. Bass (b. 1959) was a college professor for a number of years before becoming an independent scholar and author. Her earlier books include these highly regarded works: “A People's History of Christianity” (2009), “Christianity for the Rest of Us” (2006), and “Strength for the Journey” (2002).
On June 6-8, Bass will be the leader of a church-wide adult retreat at Second Baptist Church here in Liberty, and will preach there on Sunday morning. She will also be speaking (dialoguing) at Central Baptist Theological Seminary at a gathering that begins at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 7.

I finished reading Bass’s “Christianity After Religion” in January and am looking forward to meeting her and hearing her speak next month. I will also be leading a discussion of this book at Rainbow Mennonite Church on the five Sundays in June.
There are clear indications that the Christian religion is in a state of decline in the United States—and in the Western world in general. (The situation is much different in Asia and especially in Africa.)
This decline is depicted by Bass, who is a religious historian and an astute observer of American Christianity. Happily, she is also hopeful for the future. In fact she writes about a fourth “awakening” in her new book.
“The Great Awakening” is the name historians of American Christianity generally use to describe a period in the 18th century, between 1730 and 1760. New England clergyman Jonathan Edwards (about whom I wrote last October) and Englishman George Whitfield were the main leaders of that significant movement.
A similar movement began around the turn of the nineteenth century and lasted for about 30 years. It came to be called the Second Great Awakening. Revivalist Charles G. Finney was one of the most prominent leaders of that movement.
While not as widely talked about, sometimes mention is made of a Third Great Awakening from about 1890 to 1920. William McLoughlin writes about that in his book “Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform” (1978). The Social Gospel movement, led by Walter Rauschenbusch, was prominent in that “awakening.”
Bass also cites McLoughlin: “Since 1960, Americans have been in the midst of their Fourth Great Awakening” (p. 223). The third, and last, part of her book is titled simply “Awakening,” and she makes much out of the new movement of God’s Spirit.
“The 1960s and 1970s were a spiritual hothouse, a veritable garden of awakening, as people planted seeds of new forms of Christian belief and practice,” she writes.
Although McLoughlin, writing in 1978, speculated that the Fourth Great Awakening would perhaps end around 1990, Bass sees its influence as prominently impacting the present time.
So in 2012 she avers, “I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation.”
“This transformation,” Bass goes on to say, “is what some hope will be a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and oppression” (pp. 5-6).
If this is, indeed, the Fourth Great Awakening, it is quite different from especially the first two, for it is not particularly good news for organized religion.


  1. Leroy, Thank you for making people aware of Diana Butler Bass's book and upcoming appearance in Liberty and Kansas City. We are so fortunate to have her here and hope others will come. Our retreat is that Friday evening and Saturday morning, plus Sunday morning worship. I'm getting ready to read her latest book in preparation for the retreat. Any who would like to come are welcome and may register for the retreat at 2bcliberty.org

  2. Hmmm. As my European friends would say, "I don't believe in religion." It is not a mean spirited atheism, just practical. American atheism is mean.

    No real awakening happening, just an evolution from business model churchianity into a post-modern humanism which hold onto a few "church" pieces so there is some structure to gather around. We really could use a new awakening to bring us back - a "new evangelization" where the Church is once again truly central and focused on her mission in Christ.

  3. I'm not exactly sure what 1sojourner means, but the British sociologist of religion, Steve Bruce, in is 2011 book, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford U. Press) examines the many claims that there is a new religious awakening, reversing the long-term trend of secularization in the West, and he finds those arguments quite unconvincing, offering--as a social scientist should--considerable evidence to the contrary of such claims. This doesn't mean he's right necessarily, but it's he's fairly convincing since he relies on more than anecdotal and impressionistic evidence. For example, to those who proclaim a widening individualistic "spirituality" in lieu of traditional religious organization, he marshals evidence to show that in fact the numbers of such energetic new "believers" are nowhere near the replacement level of the decline in organized religious membership and participation. Properly, as well for a social scientist, he doesn't pretend to claim that secularization will necessarily continue; simply that it hasn't yet stopped.

    1. Anton, thanks for your substantial comments and for introducing a book that I did not know about but have the library getting for me now.

      Diana Butler Bass's point is that there seems to be some sort of awakening in society that is helping to produce "a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and oppression."

      From a certain Christian perspective, which seems to be Bass's, such a community is consistent with the Kingdom of God. But from a sociologist's point of view, the movement toward such a community might be seen as a primarily a secular one.

      It certainly seems as though there have been some significant advancements in society over the past few decades: for example, advancements in racial and gender equality and especially in a growing equality for LGBT people. If Christians see that as a movement of the Spirit, then it is Christian. But if much of that is happening apart from organized religion, then sociologists could see it as basically secular.

      So, as I concluded, if this can be considered the Fourth Great Awakening, "it is not particularly good news for organized religion."

    2. I have now read a bit of Bruce's book, and I think it is quite clear that what he is talking about and what Bass is talking about are quite different.

      What I looked at most carefully was Bruce's fourth chapter: "Religion Outside the Churches." But that is not what Bass is primarily concerned about. Her book is "Christianity After Religion." She is talking about faith, not religion, and about how faith, even when it is not recognized as such, helps to change society for the better. She is not talking about the type of New Age spirituality that Bruce describes, and largely dismisses.

  4. LIke David Fulk, above, I am looking forward to the retreat at Second. I am not familiar with Butler's work, so this will be a learning experience.

    The word "religion" comes from the same root as the word "ligament." In that sense, religion is a "re-ligament," a metaphorical structure that hopefully does for the mind and heart what our literal ligaments do for our bodies, what is often called a worldview. As such, it is hard to see a direct reason for so many people to be questioning religion.

    On a deeper level there are deeper reasons, as much religion is providing a worldview from and mostly for past centuries. Our modern world has body-slammed religion repeatedly over the last few centuries, and I suspect many people feel a need for a fresh start, without any particular idea of exactly what that new start should look like. Well, maybe a religion that is not at war with Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and the rest of science. Yet a religion that is not just secular humanism, either. Or that strange out-of-body experience known as post-modernism. If that sounds like an impossible mission, perhaps that speaks to why so many people are sitting on the sidelines, calling themselves spiritual but not religious. The right spark will light a fire, but in the meantime, most of us will be muddling along, whether in or out of the church.

    1. Craig, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments although I don't always say so.

      Please note that I inverted the names in my initial blog article: her name is Diana Butler Bass.

      I am afraid not many people know, or care, about the etymological meaning of "religion." Most are much more likely to think of religion as being associated with many things that they know are wrong and even repulsive.

      But many of these same people have a sense of Transcendence evoking a responses of awe, gratitude, and even a type of non-structured worship. Many of these same people are the same ones who have deep concern for creating a fair and just society.

      This is the reason, I think, Dr. Bass is writing/talking about Christianity after religion.There is a type of Christian faith, often latent, among many who have mostly given up on Christianity as a religion.

    2. Ever sense Moses had that mountaintop experience on Sinai, people have appreciated the great power of getting away from it all to commune with nature. I am a big fan of John Muir, and I do plenty of back-to-nature myself. However, other than a few hermits who lived in caves, most of us live in society and exist in community. Once spirituality gets a community, that is going to look a lot like a religion.

      I think it is instructive that even secular humanists have been evolving in the direction of a religion-like structure. They have temples in Centers for Inquiry, holidays like Darwin's birthday, prophets like "the new atheists," shrines like Robert Ingersoll's house, programs for young people, service programs such as Secular Sobriety, and even sacred books, such as Darwin's "On the Origin of Species." Of course, they would not call them by these religious titles, but they seem largely functionally equivalent.

      I am waiting to see if Christianity after Religion is anything more that an example of the kind of rebranding my church did a few years ago when we stopped having business meetings and started having church conferences. As far as I could tell, Roberts Rules of Order did not change a bit!

      Now I will admit that I suspect the major realignments ongoing in religion will continue with considerable force. Denominations that formed centuries ago to deal with what were then major controversies will have to find new rationales at a time when totally new theological issues are dominating our views. Not all of them will be attractive to everyone, anymore than they were previously. For example, I am probably too introverted to ever fit into a Pentecostal church, no matter how many hundreds of millions of people join it (in the last century it went from zero to about 600 million, so it may have quite a future).

      I happened to see a YouTube today about spirituality and video games. It turns out a lot of people have profound spiritual experiences playing intense video games such as World of Warcraft. It has the neuroscientists interested in why this is. One point seems to be that game play involves a suspension of normal rules of life much like what happens in a transcendent experience, and this is apparently especially true in multi-player games such as World of Warcraft.

      Well, I just tried to search YouTube for the one I watched, and found so many hits that I can't find the same one again! So, no link.