Does ‘Nomadic Spirituality’ Work?

We started our new Book Club last night – Diana Butler-Bass’s Christianity for the rest of us: How the Neighbourhood Church is Transforming the Faith.

I read this book in 2007. I’m enjoying it again. I’ve decided I may read it again in a few years, or at least read more of Butler-Bass’s other works.   I believe this is a book every church member in every church should read! It’s that insightful, that relevant, and that hopeful! So, that being said, there’s still room in our little group for a few more.   Thursday nights, 7 – 8:30.  We’ll be done at the end of October.

In one of the first chapters of this book we are presented with the concept of “nomadic spirituality”.   Do you remember learning about nomadic peoples in Junior High School? Not that there were a lot of nomads in my Junior High School (maybe some).  Of course what I mean are those Social Studies classes where we studied the Masai people of Kenya, or the Bedouins of Jordan. Societies or tribes that were always on the move, not interested in permanently putting down roots anywhere, their identity largely caught up in the fact of their constant movement.  I recall in seminary learning that Moses and the earliest Hebrews were likely in fact nomadic peoples, at first, until planting themselves in the Promised Land (which of course just happened to be inhabited by other people).  But what else would explain the story of Moses and his people wandering around in the desert for 40 years?

Nomads.  You get the picture. Have you ever thought of nomadic spirituality?  Butler-Bass draws out this idea in her book by suggesting that with the rapid change in almost every aspect of contemporary life in North America (she is America-specific in her book), the dominant spiritual identification these days, the most relevant metaphor for describing spiritually-inclined human beings today is that of the spiritual nomad.  She puts it this way: “It is not easy being a spiritual nomad, but it is a widespread phenomenon, part of the cultural condition loosely referred to as ‘postmodern’.  Many people, like me, were born in traditional religions and still carry vague memories of how the world was before everything changed.  Many more, however, especially those born after 1965, were born nomads, people birthed into an unhinged world… Nomadic spirituality, that sense of being alien, strangers in a strange land, is almost a given in contemporary life.”

An “unhinged world”.  I’m not so sure the world has ever been “hinged” to begin with, but as a product of the 70’s and 80’s I think I know what Butler-Bass means.  At the risk of sounding like a complete moron (please be gentle) may I state that during The Cold War at least we knew who our friends and enemies were, or we thought we knew.  We knew which countries, which superpowers, held the reins of power, and which were minor players.  There was a certain order to the world, although perhaps a perverted order, admittedly ideologically-driven, mythical in many ways, horribly oppressive in some quarters, and of course threatening to the world’s actual survival!  Perhaps it was an idea of world order built, in reality, as a house of cards, but there was a generally agreed on notion of right and wrong in Western society, good and evil, which were perhaps remnants of an already decomposing Christendom.  But most of us (in Calgary where I was raised) were generally the same – of European origin, Protestant or Catholic, and, dare I say – Caucasian (this was my childhood).  We either trusted or hated Reagan – mostly trusted I’m afraid, we didn’t like Trudeau and his NEP at all, and we were taught of capitalism’s obvious benefits, verging on Divine favour being granted to that particular economic system.

Today it seems that everything is up for grabs these days, even the value of capitalism, which is maybe the most shocking development for many of my generation!  Other aspects of modern life are similarly up for grabs –  morality, cultural identity, notions of good and evil,  appropriate public behaviour,  and the unknown implications of an increasingly technologically connected world, just to name a few.  There are so many more!

When it comes to religion or “organized” religion, the same kind of flux seems to be the norm.  Old doctrines, “old” meaning 2000 or 1500 or 400 years old or less, seem to be giving way to “emerging” ideas, and a settled, traditional, “Church’s One Foundation”, Christendom proclamation no longer suffices, no longer expresses the spiritual longings of the new nomads among us.  And United, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches keep on closing doors in the West, perhaps incapable of embracing an unembracable spirituality (Butler-Bass would argue that despite this reality of Church decline, some congregations are growing, thriving, and she’s not talking about Evangelical churches!).   These are tumultuous times for the Church, yet perhaps potentially exciting times.  But will we have to learn how to be comfortable being on the move, spiritually speaking, unsettled, non-doctrinal, nomadic, in order to live the gospel for the world, in order to share the grace and love of God in new ways with new generations?  On the other hand, can we be the Church without the divinity of Christ, the efficacy of the Sacraments, the Trinity, Resurrection?

As I said, there’s more room in our group and a couple of extra books.

Blessings and Peace,

God of grace and wonder, of diversity and singularity, of the past and yet of the future,
guide us as we discern how to be church in uncertain, undefined times.
Show us how to serve, how to glorify, how to love, in the Way of Jesus.  Amen.


Rev. Dave Crawford is the minister at one of the Banff churches, Rundle Memorial United. Learn more about our current activities, our Thrift Shop, and how to get married in Banff.