With Anne Rice's recent revelation that she's not leaving Christ, but is leaving Christianity, perhaps she'd change her mind if she were to read Bruce Epperly's series on Progressive Theology! In this essay, Bruce addresses the Christian hunger for mystical or spiritual experiences. In doing so, he writes about the ways in which progressive Christians can with discernment make use of a variety of resources, including those that emerge out of other faith traditions. I invite you to read and respond to this word of guidance.
Why Progressive Theology is Important:
Christian Faith and Global Spirituality
In the last few weeks, I have reflected on the importance of progressive theology for the future of Christianity. It is clear that theology is important and can be the difference between life and death, individually and globally. What we believe shapes our character, actions, political involvements, and vision of the future of the planet. Today, I would like to reflect on spiritual experience from the perspective of progressive Christianity. If, as a recent Pew Center Report suggests, over 50% of mainline Christians claim self-transcendent or mystical experiences, then the experiential side of religion is key to the future of progressive Christianity. Indeed, while today’s seekers are intellectually curious and want good theology, they are, on the whole, interested in experiencing the faith they affirm.
Most progressives are open to a variety of religious experiences. In the spirit of the Prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18), most progressives affirm that “the true light, which enlightens everyone” is the source of the many paths to the divine as well as the insights of agnostics and atheists. As progressive Christians, we look for truth wherever it is found, whether in the sanctuary, Benedictine monastery, Zen center, yoga retreat, or healing touch training program.
We are open to God inspiring us through Quaker silence, Gospel rhythms, Pentecostal tongue speaking, evangelical prayer, and Ignatian imaginative contemplation as well as Hindu meditation, Native American and traditional African practices, and Sufi dancing. While such openness has been critiqued as “designer religion” or “cafeteria Catholicism,” I believe that the progressive spirit reflects Paul’s vision of God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Paul’s sermon in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) reflects the dialogical nature of progressive spirituality. On the one hand, Paul accepts the wisdom of Greek philosophy in his description of God as the reality in whom all things live and grow. He also affirms the universal and intimate divine-human connection – “for we are God’s offspring.” (Acts 17:28) There is always a point of contact between God and humankind, which is the source of the spiritual quest in all its forms.
Paul’s words are an invitation to an open-spirited, Christ-centered approach to the varieties of spiritual practices. So, in light of Paul’s affirmation of global revelation and divine intimacy, it is possible to integrate Christian prayer with Buddhist meditation; liturgical worship with Hindu breathing techniques; political action with Gandhi’s satyagraha (soul force) just as he integrates the wisdom of Christ with the wisdom of Greek philosophy. This is not a corruption of our faith, but an expansion of our faith, a growing in wisdom and stature.
Paul also reminds us, by his “distress” (Acts 17:16) that not all philosophies and spiritualities are compatible with following the way of Jesus and that Christians must be willing to evaluate critically the various religious paths in light of God’s world-affirming and healing revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. For example, progressive Christians can gain wisdom from the new age text, The Secret, in terms of its emphasis on positive thinking and visualization, while challenging its affirmation that “you create your own reality” and its tendency toward individualism and rewards-punishments thinking, which often leads to blaming the victim for her or his failures. Progressive Christians can learn much from Hindu meditation without adopting the theory of reincarnation or explanations for people’s suffering in this lifetime in terms of past life behavior.
Progressive Christianity is open to the world in all its wonder and complexity. As my teacher John Cobb asserted, Christ is the way that includes no way. Christ’s transformative power can inspire us to embrace a variety of practices in light of our commitment to the dynamic, all-inspiring, abundance-seeking God of all creation. Yet, our openness to global spirituality also calls us to deepen our theology and spiritual practices as Christians. In a global age, with many spiritual paths, we need to take Christian theology and spirituality more, rather than less, seriously. We need to articulate Christ-centered and Spirit-centered visions of the divine, which inspire us to seek justice, affirm diversity, and commit ourselves to healing the planet. Our theologies and practices as Christians are the center points that enable us to integrate creatively the diverse spiritual visions and practices of our time. Deep theological and spiritual commitments enable us as Christians to grow in wisdom and stature as we welcome and embrace the many faiths of our world. This is the way of peace both within our hearts and in our relationships with other spiritual pilgrims.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and