What does it mean to live on the edge? We like living in a certain comfort zone, don't we? But what happens when we're pushed outside the zone? Sometimes, when we live at the edge, we grow, we throw off complacency, and embrace a new reality. For "Mainline" Protestants, the past was marked by a certain religious hegemony. More than half a century ago, C.C. Morrison, the founding editor of the Christian Century, wrote a book called The Unfinished Reformation (Harper and Bros., 1953) that could speak of Mainline Protestantism holding some two-thirds of the Christian community outside Roman Catholicism. Mainline Protestants ruled the land. That reality is no longer true, but no longer can we afford to be complacent. In this postcard from Claremont, Bruce Epperly, calls on moderate and progressive Christians to embrace their new place living on the edge. He speaks of the work that is being done by Claremont School of Theology and the new Claremont Lincoln University to provide an education for those seeking to be on that edge. I invite you to read and respond.
Postcards from Claremont – 4 –
Living on the Edge
Bruce G. Epperly
Recently, I heard Claremont School of Theology described as “edgy” and choosing these days to be “edgier” in giving birth to the innovative interreligious emphasis that is at the heart of both the seminary and recently-established Claremont Lincoln University. This seems appropriate because California has always been, as one author asserted, “at the edge of history” in its creative synthesis of East and West and tradition and novelty. Here on the Left Coast anything is possible and dreams become realities on a daily basis, not just in Hollywood but in the embodiment of new forms of faith and spiritual formation. Here, a Christian seminary can embrace what many religious institutions evade or deny: the reality that faithfulness to God demands dialogue, embrace, and partnership with the global spiritualities of our time.
Living on the edge is often frightening, and it is always adventurous. These days, moderate and progressive Christianity has found itself at the margins of North American religion and culture. Once center channel, we have found ourselves at the declining edges in terms of membership and influence on society. Some even ask if liberal Christianity can survive. The disestablishment of mainstream Christianity has been profoundly disorienting, but – as Robert McAfee Brown once claimed – this “creative dislocation” is precisely the place where we may experience the surprises of grace.
Today, in many congregations, not to mention Claremont, we are discovering that the edges have become the frontiers – the places where creative, life-changing, and earth-sustaining ideas are emerging. In fact, these days, despite the uncertainties facing progressive Christianity and our planet, the only place worth being is at the growing edges of life. Rather than passively adjusting to our diminished institutional role in a pluralist, post-modern world, we are claiming our vocation to be prophetic partners with God in shaping our future and seeking to heal the world for “just such a time as this.”
Over thirty five years ago, I had the opportunity to a hear Howard Thurman give a lecture sponsored by Scripps College. Thurman has been one of my spiritual mentors in his quest for a living faith for all peoples. As I take my early morning walks from my apartment at the Seminary through Scripps College, Pomona College, and the village of Claremont, I often reflect on the meaning of Thurman’s poem, “The Growing Edge” for my own personal and professional vocations:
All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born;
All around us life is dying and life is being born.
The fruit ripens on the tree;
The roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth
Against the time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms,
Such is the growing edge!
It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung,
The one more thing when all else has failed,
The upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all
This is the basis of hope in moments of despair,
The incentive to carry on when times are out of joint
And persons have lost their reason; the source of confidence
when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.
The birth of a child – life’s most dramatic answer to death –
This is the growing edge incarnate.
Look well to the growing edge!
Look well to the growing edge! This is my mantra as I listen to graduate and seminary students share their visions of life-giving theologies and spiritual practices. I feel this same sense of hard-won growth as I listen to Jerry Campbell, President of Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, share his vision of an exciting future for these two innovative institutions. Campbell confesses that the seminary was at the edge of bankruptcy several years back – some even thought that the seminary would have to close its door - but rather than retrenching and thinking small, the seminary planned for great things, initiating – as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says - novelty to match the novelties of the environment.
We will not grow – or survive in the long run – personally, individually, politically, and globally unless we look to the growing edges, taking prudent risks to transform ourselves and the world. So, every morning as the sun rises over the seminary, I ask myself in the course of my peripatetic pilgrimage: “What is my growing edge? What is the growing edge for process theology and the progressive and emerging Christian movements? What new and creative adventure is God luring us toward at this particular spiritual and cultural impasse?” Progressive Christianity, process theology, emerging Christianity, and institutions like Claremont School Theology and Claremont Lincoln University are alive and growing, leaning forward from the edges that beckon us to new frontiers for persons and the planet.
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 is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at email@example.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.