Spirit-Centered Progressive Christianity (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce G. Epperly returns today with the third of a series of guest posts lifting up the potential and possibilities of a progressive Christianity.  He began with a call to a "passionate progressive revival" and then offered a response to Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life."  This morning Bruce describes ways in which Progressive Christians, who are good at developing the mind and the hands, can develop their spiritual hearts.


A recent Pew Center Religion and Public Life found that 50% of mainstream Christians claimed to have had mystical experiences or experiences of self-transcendence. The study suggests that there is a mystic next to you in church each week, or that you might be a mystic yourself. Yet, despite the reality of deep spiritual experiences within their congregations, moderate and progressive Christians seldom share these experiences publicly in church. And, seekers who are looking for spiritual growth often discover that progressive churches are the last places to find it! In progressive churches, people come out of the closet about everything – except their spiritual experiences and witness to God’s presence in their lives.

I believe that the future growth and impact of progressive Christianity involves claiming a holistic spirited-centered faith, which overcomes the current dualism of spirituality and social justice among progressives. Progressive Christianity typically sees itself as a faith involving head and hands, that is, creative theological reflection and committed social activism. To complete the circle of faith, progressive Christians need to reclaim the “heart” of Christianity (to paraphrase Marcus Borg) found in intimacy with God and the natural or non-human world. Progressives need to claim their vocation as spirit-persons, to quote Borg, as a complement to their vocation as prophetic activists. A truly dynamic, life-transforming faith over the long haul depends on a creative synthesis of head, heart, and hands, or theological reflection, spiritual experience and practice, and social activism.
The prophetic tradition and the ministry of Jesus provide inspiration for the holistic, spirit-centered faith that progressives need in order to confront the current cultural and global challenges. The prophetic ability to imagine an alternative reality to the current unjust social structure, as Walter Brueggemann asserts, often was the result of profound mystical experiences. When Jeremiah protests his youth, God whispers to him, “don’t be afraid, I am with you.” Isaiah’s mystical experience in the temple – his encounter with the Holy One and his vision of God’s glory enlivening the whole earth – gave him the courage, despite his sense of distance from God, to say “yes” to God’s call. In line with this tradition, Jesus regularly took time for prayer and meditation as essential to his ministry of radical hospitality, healing, and spiritual transformation.

Martin Luther King once said that the church should be a headlight and not a taillight in the quest for social justice. Today, progressive Christians are called to be leaders, shining a light on the creative integration of spirituality and justice, and the quest for personal, social, and global healing. Progressives have a theology that encourages spiritual experience: a sense that God is still speaking, that God is present throughout the world, and that the world reveals God’s presence. What we need is to claim this theology in life transforming ways. We can go beyond Enlightenment rationalism to embrace God’s revelation in all things – in our daily lives, in our quest for justice, in the non-human world.

Progressives need to claim practices of spiritual transformation to complement and deepen their commitment to social transformation. A transformed world requires a renewed and transformed mind, or vision of reality, as the Apostle Paul says. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in spiritual practices such as prayer, healing, hospitality, service, etc. Persons such as Diana Butler Bass, Dorothy Bass, Stephanie Paulsell, Barbara Brown Taylor, Philip Newell, Craig Dykstra, and Bruce Epperly have provided insightful and accessible resources for personal and congregational transformation.

But, where shall we progressives begin our quest for a holistic integration of spirituality and social transformation? Let me suggest a few guideposts in spirit-centered progressive spirituality:

  • A recovery of prayer as a pathway of awakening to the sacrament of the present moment. Although we do not expect supernatural violations of the laws of nature in response to our prayers, we can pray with the expectation that the act of prayer joins us with God and those for whom we pray, awakens us to new perspectives, and (I believe) creates a positive field of force around those for whom we pray, thus, enabling God to be more active in their lives. 
  •  A commitment to easily learned meditative/contemplative practices such as breath prayer (simply breathing in God’s spirit, exhaling stress); centering prayer (focusing on a prayer word, such as “peace,” “joy,” “love”) 
  •  An exploration of imaginative prayer (experiencing the world as reflecting God’s presence, including those with whom we contend in the current political, theological, and culture “wars”) Seeing Christ in those with whom we disagree moves us from “polarization” to “contrast,” that is, to affirmation without divisiveness. 
  •  A discovery of Christian affirmations that transform our minds and actions. (Short sentences aimed at transforming the way we experience reality, such as “I am God’s beloved child,” “Nothing can separate me from the love of God,” “God’s light shines in all creation, even those with whom I contend.”)
  •  An openness to God’s healing touch through acts of prayer, healing rituals such as laying on of hands, and global energy techniques (such as healing touch, therapeutic touch, and reiki healing touch.) 
  •  A commitment to joining heart and hands in social activism – praying our political action and seeing Christ in those whom we serve. 
  •  A commitment to reading the bible imaginatively through Benedictine lectio divina (holy reading) and Ignatian spiritual exercises/imaginative prayer.

Progressive Christianity, following 19th century liberalism, has proclaimed the continuity of God and the world and humankind and non-human life; naturalistic theism (God works within causal relationships rather than supernaturally); and the universality of revelation. These claims open the door for truly practicing God’s presence – truly opening to divine revelation in our lives and seeing God at work in the transformation of society and our lives. A spirit-centered progressivism can give us the energy, perspective, and patience to confront injustice while maintaining our spiritual, physical, and relational well-being.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary and, pastor and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)


I deeply appreciate Epperly's idea that "Progressives need to claim practices of spiritual transformation to complement and deepen their commitment to social transformation." Epperly's writings and lectures certainly fill in the gap left by liberal protestantism of an earlier time, and show us a way to "complete the circle." Thanks for this wonderful post!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing this post. I'm glad to hear another voice speaking about the impoverishment of liberal protestant churches in regard to spiritual life. We do many things well, and accomplish a great deal of good work, but the soul needs a deeper connection with God than most churches I know of are equipped to help their members pursue. I appreciate the suggestions to cultivate a deeper and more creative prayer life, and to explore some simple spiritual practices.
Country Parson said…
I bought the book after reading this post. Just arrived. Outstanding so far, but then again I"m only on page 45.
Anonymous said…
This jerk looks like a giant hamster.
And his denomination has been shrinking faster than a pizza put in front of Michael Moore.

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