Over the past several weeks, Bruce Epperly has been laying out what he calls a "Good Enough Theology." In the course of this journey, he has lifted up the contributions of the Quakers, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and even Fundamentalists to what is at its essence a progressive or liberal theology. It could even be described as one attempt at laying out a formula for a Big Tent Christianity. In this piece that looks at the idea of the divine image that marks human life, and the goodness that defines the universe itself, Bruce brings this brief journey to an end. He promises to be back soon with a conversation engaging the Book of Acts, so keep looking for his reappearance on the Tuesday time slot!
A Good Enough Theology –
Claiming our Divine Image
Bruce G. Epperly
A good enough theology proclaims the essential goodness, or wholeness, of humankind and the created universe. Genesis 1 proclaims that the universe, including humankind, is basically good. Humans are created in the divine image, a reality that embraces both male and female. While there is no one definition of the divine image, theologians have pondered the uniqueness of humankind in terms of imagination, creativity, love, and holy relatedness. In any event, a holistic theology proclaims that goodness rather than sin is “original” to our nature. John’s gospel continues this affirmation, proclaiming that the all things come into being through the word and wisdom of God and that God’s true light enlightens all humankind.
God is constantly moving in our lives in “sighs too deep for words,” giving us guidance and inspiration even when we have gone astray. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, even our personal and corporate waywardness. Even in our waywardness, there is a godwardness: it is always possible that we can become a “new creation,” that is, awaken to God’s presence in our lives. We may forget about God, but deep down there is always a movement of grace within our lives and encounters. Quakers have called this reality the “inner light.” Other Christians have called it the “image of God.” Still, others speak of it as God’s “initial aim,” or gift of possibility and energy that gives birth to each moment of our lives.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition uses the term “theosis” or “divinization” to describe the essential holiness of our lives. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that “God became human so that the human might become god.” While Athanasius did not mean that humans were gods or equal to Christ in nature, he did mean that as a result of the interplay of divine inspiration and human spiritual practice, humans could experience a spiritual unity with the divine, what I call “lived omnipresence.” We can become, as Plato said in the Timaeus, as like to the divine as possible given our finite existence. Two thousand years later, John Wesley spoke of sanctification or growing in grace and alignment with God’s presence and will for our lives. For Wesley, as for Irenaeus centuries before, “the glory of God was a person fully alive.”
A healthy theological diet begins and ends with the goodness of life and human existence. We are beloved by God and, despite our waywardness, always connected with God. A fully alive person is one who has grown, in the words of Luke’s gospel, “in wisdom and stature.” In other traditions, such a person is described as a “bodhisattva” or “mahatma,” a great spirited person who seeks to bring wholeness and spiritual healing or enlightenment to human beings. Martin Luther describes such a person a “little Christ,” whose relationship with God flows through her or him to bring blessings and grace to others.
Good progressive theology takes our essential goodness and future possibility seriously. We are always worthy of love and always God’s beloved children. God wants us – all of us - to have abundant life at every stage of our being. A healthy theology does not minimize sin, but places sin in the context of God’s enduring and inspiring love. Healthy theology proclaims “you are my beloved child” and not “I am not worthy.”
Aware of our essential goodness and God’s everlasting love, we can take sin seriously while truly loving ourselves and others in our imperfection. Inspired by God’s love, we can accept God’s grace, practice spiritualities of transformation, and share God’s grace with others.
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.