If there is a possibility that the divine can be encountered or known in some way, what is the context for this exchange? Is it an intellectual pursuit? Does it happen within a spiritual, religious, or ascetic practice? What is the terrain, the location, or the neighborhood in which God’s story intersects with humanity’s?
These are the questions that Diana Butler Bass seeks to answer in Grounded: Finding God in the World- A Spiritual Revolution.
I first encountered Dr. Bass when I read A People’s History of the Christianity, which tells the story of Jesus’ movement from the perspective of the radicals, misfits, and those on the margins of power and institution, and I felt a deep resonance with her writing and sense of God. So when heard about Dr. Bass’ most recent effort, I was excited to immerse myself again with her writing.
The main premise of the book is that the spiritual life is not disconnected from everyday life, nor is God found only at the top of our religious expressions, but that God is near, grounded in our midst. This differs from the ways God has been talked about for much of our history, because we’ve often either intentionally or unintentionally claimed that God can only be encountered within church and religion. Furthermore, faith communities have often unconsciously communicated that they own the market on “God experiences”.
What Dr. Bass explores is the opposite idea, that God is often more understood outside of our religious communities. She describes how much of our most sacred faith stories actually happen while people are walking, talking, and living. Most of the Jesus stories captured in the gospels take place in everyday life, with every day people. Of this shift in perspective Dr. Bass says in one interview, “Being in nature and being in the neighborhood made the Bible come alive in new ways and relocated God to me.”
Neighborhood and nature. That’s where we often experience of God.
Then why go to church? Why do religion?
Dr. Bass would argue that the church is the place where these experiences can be embraced, celebrated, encouraged, and shared in community. The church’s role is to wake people up to the presence of God not only in our congregations, but also in neighborhood and nature. Without being grounded in a community that grounds us in God’s presence everywhere, we may miss it.
I totally agree with Dr. Bass’ musings because the places I often sense God the most are in the faces of those around me, and in the gentle breeze and scenery of my surroundings. I think this explains why for so many people, considering themselves spiritual but not religious makes more sense than aligning themselves with institutions that have such tarnished histories. But as much as the temptation to enter into spirituality alone is strong and enticing, the reality is that we cannot do it alone. The downside of pursuing the spiritual in isolation is that we completely miss out on the rich history passed down through the centuries of those who have walked the path before us as well as a place to meet the innate human need for community.
In this way Dr. Bass’ book is a beautiful depiction of how we can embrace God’s presence outside of the church, but not without the church, for the church is the collective of communities experiencing together the God who is near and is the “ground of being”. For anyone who is looking for a spiritually stimulating read that has the potential to re-frame how you see nature and neighborhood, I can’t recommend Grounded enough.
Below you’ll find some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“We live and move and have our being in a great web of belonging whose connective tissue is grace.”
“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.”
“For millennia, land was the beginning of faith: gratitude for it, struggling with it, reflecting upon it, recognizing its power, fearing its loss, or seeking its increase. Without the long human relationship with the soil, there would be no great cycles of feasts and fasts, no appreciation of ritual foods, no practices of tithes and thanks-givings. Indeed, the God we know—as well as the God we hardly remember—is the Spirit of the Soil.”
“The Milky Way, the Northern Lights, constellations of north and south, millions of distant planets and moons and suns and comets, all dancing in the dark to some primal pattern that physicists seek and poets extol.”
“With oil, coal, and gas as our bricks, humanity has built a carbon tower of Babel, now poised to crash down.”
“Home is more than a house. It is a sacred location, a place of aspiration and dreams, of learning and habit, of relationships and heart. Home is the geography of our souls. The “where questions of home naturally open to the spiritual question: Where is God?”
“The church is not the only sacred place; the world is profoundly sacred as well.”
“The earth, covered with red dust (Hebrew adamah ), is not a generative and hospitable place, because there is “no one to till the ground.” So God causes springs to come up from the earth itself, makes a clay, and forms a man ( adam ) from the ground. God breathes into him, and gives life to this “soil creature.” God places Adam in the garden, to grow it and to care for the rivers and plants and animals, and eventually draws Eve ( havah , meaning “to become,” “to breathe,” or “life”) from Adam’s body to be his partner. Thus, Adam and Eve, not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life (their “names” from the Hebrew words) marry, and their union produces the human race.”
“God, the spirit of wonder, or Jesus…”
God is “… gracious mystery, ever greater, ever nearer.”
“A Stanford University researcher analyzed fMRI results and found that engaging nature stimulates the same area of the brain as does food, sex, and money. Studies in Europe and North America continue to show that either viewing nature or engaging in outdoor sports, especially when involving oceans, lakes, or rivers, calms us and elevates positive emotions. It also promotes attentiveness, concentration, and creativity. 10 In addition to steadying human emotions, being near water has proved to have curative effects on many health problems, including PTSD, depression, addictions, autism, pain, anxiety, stress, and attention disorders, and to hasten healing from surgery, illness, and injuries. As marine biologist Wallace Nichols observes, “Nature is medicine; this is an idea now reiterated by modern science.”
“That it is precisely when we recognize our common humanity—when we recognize our own humanity in the face of the other—it is then that we also recognize the face of God.”