“Grounded”, by Diana Butler Bass, looks at faith that is becoming less personal in a modern world

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Author: Diana Butler Bass
Title, Subtitle: Grounded
publication date 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-232854-0
Publication: Harper Collins, 2 parts, 7 chapters, 322 pages, hardcover
Link: author

I bought “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC in February 2016 when the author, Diana Butler Bass, gave a guest sermon.

Before the service, there was a QA where I asked how she felt about expectations of social conformity and growing up being expected to meet certain obligations imposed by others.  She sounded confounded by the question, as if she were unfamiliar with a world of a few decades ago when young men were drafted to fight “other people’s wars”, so to speak.

The author (who had written “Christianity After Religion”) has lived in various locations around the country, especially Maryland’s eastern shore, and then Arizona.  The title of the book suggests looking for spiritual roots and “grounding” in a world where social values are changing all too rapidly.

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Teenagers know the word “grounded” to mean, being kept at home, from going out (dating) and exploring the world on your own as an emerging adult.

It seems that people of most faiths are trying to look for a way to “ground” their own personal interface with God.

The book is in two parts.  Part 1 is “Natural Habitat” and comprises three chapters: Dirt, Water, and Sky.  Needless to say, there is plenty of progressive advocacy concerning reducing pollution and controlling climate change.  There is also the idea of going back to the woods (in spiritual retreats like Lama in New Mexico, which I visited in 1980 and 1984 – the Ram Dass “Be Here Now”).

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The second part is “Human Geography”, which sounds like an evocative idea.  Dolphins, by comparison to us, don’t seem to live in a world with much delineative geography despite their superior capacities for distributed consciousness.  Humans need place and grounding. The five chapters are Roots, Home, Neighborhood, Commons, and Revelation.

In the chapter on Roots she talks a lot about ancestry and lineage, bringing to mind another Army buddy in the barracks at Fort Eustis in 1969 doing genealogy charts.  In fact, some of the “ancestry.com” commercials are just plain silly – does nationality matter that much?  Maybe to Donald Trump.

But on p. 154 she talks about Ubuntu and quotes Desmond Tutu, “The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate framework of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation.”  Later, she recounts how 9/11 changed her perspective on the “grounding” of a personalized God.  But so can a lot of things – cancer, birth defects, crime, auto accidents – the “bad things happen to good people” problem.

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Her concept of home is interesting.  I like the analogy (to go into Dusty Baker’s world today) that in baseball, your team gets to bat last – if behind, it knows how many runs it has to score, so that’s why home field advantage matters particularly in baseball.  Ever heard of “play for a tie on the road and a win at home”. (The Kansas City Royals, of all teams, are masters of this.)  Sounds like trying to draw with Black and win with White in competitive chess.   Actually, she gets pretty well into the changing concept of family, now to include same-sex marriage, to the chagrin of people who feel that the old-fashioned “grounded” complementarity of traditional marriage has been rendered officially moot. Around family is community and nation, and the whole problem of whether you “take care of your own first”, a problem that moralist David Brooks recently took up.

But the biggest problem seems to be how “personal” one’s relationship with God is.  I feel put off by people who join in groupthink exercises of faith and give up their own individuality in mindless praise (“old time religion”) to hide from the fact that they are often not doing very well in their own lives.  I’ve seen this all my adult life and tended to observe people from a distance, almost as if an alien anthropologist, not as talented as Mark Zuckerberg.

On an intellectual level, God does fine (remember the Lady in the Radiator in David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”). It makes sense that a supreme being designed the constants of physics to be just right for consciousness.  (I’ll leave aside the anthropic idea that we are living in just the right universe of statistically infinity). Entropy means that the universe will decay, so God set things up so that conscious beings would evolve to keep the Universe alive forever.  Reproduction is necessary because entropy demands that individual beings decay with time.  Are plants conscious?  I wonder, when I see a wild grape vine attaching itself to my cable line for “grounding”.  But it’s clear that higher mammals can make morally calculable choices (like the tabby cat who decides at a particular person is kind enough to approach for a place to have her babies.)   Animals can think, and are aware of things about us that we wouldn’t imagine (dogs and cats like to feel the electromagnetic chances of an owning human’s heartbeat, and they know before we do if something is wrong).  Whales and dolphins, most of all orcas, experience distributed consciousness, of which for humans the idea of “referred pain” is neurological primitive. Ever been befriended by a wild crow or mockingbird who watches you every day?

Let’s add that physics and math could predict that the need for a “savior” at rare intervals could be necessary because of entropy and mathematics is logically incomplete, so it is impossible for a conscious being not to “sin”. Someone who actually lived at the time of the Resurrection and Ascension and who “saw it” (“Doubting Thomas”) would think this was all there is in terms of miracles or explanation of the Universe.

Individual lives are fungible and finite but consciousness is not.  I think the idea of a hollow heaven – living with your family in a garden condo for trillions of years is a little naïve.  While God needs to allow an infinity of lives to be born and develop, it may be that in the afterlife the individual expressions of consciousness consolidate into what Monroe Institute calls “soul families”, and these might be more finite.  Maybe it does matter if you have children – among orcas, distributed consciousness follows matriarchal lineage (“roots”).  We don’t know if that’s true of the afterlife.

Finding an alien civilization could certainly blow our idea of a grounded God.  Want to stay in a luxury hotel room in a space station on the Dyson’s Sphere of an alien civilization around Tabby’s Star, 1450 light years away?  Do they take American Express? Maybe have Facebook and Twitter too there (if we can get around the speed of light).  Mathematics and music will work the same there as here, at “home”.  Even God can’t change the theorems of topology.

In fact, it’s likely that, at least in our area of the Milky Way, our civilization is one of the first to evolve.  Given 4 billion years of history for our Earth, we’ve had a technological civilization for about a century.  We survived the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Can we survive asymmetric terror?  Can we survive climate change?  How about solar storms or asteroids?  We have to work smart to get through these things.  But the trick is to survive hundreds of millions of years.  In time, more civilizations would evolve and persist within a few thousand light years and eventually contact would happen.  But if we are to survive indefinitely, we have to learn to live on places other than Earth, and eventually to travel to other solar systems.  We’ll need to have selected remnants of civilization able to travel and reproduce for decades or centuries on journeys to other worlds, living in “rama-like” worlds envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke.  We’ll have to decide who gets to go.  And like it or not, procreation and birth rate really will be critical again to survival.

There’s also the idea (reflected indirectly in the recent Facebook posts of “Survival Mom”) that whole civilizations can have massive setbacks and failures, and go through cycles where technology is lost after cataclysm or war, and that such multiple iterations could occur several times before a civilization is permanent enough to make contact with other advanced cultures in the Milky Way.  Individuals living through such downdrafts could still bear the moral responsibility to produce future generations that could gradually recover.

Even so, we’ll always want to have a sense of “home”.

I would add as a postscript, Bass discusses the virgin birth and the controversy over whether Joseph, as “betrothed”, was actually married (as Catholics say, like here), or “had some explaining to do”, as James Somerville (former FBC pastor, now in Richmond) one preached.

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(Published: Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 at 6 PM EDT)

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