Grateful and Grounded: A Conversation with Diana Butler Bass

I’m thrilled to share this conversation with all of you.

If you haven’t read anything by Diana Butler Bass, you’ll probably want to after this interview. I also recommend following her on Twitter and checking out her other projects on her website. She’s an inspiration.

Ryan, Editor

First, I want to say that I find your work profoundly comforting. Rather than focusing on the ways in which religion has disappointed, you point to the incredibly exciting possibilities of what spirituality can look like for us right now and in the future. What advice do you have for parents who would like to participate in this "spiritual awakening" (as you've described it) but have been repeatedly disappointed by uninspired, inauthentic, and/or hypocritical religious communities? Can authentic spirituality exist outside of religion?

I think a better question might be “can authentic religion exist without a spiritual dimension?”  And the answer to that question is: no.  When religion tries to function without a deep sense of connection to awe, wonder, and the sacred, then it becomes mere ritual or coldly institutional.  Religion then exists for the sake of itself, and for maintaining power or control. 

The spiritual awakening that I’ve described in many of my books – and I am of the opinion that this awakening is the work of the people – happens when each one of us demands that our religious traditions and institutions live up to their own teachings and wisdom.  Without the passion of the people, and our participation in these ancient traditions, institutions will always be uninspired, inauthentic, and hypocritical.  That’s the history of religion-as-institution.  Religion needs us – spiritually alive adherents – to save religion from itself. 

So, I don’t encourage people to abandon congregations or even their inherited traditions. I’ve got a couple of suggestions to parents who are struggling with this:  

First, find the very best congregation that you can with a spark of life and warmth – join it and get involved. Don’t wait for the institution to give something to you. Exercise spiritual leadership there. If it is a decent place (and there are many decent churches and synagogues, even if they don’t seem terribly exciting), you’ll likely receive surprising and unexpected gifts if you put in some effort to be part of community.

Second, if there’s no congregation where you find this, make sure your children learn about different religions and their teachings. You can go to a variety of congregations, find events or classes in your area about religion, introduce your children to relatives and friends who demonstrate rich lives of faith. You need to become a “Sunday school teacher,” a catechist, or a Bible study leader to your own family.

Third, you can always find some like-minded discouraged parents and start your own spiritual gathering in your living room.

Finally, avail yourself to holidays and holy days to enrich your family’s spiritual life. Celebrate the faith dimensions of all the holidays around your dining room table, around the Christmas tree or Menorah, and don’t be shy about telling the beautiful spiritual stories associated with all these special days. 

In Grounded, you explain that many of us can no longer follow a religion that functions as a "holy elevator" in which we have to rely on the church—or leaders in the church—to send our thoughts and prayers up to God. Instead, as you say, "God is with us here," and we're free to experience the divine in our everyday lives. How can we foster this kind of understanding in children, from toddlerhood through the teenage years?

When my daughter was young, her first theological question was “Where is God?”  That’s a great question.  She turns 21 this month, and through the years, I learned to ask her that question.  Whenever she was sad or in crisis or scared or even happy, I’d ask her, “Where is God now? In this?”  

That question – Where is God? – became the guiding question of lived spirituality in our family.  Frankly, I need to hear that question every single day.  It redirects my own heart and reminds me to look for grace and compassion here and now.  Children aren’t really different from us.  The same questions can speak to all of us.  As a matter of fact, paying attention to children’s questions can sometimes give adults new questions that actually draw us closer to the sacred in daily life. 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

In Grateful, you discuss how practicing gratefulness can transform us and the world. I know each generation worries for the next generation, but in light of our current socio-political environment, many parents are feeling despair. How can we make a habit of being grateful while also allowing ourselves to feel compelled to act against powerful negative forces? Do you have any suggestions for living in that tension—without resorting to just one or the other? 

Genuine gratitude always resists injustice – it isn’t acceptance or some smiley-face “thanks” in the face of evil.  Gratitude is the capacity to recognize that we are all – first and foremost – recipients of the great gifts of the universe – life, provision, love.  When we recognize the giftedness that surrounds us, that can (and should) empower us to make sure that all gifts are shared with all people.  Gratitude inspires us to work on the behalf of all people, that all may enjoy and experience the abundance of the earth.  

One of my favorite quotes comes from Brother David Steindl-Rast, a 90-year old monk who has written widely on gratitude.  He says:

If you're grateful, you're not fearful, and if you're not fearful, you're not violent. If you're grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live.

I’ve memorized that. I quote it all the time. I share this in sermons, lectures, and speeches. Gratefulness is the antidote to the despair so many of us feel right now.  And true gratitude is justice.  They aren’t oppositional forces.  They are two faces of joy and lament that lead to social acitivism.  Gratitude takes down the “power pyramid” that is destroying both our politics and our environment. It is our path forward. And it is a spiritual path.

What are the best ways you’ve seen or heard about in which prayer is an authentic part of daily life for families?

If you only do one thing to strengthen your family’s spiritual life, pray before dinner. This practice has sustained us, challenged us, and deepened through the two decades of our journey together. We sometimes pray extemporaneously, sometimes formally from a prayer book.  That practice has been the cornerstone of our ability to share what is on our hearts, our struggles and joys, and to remember the good gifts of food and companionship that God has given us.  Make every dinner a thanksgiving dinner – and it becomes a way of life.   

Butler Bass photo_photo credit Richard Bass.jpg

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass is the author of ten books on American religion, politics and culture and comments widely in the media about faith and public life. Her most recent book (before Grateful,) Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, received numerous awards including: Winner of the Religious News Association (RNA) Book Award, Winner of the Wilbur Award, Winner of the Nautilus Award (Gold), Winner of the Illumination Award (Silver) and was named as one of the Spirituality and Practice Best Books of 2015. She holds a PhD in religious studies from Duke University, has taught at the college and graduate level, is currently an independent scholar, and teaches and preaches internationally on matters of religion and spirituality. She lives in Virginia with her family.

Ryan TahmasebComment