A Good Enough Theology: Evangelical Passion (Bruce Epperly)

What is a "Good Enough Theology?"  And in defining this notion of theology, where might evangelicalism fit?  One of the things about evangelicalism, is that it is a hard term to pin down.  I'm a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical flagship institution, but Fuller is quite different from other institutions in the evangelical community, such as Dallas Seminary or even Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  There are conservative evangelicals and there are those, like me, who want to retain our connection with evangelical sensibilities and would be comfortable with the designation "liberal evangelical."  Then there are those who see themselves as "evangelical liberals," a designation that Bruce Epperly, the author of this series of posts, is quite willing to affirm.  If you are a liberal or progressive Christian, what might you take away from the evangelical mindset that can broaden and deepen your faith?  That is the purpose of Bruce's essay today (and next week he'll be bringing in fundamentalism). 


A Good Enough Theology: Evangelical Passion

Bruce Epperly

For the past two weeks, I have affirmed that a good enough theology has the stature to embrace diverse theological and spiritual approaches. We can compare theological wholeness, or stature, to a balanced diet – recognizing favorite foods, but also including side dishes that not only add flavor but vitamins and minerals. We need basic foods, good theology, but also good seasoning, liveliness. As a progressive Christian, I recognize that I need to include the heart as well as the mind, contemplation as well as action, passion as well as intellect, to have a complete and balanced theological diet. Last week, we reflected on the gifts of the Quakers: the vision of God’s presence in everyone, the importance of contemplative prayer, and commitment to action for justice based on recognizing God in every face. Today, I will reflect on the evangelical passion for a personal relationship with God and Jesus.

Recently, I had a conversation with a member of a liberal/progressive congregation. He commented that although his pastor is a good preacher, he virtually never mentions Jesus in his sermons. I have heard this observation/critique many times from liberal/progressive congregants. They hear Jesus occasionally mentioned as the example of a “way of life,” but seldom as a contemporary reality - a personal reality - that can be experienced in daily life. While liberals and progressives are rightly concerned about making an idol of Jesus, seeing Jesus solely in individualistic terms, or promoting a relationship with Jesus that leads to denigrating other religious traditions, I believe that the evangelical passion for Jesus, for a personal relationship with God, contributes energy and vitality that balances and adds life to intellectual and contemplative faith experiences.

Now, many liberals are uncertain about using the word “evangelical.” For them, it connotes social and theological conservatism, televangelists, and religious exclusivism. In contrast, I like the word “evangelical”: perhaps, because I was raised in a small town Baptist church, perhaps because it points to the importance of passion in faith, perhaps because it reminds us that we have good news to share. While labels can be limiting, I am particularly fond of descriptions such as “evangelical liberals” and “spirit-centered progressives.” I claim them both, and believe that there is good news to be found in embracing both evangelical and Pentecostal perspectives as part of a good enough theology. (We will speak of spirit-centered faith next week.)

Anne Lamott uses the term “Jesus-y” to describe her faith, and that works for me. As a progressive-oriented Christian, I claim that Jesus is alive, not just as the proponent of a way of life, but as a personal reality within the dancing (perichoresis) trinity of divine creativity and companionship within God, us, and the world. In unity of spirit with God, Jesus is as intimate as our next breath. Yet, Jesus’ intimacy invites us to a global spirituality. As our companion on a holy adventure, Jesus calls us to “follow” him in growing in wisdom and stature – in embracing God’s presence in the outcast, the diseased, the stranger, and the enemy. Jesus says “I am in the least of these” and you love me best by loving them. Jesus “walks with us and talks with us” in the midst of life’s challenges.

Loving in the spirit of Jesus means a lot of things, too, certainly it means hospitality and healing; it also means sharing “good news.” And, sharing good news involves both a “what” and a “how” – as progressives we can be as passionate about our faith as those who call themselves evangelicals because we have good news to share. Just look at Eric Elnes’ Phoenix Affirmations or the principles of progressive Christianity, articulated by the Center for Progressive Christianity; just look at my Holy Adventure (Upper Room, 2008) and you will discover that we have a faith we can share, a faith that changes lives. Claiming the following visionary affirmations can change your life and the lives of countless seekers:

God loves us and is present in our lives.
God wants you to have abundant life.
God rejoices in your creativity.
God’s grace embraces, forgives, and makes whole.
Jesus shows us a way to healing of mind, body, spirit, and the planet.
Wherever there is truth, God is its source, in all its many forms.
Jesus is your companion in life and death.
God’s spirit is constantly inspiring us.
God wants us to be partners in healing the world.

This list is far from exhaustive and you can make up your own progressive affirmations of faith; but one thing is clear, living with any one of these affirmations will change your life. These affirmations “preach, teach, and transform.” They call us to a full-voiced Hallelujah!

And, they call us to share our faith in the spirit of hospitality, healing, and respect – learning as well as proclaiming in the spirit of young Jesus at the temple. We can have passion, share good news, and also listen to the gifts of others as part of our affirmation of God’s global and graceful presence.

We progressives have a theology that transforms: if we can personalize this theology, experience it through contemplative practices, and embody it in socially-transforming actions, we can proclaim faith with passion. We can be evangelical as well as contemplative and theologically open-minded. A balanced theological diet of mind, heart, and hands gives life, vitality, and witness to the world, and us.

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 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.


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