Interview: Theologian and Thinker Diana Butler Bass

January 26, 2017

Diana Butler Bass is a well-known Protestant theologian and scholar. She has written nine books and has preached and lectured in small churches and in the National Cathedral. She has taught at universities and received numerous awards, but now she considers herself an independent scholar of theology, religion, and culture.

It was my privilege to sit down with Dr. Butler Bass and hear what she has to say about what’s going on in our world. I just finished rereading her 2015 book Grounded, which comes out in paperback next month. I highly recommend it to you all.

Question: What gives you hope?
Diana Butler Bass: My garden. The local farmers’ market. A beautiful Celtic evening service at a church in Richmond, Virginia (I sometimes drive the ninety minutes from my home near Washington just to attend). My family and friends, who are edgy and honest and smart and passionate. I was at the Women’s March in Washington on January 21. Hundreds of thousands of women in the streets—grandmothers, moms, kids; black, brown, white, Asian; all different religions. It gave me hope.

There was a lovely thing in that march, one not reported in the news because it was a small thing. I met up with a group of friends, most of whom are clergy. For hours, we stood on some rocks right outside the American Indian Museum and held up signs with the Beatitudes on them. People marched by and cheered the Beatitudes. Yes: they cheered the Beatitudes. Many stopped and wanted someone to pray with or for them. The whole thing gave me a fresh vision of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus on that hill proclaiming truth: “Blessed are the poor; blessed are the immigrants; blessed are the outcasts; blessed are those who mourn.” That is what it means to be Christian—to hold up the Beatitudes to the crowd and invite people to a life shaped by love. It was powerful.

Q: What spiritual practices are meaningful for you? What do those spiritual practices look like in the twenty-first century?
DBB: Silence. I sometimes attend a silent Quaker meeting these days. The world is so noisy. Silence is a necessary corrective. And I’m exploring different practices of gratitude—like waking up and saying “thank you” first thing in the morning and saying the same last thing before bed. Putting a gratitude “frame” around the day. Engaging strangers in conversation wherever I go. People are lonely. And I consider it a spiritual practice to reach out. Sometimes I’m rebuffed. But mostly I’m amazed at how much people want to share with strangers about things that matter. Listening to people who are not white. I’m reading more books, watching films, and engaging social media from the black community. Trying to hear non-defensively and learn from my brothers and sisters. Oh, and I’m reading much more of the Hebrew Bible than ever before. I needed a new lens into Scripture and am finding the Old Testament profoundly meaningful, especially when I discuss it with Jewish friends.

I don’t think any of those things are unique to the twenty-first century—silence, gratitude, welcoming strangers, listening and discernment, reading Scripture. The list seems in line with classical spiritual practices in Christianity and in other religions. But the context is so different now. The context heightens the significance and urgency of all these practices.

Q: I loved your statement on a recent podcast I heard that “God is the unfinished sentence.” Could you speak to that? What does that mean for Christians today?
DBB: I’m a writer. And there is a moment when you know that the word is just beyond what you can put on paper—that the word is elusive, mysterious, healing, pregnant with truth and meaning. The unfinished sentence. And that’s how I think of God these days. That Word hovering right beyond our capacity to know—the shimmer of truth that is always calling us toward completion.

I know what it means for me. That God is both with us here and now, the active presence of love in and through all things. But that God is always just beyond as well. The Word pulling us toward deeper words. This vision plunges me into wonder, into a sense that I must keep writing the life of faith, that nothing is completed yet. The story still calls.

Q: Finally, tell us about your new edition of your book, Grounded.
DBB: The paperback releases on February 14 [2017]. We added a forty-day devotional in the back of the book so readers can “pray through” the chapters as they read, giving people a sort of “lectio divina” (holy reading) approach to it. I originally wrote the devotional on Facebook—one devotion for each day of Lent last year. My Facebook friends loved it. It is suitable for Lent—or for anytime one chooses a forty-day prayer practice.

This post originally appeared in the Statesville Record, and was published in The Pulpit & the Paper: A Pastor’s Coming of Age in Newsprint by Robert W. Lee.

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