David R. Henson, guest contributor and blogger at Edges of Faith
Step 1: Buy Diana Butler Bass’ new book Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution.
Step 2: Buy Kleenex.
I’ll be honest: I’m having an unexpectedly emotional reaction to this book. I can’t seem to get more than a handful of pages without my eyes inexplicably leaking. One minute I’m reading this gorgeous and profound prose and then next minute the pages are splattered with tear drops.
There are two possible explanations for this. Either I might need to see a therapist, or Bass’ book really is a spiritual revolution.
Honestly, I think it’s the latter.
Because it’s not a sad and weepy book. It doesn’t pull on emotional heartstrings with cheap schmaltz. It’s just that sometimes the soul responds to deep beauty and deep truth in ways words cannot express but the body, in its unappreciated wisdom, can. Clearly, Grounded touched something deep within me that has long been dormant and buried.
For me, it has been an awakening.
And that’s what makes the book so difficult to review. It’s hard to review a book that is so fundamentally undoing me and remaking me. It’s hard to review a book that is renewing my soul.
I can’t review a spiritual awakening.
But I can share what it was like to read it.
The book is divided into two parts — the natural world and the human world, but both are maps for our modern world and our modern spirituality. Each chapter is artfully constructed, evocative, and profoundly insightful. In fact, it can be difficult to finish a chapter in one sitting because Bass, quietly and unobtrusively, invites readers to ponder, to meditate, and to reflect on God, themselves, and the world. I frequently had to put down the book and allow an insight or an image to fill me, to wash over me, to change me.
But the insights aren’t bombastically presented or hyperbolically argued. Instead, they are whispered.
In her chapter on Sky, Bass invites us to ponder the God found in the heavens and in the sunset not as a moment of easy, saccharine spirituality, but as moment speaking deeply to the heart of our humanity, of our experiences with God. Contrary to what some commentators might suggest, looking to the heavens and finding God — as primal an urge as it might be — is no simple feat any more, particularly in the modern, scientific world. Bass artfully adjusts our understanding of God in the sky not as God far above the world, but of God at the horizon, “just beyond what we can see … God at the edge, the edge of the visible world, the horizon of mystery.” She continues:
When I think of the far-off qualities of God, I no longer think “up”; instead, I consider God beyond the horizon, just beyond the place where the sky meets the ground. The Spirit calls our gaze outward, to lift our eyes to the edge. The spiritual revolution is the shift from the vertical God to God-with-us. Dirt and water are understandable and tangible, icons of earthy sacredness. But we need the sky to remind us that no matter how close God is, God is still the one who hovers at the horizon.
In many ways, the book — particularly the early chapters about the earth and ecology — was like being given permission to fall in love with what I’ve always loved. It was like renewing my vows with the same excitement as my wedding day but with none of the naivety.
In a way, that’s probably the best way I can describe this book. It’s the work of someone who has often written from a place of necessary critical distance, allowing a writer like Bass to observe, to assess, and to advise. But in Grounded, Bass seems to make a turn toward Paul Ricoeur’s “second naiveté,” where beyond the rational criticism, “we wish to be called again.” Bass’ book offers a stunning path to be called again, not as believers seeking salvation, but as mystics, poets, and humans seeking integration, beauty, and wholeness. In our modern world, we have become so familiar with imprisoning faith in our intellect through deconstruction, demythologization, and rational, critical distance that reading Grounded offers the needed reminder and invitation to experience again faith, God, and each other. It is such a wise, nuanced book, culling insight from Christian history, modern science, and observation.
But there’s also an urgency to her wisdom and insight. While inviting reflection, it is not a purely contemplative book, where we turn over a piece of the earth or an element of humanity to ponder. Rather, Bass sets her insights against the very real crises and needs of our time, giving us a theological frame for meaningful, faithful, and sustained engagement. After reading her chapter on Water, one has the urge to join the cause to save oceans, rivers, and watersheds not because one is a good liberal or because of one’s politics, but because of how holy the water really is, because how connected my tradition is to the water, because God is in that water.
Before Grounded, I’d never have thought the riparian zone of a river could be such a profound icon of God. Or that genealogy was a sacred practice. Or that home repair shows revealed deep spiritual longings. Ultimately, it’s a book about unity, a book that envisions God beyond the sacred and beyond the secular.
Bass’ book reached into my soul, pulled it out, hung it on the line for fresh air, and then gave it back to me smelling of the earth and the rain and humanity — holy things, in other words.
I know this isn’t the most traditional book review.
But this isn’t your typical book.
It’s a spiritual revolution.
Just remember to bring Kleenex.
Bass’ book is available everywhere books are sold.
(Kleenex is available at your local store.)
David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He is priest in the Episcopal Church, canonically resident in the Diocese of Northern California. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical resident. He lives in North Carolina and is behind on the laundry. He once chased his stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee at dangerous speeds down an Interstate in California. He didn’t catch it. Connect with David through his Facebook page, Twitter, or Instagram. You can read his original blogpost here and find more great posts here.
There’s still a little bit of time to register for the Center for Lifelong Learning’s January Seminar Grounded: Exploring the Sense of the Sacred within Us and the World featuring Diana Butler Bass. Workshop leaders include Jake Myers, Tim Hartman, Haruko Ward and William Yoo. January 19-21. Details and Registration