A Revolution That Can Change Us and the World

By Alexis Waggoner | 7.16.2018

Theologian, author, and social critic Diana Butler Bass spoke at our Spring Meeting on the subject of her new book, Grateful. But she started off by talking about religious affiliation in the US today, showing a chart that indicated that while the US has become more pluralistic in the past few decades it has also become much less religious. Affiliation with all major religious groups and faith expression is declining, and the numbers of people who claim or practice no religion is on the rise.

Her work prior to Grateful addressed this research indirectly by centering on understanding how we can experience the divine and practice spirituality in all aspects of our lives. Her book, Grounded, was, as she describes it, “a panentheist manifesto for the Barnes and Noble audience.” As she worked on this book, she became more convinced that the link between being “grounded” and being grateful were connected. She stated that there is something crucial in understanding how more vibrant forms of faith and ethics might provide a way forward.

Her reasoning is that gratitude emerges from a grounded life or — in theological terms — it emerges from a rootedness in God’s abundance. But before we can analyze these statements, Butler Bass concluded that we need to better understand what gratitude is. 

She pointed to several studies: one, showing that 78 percent of Americans feel a strong sense of gratitude on a weekly basis; another which revealed that gratitude can help you recover from illness and disease; yet another showing that a gratitude practice slows down your “flight or fight” response, allowing you to process difficult emotions like fear more thoroughly and healthily. The incongruity in all these data points arises when we realize that Americans are not the most grateful, most appreciative, healthiest, least fearful people on the planet! If 78 percent of Americans experience gratitude, then Americans should hold all these qualities and more!

And yet, there is a “gratitude gap:” In America, we can feel thankful in private but individual gratefulness doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference in our public life. There is a lot of internal complexity that leads to this conundrum. Butler Bass relied heavily on another chart of sorts: a circle, showing gratitude moving from personal to public, and from feelings to action. In the US, she reasoned, we emphasize the personal aspect of gratitude and see it more as a feeling. Something that is practiced personally, living in the internal mind and spirit.

Butler Bass suggests a more well-rounded (literally!) experience of gratitude so that people can begin to understand it as part of a communal, ethical shared life. This is in sharp contrast to the imperial system of gratitude which takes a much harsher shape. She used the imagery of a triangle or pyramid to explain the power structures of Ancient Rome during Jesus’ time — and the ideas that still permeate our culture today.

In this top-down social structure, where Caesar or Pharaoh always occupies the uppermost place, the biblical Jewish community ends up at the bottom. Looking at this structure objectively, it seems that disrupting it would be easy: the largest number of people are at the bottom; they should be able to rise up and disrupt. Yet, as Butler Bass explained, there are a number of structures within this structure that keeps it working, gratitude being one of them.

The root word of gratitude, gratia, can be understood also as a gift or favor — from a patron to a client and back. For example, in ancient Rome, if you have bread to eat- it’s because Caesar in Cesar’s grace, gave that bread to you. All gifts, however meager, or how hard you worked for them, come from the hands of Caesar through patronage system. Caesar is Lord and savior of the universe – so if he provides anything for you, it’s your job to appreciate it, say thank you, and give back most of what you make to him!

While the Roman Empire collapsed, elements of this client/patron system have stayed with us. This is the social structure of the New Testament and the structure that Jesus wants to take down. Jesus unpacks an idea of grace, an encounter with the divine, recognizing that being in relationship with each other is something we participate in for free. A free gift, pro bono, is what undoes oppressive gratia social structures.

And yet Butler Bass reminds us, Christianity contributed to this client/patron system by creating an imperial Jesus, not a relational “table” Jesus. It means the Church’s teachings have this geometry and hierarchy. She sees it as the responsibility of those invested in religious scholarship and spiritual development to follow Jesus’ lead in undoing the top down system of power structures even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to reimagining Jesus himself.

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary.