I’m Not Buying Bottom-Up Just Yet

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Grounded is an assertion of a revolution. It wants to show how contemporary spirituality in North America is leaving behind a top-down conception of the human/divine relationship, one in which God exists “up there” and we “down here” and which relies on Scripture and church authorities to show us how to avoid ending up “down down there.”

This assertion looks to the shifting institutional and community structures of modern life for reinforcement: “In the twenty-first-century world, top-down institutions and philosophies are weakening–and that includes top-down religions.”

She goes on:

At the same moment when massive global institutions seem to rule the world, there is an equally strong countermovement among regular people to claim personal agency in our own lives. We grow food in backyards. We brew beer. We weave cloth and knit blankets. We shop local. We create our own playlists. We tailor delivery of news and entertainment. In every arena, we customize and personalize our lives, creating material environments to make meaning, express a sense of uniqueness, and engage causes that matter to us and the world.

I’ve been hearing some version of that claim for at least 15 years, and I am far less enthusiastic about heralding it today than as a seminary student. I’m not sure it’s totally true.

For one thing, that “countermovement” very often feels like a lifestyle trend available mostly to college-educated white people (and I say that as one who, decked in flannel and covered in facial hair, has brewed beer and made my own deodorant). Agency-claiming may be the order of the day for some, but the vast majority of people across the globe are more crushed today than ever before by a very top-down mechanism that asserts its profit-making agency with ruthless force.

I’m not sure that consumer habits like shopping at Whole Foods and curating Spotify playlists constitute a meaningful shift in how we are interacting with the world and experiencing spirituality. My uncertainty about that has a lot to do with the very top-down corporations that are profiting from these bottom-up choices.

Take Uber, the ultimate bottom-up operation and the poster child for the new peer-driven networked reality. My friend calls it an oligarchy. A small group of people who created a tech product are amassing a fortune on the labor of millions of independent workers to whom the company owes no institutional commitment like health care or auto insurance.

The world Grounded is describing is very much one I want to live in. It’s just that I’m less inclined to see evidence of it in the things Butler-Bass points to.

What about you? Am I being overly negative? Is the world really shifting in this respect?