If you pay attention, you can hear this shift in conversations everywhere. On a flight from Washington, D. C., to Los Angeles, a successful executive was seated next to me. After she told me about her work, she asked, “What do you do?”
I replied that I write about religion and spirituality.
She laughed. “’Religion’ isn’t a very popular word, is it?”
“I used to be religious,” she explained. “I grew up Roman Catholic, but left the church over the sex-abuse scandal. The church doesn’t make much sense in the world as it is now. But I still believe in God. I’d say I’m a spiritual person.”
“Lots of people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious,’” I said, laughing a little. “What do you mean by that? Who is God to you?”
She shared with me how she found God in nature, in her relationships with family, friends, and neighbors, and in the work she does in the world. She told me how God was present to her through doing justice (serving hungry people at a local shelter), contemplative worship (occasional attendance at an evening jazz service at an Episcopal church), and offering hospitality toward those in need (caring for those who were doubting, ill, or grieving among her own friends). Intelligent and obviously compassionate, she understood her own work as a vocation to create a more just and inclusive world. Sensing I would know what she was talking about, she threw in a few theologians and Roman Catholic saints, like Thomas Aquinas and Dorothy Day, to explain her perspectives on spirituality and social justice.
“Why don’t you join the church with the jazz service?” I asked.
“I’ve thought about that,” she confessed. She also shared that she sometimes felt guilty about not attending church anymore. “But ‘joining’ an organization strikes me as a strange way to relate to God. And the institutional church is so broken, so hypocritical. It has wounded so many people. I just can’t do that again with any honesty.” She paused, seeming to wonder if she should continue. “But these other things – the Spirit all around, caring and praying for people, working for a better world – they ground me.”
Her tale was similar to many stories in circulation about leaving religion behind in favor of spirituality. But it had a twist. She felt grounded by God. So there we were, at thirty-five thousand feet, talking – perhaps somewhat ironically – about what grounded us.
The English noun “ground” refers to the surface of the Earth; the verb “to ground” has multiple senses: “to prohibit or prevent” (such as grounding a plane in a storm or punishing one’s teenager), “to give a firm theoretical or practical basis,” and “to instruct someone thoroughly in a subject.” In Christian theology, the word “ground” conjures a very particular image. In 1916, a young German military chaplain named Paul Tillich was stationed on the front lines of World War I. The war undid all Tillich’s youthful confidence in the world and in faith. He wrote to a friend, saying that he spent more time digging graves than sharing the sacraments. “I have constantly the most immediate and very strong feeling that I am no longer alive,” he confessed. “I am experiencing the actual death of this our time.” Tillich experienced the end of the old world, the same “death” Bonhoeffer and Wiesel would write of during the next war; he felt “that a certain God had died on the battlefields of Europe. One could no longer easily preach about the benevolence of God or issue promises of peace from the heights of the mountaintop.”
After the war, Tillich made it his work to find dependable theological ground. Eventually, he proclaimed that God is the “Ground of all Being,” the “centered presence of the divine”; the “whole world” is God’s “periphery.” Human life may be finite, destined for dirt and death; but the ground and all that came from it and was connected to it, claimed Tillich, was drenched with the divine, the source of infinite holiness. Tillich did not mean that God was literally soil – he stressed that God is not an object – but God, the numinous presence at the center of all things, is what grounds us.
The insight appears in many of the world’s faith traditions. Most tribal religions are based upon the absolute connection of God (or gods) and the Earth. Buddhists see “the world as it is” as the stage of spiritual activity. For Hindus, Brahman is the source of all life, represented by the sacred word, Om; the world itself is the expression of Braham’s dream. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a creation story in which the Earth is the embodiment of God’s breath and insist that God is present everywhere and in all things. Some contemporary Jewish scholars argue that the Hebrew scriptures describe a God with a “fluid” or “plural” body manifesting itself throughout the Earth, in whose name, “I AM,” resides all being. Indeed, the primary hope of the ancient Hebrews was for “Immanuel,” or “God with us,” the God who dwells with humankind in love and justice. Christians refer to God’s embodiment as “incarnation,” God made flesh in Jesus, who is called Immanuel, and believe that God is present through the Spirit sent into the world after Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Separating the material from the spiritual is, perhaps, one of the saddest philosophical missteps of Western culture. Our ancestors understandably wanted to break the chains of superstition and follow the exciting new paths opened by science and democratic politics, so they disassociated faith from reason. But they unwittingly went too far – and we eventually lost the sense of a God who is “constantly, annoyingly present in the world.”
Yet in an age of profound, perplexing, and even frightening change, millions of people are rediscovering from the deepest human wisdom a simple spiritual reality: we’re grounded.