Church, Grounded

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?



2 thoughts on “I’m Not Buying Bottom-Up Just Yet

  1. Social media can be used (by those who like it) as a means of seeking and expressing uniqueness, and some promote their business and identity (esp. if this is one and the same) but overall we work for companies (union or government excluded) and companies are not expected to provide 1950 era benefits. That shift happened 15 years ago, combined with lack of manufacturing, increased Wall Street rewarded jobs in the service/financial sector, increased health care costs. I don’t see a countermovement shift, even with my dot com innovators. They all work too many hours, even with their stock options, cash outs.That said, the One America movement did seem to move the $15 min wage issue forward, health care was improved for many, and social media helped that movement. But were they revolutionary? Or public demonstrations? Americans will crave government jobs for stability, like the French. Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme.

  2. Right on. You’ve hit the nail on the head. All this personalization, customization, power to mobilize using social media is par for the course for just a few. The rest struggle worse than ever.

    I’m just back from India where my return was unexpectedly delayed by the unprecedented rains in Chennai. The lesson for me is that grew and selfishness led to the disaster in Chennai – sure it rained more heavily than in the last 100 years. But people also eschewed common sense and built on the flood plains! Same story here.

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