Americans' search for the divine is alive and well, although it looks different than it has in the past, according to Diana Butler Bass, a prominent commentator on religion and culture, and author of nine books about American Christianity.
Her latest book, "Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution," published Oct. 6, explores how people are finding God in nature and fellowship with friends and neighbors, whether or not they attend church.
Nearly 23 percent of U.S. adults did not identify with any organized religion in 2014, a 7 percentage-point increase from 2007, Pew Research Center reported in May. However, only 3 percent of Americans say they don't believe in God, The Associated Press noted earlier this year.
In "Grounded," Bass, who holds a doctorate in religion from Duke University and identifies as Episcopalian, investigates the spiritual lives of contemporary believers, questioning what happens when people expand their search for God beyond church buildings to the world around them.
"The most significant story in the history of religion at this time is not a decline in Western religion, a rejection of religious traditions or the growth of religious extremism; rather, it is a changed conception of God, a rebirthing of faith from the ground up," she writes.
Bass spoke to Deseret News National this week about America's shifting religious landscape and how meaningful it is to look for God in everyday life.
Deseret News: What are you envisioning when you talk about grounded faith?
Diana Butler Bass: I was playing with the word "grounded" in a couple of different ways. Some people — when they see the word grounded — immediately think about (the phrase), "You're grounded," like a teenager getting in trouble.
I was thinking more in terms of what's under our feet. What holds us to the earth. How we discover stability. I was also thinking about it in terms of a very old quote from a theologian from the middle part of the 20th century, Paul Tillich, who talked about how God is the ground of our being. I was thinking more in terms of grounded in those ways, that which can connect us to what matters and what gives us life.
DN: Is the same spiritual revolution that you write about from a Christian perspective affecting non-Christian faiths?
DBB: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I think is happening all across the planet is that within every religious tradition there are people who are becoming more attentive to life here on earth. They're thinking less and less about escaping to heaven, escaping to Nirvana or escaping to enlightenment.
I think they're instead asking, "What does the wisdom of Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Muhammad have to do with how we live now? What does it have to with other people? What does it have to do with the planet?"
Within every one of the world's traditions there is a big tension at the moment. The tension is between people who still insist their religion is primarily about personal salvation or going to heaven and people who are saying they don't know about the heaven question but recognize their neighbors and nature are in crisis.
DN: As a result of the tension you're describing, many people leave churches behind and piece together an individual spiritual life. Is this loss of community a problem?
DBB: I don't know that the piecing together of our own spiritual lives necessitates losing community. People often call (the process) "cafeteria religion," appearing to use the phrase as an insult.
But the way I tend to think about it is that religion is beginning to echo a larger cultural shift. I have a 17-year-old daughter, and she has a playlist on her phone. She rarely buys an entire album, instead buying songs that are meaningful to her. She constructs her own playlist and that is really the soundtrack of her life.
So one of the things I've been thinking about is whether that's what we're doing with spirituality as well. In a sense, we're all in this process, in the early 21st century, of constructing our own spiritual playlist.
To me, that's actually really interesting because even though your playlist might not be exactly like my playlist there are going to be commonalities in what different people choose. Out of all of that will come new forms of friendship and community.
I think the act of choosing is not really an act of individualism. Instead, it's an act of trying to find a soundtrack that makes sense to us. When we find that soundtrack, there are going to be other people who have similar music in their lives. We're going to find one another, and that's good.
DN: If someone is piecing together their own spiritual playlist, can they continue to claim the Christian label?
DBB: To continue that metaphor, oftentimes we like one kind of music more than another. So when I go into my own playlist, there are certain styles of music that keep popping up.
I think that's a little like faith traditions. People probably choose more from Christianity or more from Buddhism. Very few people are completely, absolutely eclectic.
I don't think freedom of choice means these great traditions are going away or that there's going to be a problem with people choosing Christianity. We all choose music that we think is beautiful, so the more that Christianity, the more that the church, presents a really wonderful song, people will say, "Hey, I want to be part of that music."
DN: Do you still consider yourself Episcopalian?
DBB: That's actually a great question. I do. I love the way that the liturgy in the Episcopal Church is structured. It is a tradition that has shaped me since I was 18 years old. There are always parts of it that I carry with me.
What I consider when I talk about my denominational identity is that I generally don't think of those labels, those old labels, as the first card I put on the table anymore. I understand myself as a person of faith who connects with a lot of people across a lot of traditions, who appreciates beautiful and ancient wisdom from a lot of different sources. And the fullest expression of that in my life happens to be in the Episcopal Church.
DN: You write that your "soul has a mile-wide mystical streak." How does that streak influence your spiritual behaviors?
DBB: In the book, I talk about any number of moments when all of a sudden what seemed to be the case on the surface was actually not the case. And I think that's actually the fundamental definition of mysticism.
The mystical approach takes a moment to step back and say, "This is what it seems to be, but is there something else underneath this reality?" Whenever I take that time to see more deeply into whatever is immediately around me, I am typically surprised. I have learned from my life to ask a couple more questions.
Just this week, I was stuck in O'Hare (Airport) for an extra few hours when a plane was late, and instead of just thinking about it as a frustration, I took it as an opportunity to sit there and write some thank-you notes. Then, I walked around O'Hare for about 45 minutes. In the course of the walk, I decided to pay attention to some things I hadn't paid attention to before. I got to see beautiful artwork, observe people and talk to interesting folks.
I always think that's really kind of a mystical moment when you just move past what is immediately in front of you and ask, "Are there other connections that can be made here?"
It wasn't like I saw God at O'Hare. I saw some art, and I met an interesting person who was passionate about something I was passionate about. I took the time to pray for people who looked frustrated, and I got some exercise.
For me, that's the nature of mysticism. It can be anything from seeing God in a sunset to taking the time to reinterpret our circumstances so that we're more connected with both our neighbor and nature.
DN: What if someone leaves church behind but has a hard time committing to a new spiritual routine? Will people like this fall through the cracks of what you call our contemporary spiritual revolution?
DBB: I hope not. This is actually the place where I think something like even occasionally walking into a church or synagogue or mosque can help.
You don't necessarily have to be there every weekend. It is helpful when, at least once in a while, people walk inside the doors of a really good faith community and receive whatever kind of nourishment for your spiritual journey they can offer you. Go to a place where you trust people and just listen to whatever nugget of wisdom they might provide for your life. Receive whatever gift they want to give you, and let it wash over you and help shape you.
I think that's OK. I always encourage people to lighten up on themselves and let go of guilt. Just receive things from the church as gifts and from the world as gifts.
If you care about all of this stuff, if you're attentive or mindful about it, sooner or later you begin to develop a desire for meditation or prayer. That just comes. Go lightly in that direction.
DN: Would you describe your book as a call to action for faith communities?
DBB: I don't actually consider bringing new energy to the church as the primary call of the book. What I consider to be the primary call is reminding everyone that there is something incredibly sacred and beautiful about the world in which we live and the neighbors that we have.
The primary call is for us to do something about creating a world that is kinder toward other people and the environment.
The secondary call of the book is for faith communities to wake up to that reality, to say, "Oh, yeah. We are supposed to be kinder to our neighbor and nature. How can we make it clear to people who have given up on church or synagogue or mosque that we are passionate about the things they are passionate about?"
What I would like to see churches do is really begin to open themselves up, to be in conversation with people who have left the church. I want churches to be able to listen to what's going on in the world around them.
But the primary piece of the book is for all of us to see God everywhere around us and then say, "Oh, my gosh. Nature is indeed the theater of the holy and my neighbor's face is a reflection of God. And that means something for the way that I am supposed to act as I make my way through my life."
DN: You conclude the book by addressing the value of awe. How can people nurture this emotion in their life?
DBB: Awe tends to show up where you least expect it. That's actually the problem, on occasion, with church and other religious communities. They claim to be in the "awe business," but then you go to church and people are mostly just talking about selling doughnuts to raise money for the Sunday School program. That's great stuff, but it's not particularly awe-inspiring.
When it comes to the idea of nurturing awe, the way that happens is we nurture a capacity in ourselves to see the world more deeply and to take that extra step to make connections that we normally would not make.
Almost every morning when I'm home, I walk along the Potomac River. I take that walk and my sense is that it's a beautiful day, and I'm ready for whatever is on this path.
But while I'm walking, there are all these people running passed me with headphones on, looking down at the road in front of them. There are bikers zipping by. People seem to be inside themselves and moving quickly through the landscape. They're not really noticing anything except that they're getting their exercise in.
I'm not opposed to that, but I think taking the extra moment before you begin an outdoor exercise to say, "This is not just about me on the bike. This is about the air in my face, the sunlight falling through the leaves of the trees, the beauty of the river." Sometimes that means stopping the bike.
That's what awe is like. Sometimes it shows up inside of a church building, and sometimes it shows up along the Potomac River. The reason it shows up is because you are ready for it. And that always involves the very simple practice of saying, "I will pay attention."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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