My friend Bruce Epperly, a regular contributor to this blog, returns with a new series of weekly posts that he entitles "Dancing With Diana." The Diana he's speaking of is our mutual friend and colleague Diana Butler Bass. Bruce is going to be engaging with Diana's new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, (Harper One, 2012), which I've reviewed here. I invite to engage with Diana's book, as Bruce begins his dance here.
Dancing with Diana – Are You a Mystic?
For the next several weeks, I will be dancing with Diana Butler Bass’s latest book, Christianity after Religion. Like most of Diana’s books, it opens up new and fertile ground for conversation and exploration. I have the highest regard for Diana as a colleague, friend, and innovative thinker and look forward to this theological and spiritual dance.
Are you a mystic? That’s a good question, isn’t it? A recent Pew Forum report noted that between 1962 and 2009, the number of persons who claim to have mystical experiences has risen from 22% to 48%. While the nature of these experiences varies, the important point is that people are no longer afraid of admitting their encounters with the divine. If you go to church regularly, it is likely that one of the people beside you is a mystic, and you may be a mystic, too!
This is good, but challenging news, for Christian congregations – and Christianity as we know it. It is good news because it opens the door to conversations about experiencing God in everyday life. It is challenging because mysticism knows no boundaries nor does it easily conform to sixty minute worship services, analytic bible commentaries, or purely intellectual sermons. Moreover, there appears to be a democracy of the spirit in which many people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” believe the least likely place to encounter the divine is in church!
Diana Butler Bass’ book is a challenge to pastors and preachers. In many churches, congregants hear expositions of the lectionary readings but are given little guidance about how they can experience the Spirit that undergirds the texts. Pastors seldom share their own spiritual experiences and mystics in the church are hesitant to share their encounters with the divine, fearing that they will be judged as “holy rollers” or “irrational.” Yet, such hesitance is killing the church. I believe that growing churches – now and in the future – are open to spiritual experiences, provide opportunities for people to learn spiritual practices, and welcome spiritual encounters with the same hospitality that enlightened congregations have become “open and affirming” to the LGBT community.
Diana’s great gift is her opening the door to the spiritual transformations going on. The old time religion need not be jettisoned, it simply needs to be placed in a larger and more dynamic spiritual, intellectual, theological, and global context. In fact, what we call “old time” was once new and radical. It only became “old time” when it quit growing, built walls rather than bridges, and became identified with wooden and literal views of scripture and irrelevant and outmoded understandings of science, sexuality, and social change.
I must confess that the church is still important to me. I see healing, transformation, hospitality, spirituality, service, and mission alive and well among Christians. Sadly, they don’t get the press that Qur’an burning pastors, inaccurate end-time evangelists, and homophobic preachers garner. I find a great hunger among Christians for a deeper relationship with God, reflected in interest in prayer, meditation, and healing. They see action and contemplation and mission and meditation as one dynamic reality, necessary for transforming the world. They are forging a new path, defined by the affirmation of Christian mystics throughout the ages, “I am spiritual and religious.”
The church is in process: there is plenty that must die to make room for resurrection. As we dance with the Spirit, not just Diana and I, but Christians in all sorts of places, we will learn new steps, follow the guidance of the Spirit, and create a few new steps as our gift to the Earth and to God in our time and place. So, let’s dance!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and Patheos.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.