A Good Enough Theology:
Spirit-Centered Progressivism/Embracing Pentecost
Good theology embraces the whole person - body, mind, spirit, relationships, and the planet. It is committed to growing in wisdom and stature through its interactions with the religious world, literature, secularity, and science. A balanced theological diet embraces the Pentecostal spirit as a catalyst for intellectual as well as experiential growth. (Next week, look for “one thing we can learn from fundamentalism.”)
Today’s Pentecostal Christians trace their beginnings to the day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2 and the spiritual adventures, described throughout Acts of the Apostles. Acts of the Apostles describes a lively and expanding faith, constantly being driven beyond its theological and cultural comfort zone and continuously open to experiencing signs and wonders.
While progressive and liberal Christians are often accused of expecting too little from God, Pentecostals have little humility when it comes to expecting God to show up in our daily lives. According to Pentecostal Christians, God regularly appears as a source of healing, inspiration, revelation, ecstasy, and mystical experience. The hallmark of Pentecostal faith can be found in these words from Acts 2:
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,And your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I shall pour out my Spirit;And they shall prophesy.
Pentecostal Christianity is driven by the spirit to embody new possibilities as they are revealed to us. Faith embraces the non-rational as well as the rational, emotion as well as intellect. While there are Pentecostal excesses (for example, identification of prosperity as a sign of divine blessing; seeing speaking in tongues as God’s primary gift and judging as spiritually deficient persons who lack such gifts; and an over-emphasis on the supernatural as violating cause and effect relationships), Pentecostals follow where God leads: in contrast to fundamentalists, who follow a rigid understanding of scripture, Pentecostals ordained woman as pastors and spiritual leaders, because they believed that Spirit trumped scripture, and God’s Spirit called forth women to lead.
Acts 2 presents a dynamic, fluid church, making it up as they went along – integrating theology, spirit, social concern, and hospitality.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together…, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Pentecostals then and now have expected great things from God, and great things from themselves as mediators of God’s blessings. They have been leaders in reclaiming the healing ministry of the church as well as inviting people to be open to the unfettered movements of God’s spirit in dreams, ecstatic experiences, and spiritual discernment. Pentecostals balance the horizontal this-worldly orientation of progressives with their openness to the breaking in of the spirit. While progressives affirm that God works through the normal movements of cause and effect, nevertheless, progressives are invited to awaken to dramatic, yet naturalistic, movements of God’s spirit – to be open to signs and wonders within the everyday world. The natural world is always more, not less than we can imagine – what we describe as “miracles” may be quantum leaps of transformational energy, emerging in the divine-human all and response. A dynamic law-abiding universe is, in fact, a greater revelation of divine love and care than one in which God breaks in supernaturally and arbitrarily.
Pentecostal spirituality reminds us that God inspires us in many ways: through the mind and theological reflection, but also through dreams, intuitions, synchronous encounters, visionary experiences. Of course, as I Corinthians notes, each of these needs to be integrated with solid theological reflection, and this is where the gifts of progressive and process-oriented theology make a difference – progressive and process-oriented theology affirm that God is present, inspiring us in every aspect of our lives, but that divine inspiration is always contextual, always related to the good of the community, always aimed at wholeness and beauty. God seeks abundant life, but “prosperity” is not automatic, or solely the result of our faith in a linear fashion; the prosperity gospel is not individualistic, but embraces the whole earth. God wants all creation to flourish, not just the favored or faithful few.
Like the Quakers, Pentecostals invite us to see “more” and expect “more” from our world. They remind us that there is a “burning bush” on every pathway and that God is constantly speaking in our lives. Progressives can embrace this dynamic theology, balancing it with our sense of social justice and our vision of God’s universal revelation and care. The ever-present, still speaking God of progressive faith, calls us to see holiness in the ordinary and wonder in our daily tasks. Truly this makes for a good enough theological diet; a good enough theology to live by.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, 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 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.