ANGELS, MYSTERIES,AND MIRACLES: A Progressive Vision. By Bruce G. Epperly, Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2017. 104 pages.
From Harry Potter to the Exorcist, from Charmed to the Librarians, we seem rather preoccupied with things that go bump in the night. Magic, the occult, spirits, and demons, even zombies are topics of deep interest. Even Star Wars appeals because it, unlike Star Trek, has at its heart a message of spirituality. We may live in the shadow of David Hume, but the shadow seems to be growing shorter by the day. While many have a built-in skepticism about mystical claims, there is still a sense of openness to spiritual things. That may explain the growing popularity of Pentecostalism, which emphasizes healing and power encounters with spiritual beings. While there are those who embrace a premodern world view, assuming that supernatural/spiritual incursions into the natural order occur regularly, within mainstream Protestantism and likely many parts of the Catholic church, these are remnants of an old religion that no longer fits our scientifically-informed world view. We put these stories in the category of myth. They may say something about who we are as human beings, but we really don't expect angelic visits or demonic attacks. We have explanations for any strange phenomena.
While the tendency among liberal/progressive Christians is to distance themselves from talk about angels and demons and miracles, speaking of them as metaphor not actual occurrences, there are exceptions to this story. Bruce Epperly is one who is willing to entertain visions of angelic visitations and healing miracles. Bruce is a United Church of Christ pastor and theologian. He has been rather prolific in his exploration of such things, especially the question of healing. This interest in healing has its roots in his upbringing in a fundamentalist household that believed in miracles, but his later adoption of Process Theology also enabled him to entertain such thoughts. Although Process theologians embrace a scientifically-informed world view, at least some Process theologians have embraced forms of mysticism, and have entertained thoughts of other dimensions of spirituality. Bruce is at the forefront of this conversation.
Although Bruce entertains the idea of angelic visitations and the miraculous, he does so without embracing a supernaturalist world view. He believes "that the spiritual realm is not necessarily supernatural or otherworldly but embedded in and continuous with our everyday lives." Reality, he writes, "is much more amazing and multi-dimensional than we can imagine" (p. 5). The emphasis here needs to be placed on the word multi-dimensional. In such a world, we can imagine, he believes the presence of the mystical, and that we can, if we choose to engage the world of spirituality much more deeply than many have in the past.
The book is brief, with just five chapters. In chapter one he sets up the conversation, inviting those who inhabit the liberal/progressive wing of Christianity to consider the possibility of the spiritual realm, where healing and paranormal experiences are welcome. Part of this involves moving beyond the modernist separation of body and spirit. This modernist worldview rooted in a Cartesian dualism, has essentially removed God from daily life.
With this foundation established, Bruce begins with a conversation about angels. While he has never experienced an angelic visitation, he has heard stories—recent ones—and knows well the biblical stories of angelic visitations. He invites us to let go of our skepticism and consider the possibility that there are angelic visitations, that is, incarnational moments. If we talk about angels, who are generally helpful expressions of the divine, offering protection and guidance (chapter 2), should we not also speak of the demonic? He does. He explores the demonic in scripture, and then engages in theological experiment, in which he seeks to take seriously reports of the demonic. even as he rejects any form of dualism that puts Satan on par with God. The demonic might not be a literal person, but a force that is present in the world. He notes the work of Walter Wink, which is very powerful. I would add to it the work of Richard Beck. Having introduced to a topic we tend to set aside, he also offers guidance in how to respond. Prayer is central, by prayer he means not just words, but trust. Since the demonic often exhibits itself in social injustice, it is not just the prayers of the individual, but prayers and vigils of the gathered community, that gathers to say no to injustice, knowing that God is always with us and will outlast all malevolent spirits.
Having laid out a perspective on angels and demons, he then moves on to explore the mystical itself. How might we encounter the spiritual dimension, through prayer. Here things get more practical. Finally, in chapter five, he takes us deeply into the question of miracles, and whether they have a scientifically- supported foundation. Here he speaks more specifically of healing miracles. Should we take them as miraculous expressions of the divine? Bruce entertains the possibility. The one area of concern here, is that any conversation about healing and miracles requires us to consider the question of why not everyone experiences healing. It is a question that I've wrestled with since my own brush with Pentecostalism. How come evangelists lengthen legs, but rarely heal cancer?
This book is written with a broad audience in mind. It is lay-friendly, though one will find a good deal of theology here. Clergy should find it a relatively easy read, though Bruce might push a few buttons. But even if a member of the clergy struggles with Bruce's vision of what he calls naturalistic miracles the book is worth reading because it opens an important conversation about the spiritual realm, one that we often skip, even in the church. It also reminds us that Christianity is not simply an intellectual society, a social club, or a community organizing effort. It is truly a spiritual reality.