Almost one in four Americans no longer identifies with any particular religious tradition, a number that rises to one in three if you count only American adults under thirty. In Canada, the national number is slightly more than one in four; across Europe, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people is higher. In societies that were once strongly shaped by Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, increasing numbers of people have opted out of conventional religions at historic rates. In terms of raw numbers, between 660,000 and 700,000 Americans per year in the last decade have left religion, making “no religion” the second largest “religious” group in the United States – and the only group posting numeric gains in all fifty states. In an unexpected turn of events, the “nones” are being joined by the “dones,” those believers who were once faithful participants but who now have had enough of institutional religion.
Belief in God has softened since the mid-twentieth century, as most Western populations register overall declines in theological certainty and theism. Attendance at religious services has reached near record lows across the developed world, and erosion of other measures of religious adherence is obvious as well. Sociologists of religion Michael Hout, Claude Fischer, and Mark Chaves sum up the American situation as follows: “The historic distancing of Americans from organized religion continues to evolve. More Americans than ever profess having no religious preference. Their quarrel appears to be with organized religion.” All of these changes have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in conventional denominations, as the clergy and the faithful struggle to come to terms with what has happened and wonder what the post-religious future holds for them.
Yet despite the move away from organized religion, something else is happening. Belief in God, although reported at lower cultural levels than in previous decades, still remains surprisingly widespread. In the United States and Canada, roughly six in ten people say they believe in God with some degree of certainty; in Europe, the number is five in ten. If you include the number of people who believe in a universal Spirit, higher power, or life force, the percentage goes up by about twenty points. Public Religion Research Institute has developed a “spiritual experiences index,” indicating that 65 percent of Americans score in the moderate to “very high” range of spiritual connection, sense of wonder, inner peace and harmony, and oneness with nature – data that lends credence to the argument that God-in-Heaven is giving way to the Spirit-with-us. Even atheists like Sam Harris admit that mindfulness, enlightenment, and spiritual awakening are possible and desirable for a happy and ethical life separated from the idea of conventional theism. Indeed, with intense cultural interest in spiritual practice and the surprising resilience of God, Hout, Fischer, and Chaves argue that “disbelief” is not the primary factor prompting religious defections.
The implication seems stunningly clear. People believe, but they believe differently than they once did. The theological ground is moving; a spiritual revolution is afoot. And there is a gap between that revolution and the institutions of religious faith.
Why is this happening? The answer may be simpler than some suggest. At the same moment when massive global institutions seem to rule the world, there is an equally strong countermovement among regular people to claim personal agency in our own lives. We grow food in backyards. We brew beer. We weave cloth and knit blankets. We shop local. We create our own playlists. We tailor delivery of news and entertainment. In every arena, we customize and personalize our lives, creating material environments to make meaning, express a sense of uniqueness, and engage causes that matter to us and the world.
It makes perfect sense that we are making our spiritual lives as well, crafting a new theology. And that God is far more personal and close at hand than once imagined.
But most religious institutions have not been able to grasp this. For more than a century, Western society emphasized the importance of large institutions for the good of community. We believed that centralized, top-down organizations were the best way to manage business, politics, and social problems. And this included religion. Christians built massive national and international structures, with God-in-Heaven as CEO sending down directives to do good. And it was very successful, for a while.
Until, of course, people lost trust – or simply lost interest – in distant institutions and distant Gods. Whenever a gulf opens between the way people experience God and how institutions respond (or fail to respond) to such concerns, historical conditions ripen for spiritual revolution, reformation, and awakening.
Conversations like the one with my airplane companion illustrate the dynamic perfectly. Leaving the institutional church behind, she has joined the ranks of the “nones.” However, she also understands that God is with her, in her work and her relationships, through art, and in communion with nature. Her testimony is remarkably like that of millions of others across Western societies. Yet these stories are rarely taken as a whole, giving voice to an important cultural critique, meaningful spiritual longing, or serious theological perspective. Instead, they are ridiculed, called tedious or boring, most often derided as “radical individualism,” “cafeteria religion,” “navel-gazing spirituality,” “Oprah church,” or, in more sophisticated philosophical terms, “moral therapeutic deism.” Entire books have been written and at least a couple of careers made by pointing out how dangerous such views are to the fabric of community, especially to religious and civic institutions. Yet for all their attempts at journalism or academic objectivity, when these analyses are professionally deployed to describe experiences like those of my seatmate, they too often smack of intellectual superiority and moral defensiveness, carrying a whiff of judgment if not outright insult.
And I guess I am tired of being insulted.
For my entire life, I have been a practicing Christian. I even once wrote a book that opened with the line, “I am a churchgoer.” I still go to church. To be honest, however, my attendance is much more sporadic than it once was. Although I have advanced degrees in religion, I am neither a minister nor a teacher at a divinity school. I have written about churches and the future of churches for more than a decade. I am, despite all this, what is called a “layperson.” Although I write about religion, like most laypeople I do not spend the majority of my time in a professional religious setting. When not asked to preach (something I like to do as a spiritual practice) on a given Sunday, I sit in the pews along with everybody else – the intensely devout, the sleepy, the fidgety, the doubters, the bored, the hyper-orthodox, the nominal, the distracted, the joyful, the irked, the true believers, the dullards, and now the Tweeters and texters. The pews are a much more diverse place than most outsiders imagine, but it seems clear enough: the ties that once bound are loosening, and the ranks are thinning.
Critics say this is happening because we are uncommitted, disloyal, or too lazy to get up on whatever Sabbath we celebrate. We do not understand community or we like sports better than church. We are consumers more interested in getting our own needs met than in meeting the needs of the world. We are too busy. We are self-centered, lacking a moral passion for charity or social justice.
I suppose that any of this may be true for some people. But it is not true for me. Much to my surprise, church has become a spiritual, even a theological struggle for me. I have found it increasingly difficult to sing hymns that celebrate a hierarchical Heavenly realm, to recite creeds that feel disconnected from life, to pray liturgies that emphasize salvation through blood, to listen to sermons that preach an exclusive way to God, to participate in sacraments that exclude others, and to find myself confined to a hard pew in a building with no windows to the world outside. This has not happened because I am angry at the church or God. Rather, it has happened because I was moving around in the world and began to realize how beautifully God was everywhere: in nature and in my neighborhood, in considering the stars and by seeking my roots. It took me five decades to figure it out, but I finally understood. The church is not the only sacred space; the world is profoundly sacred as well. And thus I fell into a gap – the theological ravine between a church still proclaiming conventional theism with its three-tiered universe and the spiritual revolution of God-with-us.
People like me? We are not lazy, self-centered, or individualistic church stoppers. We are heartbroken. Heartbroken by the fact that the faith traditions that raised us and that we love seem to be sleeping through the revolution.
Many people have left organized religion because they experience too great a distance between the old structures and their experience of God. Yet there are surprising moments when the revolution actually makes it into church – a courageous sermon that turns things upside-down, an old hymn tune with earthy new words, a poem that rivals the beauty of scripture, a call to plant a garden or march for justice. Even within some houses of worship, people are getting it. Once thick ecclesiastical walls have proved a surprisingly porous boundary between the church and the world, and the questions that used to roil the cultural edge are being heard inside many congregations too. The questions are now inside the church as well as outside. And people are far less afraid to ask them than they once were.
In some faith communities, people are coming up with new answers and new possibilities for their own lives, in ways more empowering, satisfying, and meaningful than the established ways of engaging faith. And in all the faith communities where this is happening, the spiritual thread is similar: God has moved off the mountain, and everyone is trying to figure out what that means for their lives and the life of the planet. What seems like a mess of data and conflicting choices may well be a multitude of people retracing one another’s spiritual steps, all writing a new theology by happenstance.
If one pays attention, it is possible to trace a pattern of theology on this spiritual ground. “Theology” is a funny word, maybe off-putting to some. It means, quite simply, “the study of the nature of God.” God and the drive to somehow understand the nature of God continue to fascinate. Where and how do people encounter God in a post-religious age? What kind of theology are people themselves making? Once, people went to a church or synagogue to find God. There, one could have a certain confidence that a Heavenly Father cared for his people and would bless or save those who followed the rules. Not so much now. The conventional understandings of God have become increasingly irrelevant throughout Western culture, societies once shaped by the most magnificent visions of the transcendent God. Those views are being challenged by an emerging embrace of God-with-us, a from-the-ground-up theology evident in attitudes toward nature and culture and in our hopes, dreams, and actions.
The conventional God existed outside space and time, a being beyond imagining, who lived in Heaven, unaffected by the boundaries of human life. Thus, Western religion developed a language of what theologians call the omnis. God was omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient: all-powerful, in all places, and all-knowing. But the grounded God is a God in relationship with space and time as the love that connects and creates all things, known in and with the world. The omnis fail to describe this. Instead, we might think of God as inter, the spiritual thread between space and time; intra, within space and time; and infra, that which holds space and time. This God is not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.
The spiritual revolution is about two things: God and the world. It is about God, but it does not wind up being otherworldly. It is about the world, but it does not result in secularism. This is a middle-ground revolution, in which millions of people are navigating the space between conventional theism and a secularized world. They are making a path that enfolds the mundane and the sacred, finding a God who is a “gracious mystery, ever greater, ever nearer” through a new awareness of the Earth and in the lives of their neighbors.
Because this book is about the world, it cites news, trends, data, literature, and pop culture to understand changes in faith and practice. Because it is about God, it also cites great spiritual texts, ancient traditions, and wise teachers to explore the meaning of a life of faith. Sometimes the voice is that of a sociologist or journalist. In other cases, however, the voice is more like that of a preacher or theologian. Grounded observes and reports a radical change in the way many people understand God and how they practice faith; at the same time, it provides greater clarity about these changes, so that people walking this path may do so with more confidence and certainty. It both explains and encourages.
The connecting point between the two perspectives is spiritual memoir, drawing from experiences in my own life and the lives of those close to me. I know about these changes because, like so many others, I am living them. This is a report of a sacred revolution as it is occurring and a sustained assertion that this revolution is not nearly as amorphous or disordered as it otherwise might seem. Rather, there is a pattern of God all around us – a deeply spiritual theology that relates to contemporary concerns, provides meaning and hope for the future, and possesses surprisingly rich ties to wisdom from the past.
And this revolution rests upon a simple insight: God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us. We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe. This world, not Heaven, is the sacred stage of our times.