Bass unpacks the struggle in contemporary society between Christian dogma (teachings) and Christian practice (habits). She argues that Christianity in America (and around the world) is undergoing a Great Awakening, the fourth in American history.
One of the hallmarks of this awakening, Bass writes, is way people are combining their experience of the Holy with reason that comes through study, examination, and experimentation. Faithful people are trying to bridge the divide between the head and the heart and come together in the territory of the Spirit. Bass calls this experiential faith or experiential religion.
Experiential faith seems to turn the current expectations of religious life upside down. Bass details how in our vocations and our hobbies, we learn by joining a profession, a group, a mentor. We take on the habits of the people or person from whom we are learning. Over time, we then come to believe things about our profession or hobby- what it means to us and how it helps us. We belong, then behave, and then believe. Yet, we expect people to these tasks in the exact opposite manner when it comes to church.
If you want to knit, you find someone who knits to teach you. Go to the local yarn shop and find out when there is a knitting class. Sit in a circle where others will talk to you, show you how to hold the needles, guide your hands, and share their patterns with you. The first step in becoming a knitter is forming a relationship with knitters. The next step is to learn by doing and practice. After you knit for a while, after you have made scarves and hats and mittens, then you start forming ideas about knitting. You might come to think that the experience of knitting makes you a better person, more spiritual, or able to concentrate, gives you a better sense of service to others, allows you to demonstrate love and care. You think about what you are doing, how you might do it better. You develop your own way of knitting, your own theory of the craft. You might invent a dazzling new pattern, a new way to make a stitch; you might write a knitting book or become a knitting teacher. In knitting, the process is exactly the reverse of that in church: belonging to a knitting group leads to behaving as a knitter, which leads to believing things about knitting. Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief. That is the path to becoming and being someone different. The path of transformation. (202)
With all due respect to John Wesley, I think that’s one of the best descriptions of sanctification this Lutheran has ever read. The contemporary narrative touts Christian faith as adherence to dogmas and standing firmly behind the line of orthodoxy, no toes in sight. That’s Christian perfectionism, not perfection, and that’s not what Bass has in mind. Nor the early church. Nor Jesus.
We are brought ever closer to the possibilities God has stored within us through our Christian practices. The practices, prayer, study, hospitality, discipline, communal life, create the space for the Spirit to bring us to perfection. We can best learn these practices from people who already love them, who are further along in their "mastery" than we are.
Here's the question for us and for our congregations: do we love the Christianity we are practicing? Are we experiencing Christ? Are people learning about the Way of Jesus through us and from us?
It's time to consider what it means to belong... to behave... to believe, in that order. Can we unravel what is a couple centuries of religious expectation and knit back together, with the help of the Spirit, a new way of living as Christians?