We hear a lot about persons who are "spiritual but not religious." It is a growing phenomenon, but even as I understand why some who seek God would find religious institutions off-putting, the idea of simply being spiritual has left me wondering what is meant by the word. It seems rather ephemeral -- or to quote Bruce Epperly as he returns with a series of essays that emerge from a recently published e-book -- gaseous. Although I am not a fan of bounded faith systems that demand unquestioning obedience, I am also not satisfied with self-created theologies that say more about our psychological needs than God. Bruce Epperly suggests here the concept of "loosely Christian," which seems interesting. Here is the first of several posts, in which he defines what it might mean to be "loosely Christian." Does this describe you?
What Does it Mean to Say “Loosely Christian?”
A few years back, in the course of a theological conversation, my son described himself as “loosely Christian.” I was intrigued by his self-description. I felt that it was a phrase that begged a book title and then a book, eventuating in the conception, writing, and birthing of Loosely Christian: Answering God's Invitation to a Creative Faith for Today.
I believe a lively, transformative, and relevant faith for the future navigates fluidly between being a solid and a gas. Rock solid religion affirms an unchanging faith, grounded in an unchanging God. Doctrinal truths, from this perspective, are inflexible and unbending. In looking at scripture, a rock solid faith affirms the bumper sticker theology: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” When it comes to doctrine, the final word of God came with the Book of Revelation and the historic creeds of the church, the Apostles and Nicene. There is nothing new to add to God’s biblical and creedal word; in fact, novelty is a danger to the one true faith, delivered to the saints. We may change the medium, moving to websites, jumbotrons, and live streaming, but we can never change the literal message of God, given in the words of the scripture.
If rock solid faith is unchanging, gaseous faith has no theological center. It is entirely culture bound and so up-to-date that lacks historical and theological context and gravitas. While solid faith is rigid and boundaried, gaseous faith lacks limits, boundaries, and clear identity.
In contrast, I have come to appreciate the fluidity of being loosely Christian. A loosely Christina faith is a lively creative synthesis, constantly joining innovation and tradition, and transformation and structure. It imagines God as alive, dynamic, and constantly growing. God has a vision for our planet and the human journey, but it is always concrete and relational. God is not stuck in yesterday’s world; God is moving ahead in an interdependent call and response with humankind and the non-human world. God is alive: though always faithful, God’s mercies are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Rock solid theology assumes God has everything figured out and knows the whole of history in advance. Indeed, God’s perfection is defined by unchanging awareness of the world; God knows everything in advance and is never surprised by creaturely behavior. God’s will is always done as God envisioned it before the creation of the world. From God’s standpoint, our real-time prayers have always been answered one way or another prior to our intercessions; the outcome of our ethical actions is already determined in advance, regardless of our intent. To many persons, this viewpoint affirms divine power and presence. The future is certain, and will emerge as God wills it even if this means apocalyptic devastation.
I suggest the alternative approach of a fluid, relational, interdependent, God is truly living and loving. An unchanging God, who knows and implicitly determines everything in advance is less alive and less powerful than a constantly active and relational God. An unchanging God, who has determined everything in advance, does nothing new, knows nothing new, and creates nothing new. God’s power is limited by God’s previous decisions. In contrast, a lively, growing God is always doing new things. Through relational in power, and limited by creaturely freedom, a fluid God is ultimately unlimited in possible power and novelty. God will continue to imagine new possibilities and inspire the world to embody these possibilities. The possibilities for divine-human interaction are endless.
The lively God of a loosely Christian perspective truly feels our pain and celebrates our joy. The call and response of God and the world invites us to take responsibility for our lives and the world. There are no guarantees and the future is uncertain, and this is good, considering the alternative makes our spiritual efforts, both prayers and actions, ultimately irrelevant. In the lively call and response world of fluid Christianity, our prayers and actions help determine the future. They can be the tipping point between health and illness, and life and death, for us, our loved ones, and the planet.
Bruce Epperly is pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. A resident of Cape Cod, Bruce has previously served on the faculty – or on an administrative or ministerial capacity – at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, and Claremont School of Theology. The author of twenty seven books in spirituality, ministry, healing and wholeness, and process theology, his most recent books are Letters to My Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective (Energion) and Loosely Christian: Answering God's Invitation to a Creative Faith for Today (Patheos Press)