A GOOD ENOUGH THEOLOGICAL DIET: Silence, Vision, and Action (Bruce Epperly)

Having stated in last week's post the need for a "good enough theology," Bruce Epperly begins today what will be a series of posts that offer a sense of what that might look like.  This week he looks to the Quakers for guidance, and in future posts will explore the contributions of evangelicals, Pentecostals, and others.  It should be a most enlightening series.  After you read Bruce's ponderings, I invite you to join in the conversation. 



“Polydox in character, a good theology makes room for many theological possibilities and discovers wisdom in a variety of theological perspectives – the embodied and dynamic theology of process thought; the intimacy of evangelical theology; the open-endedness of liberalism; the liveliness of Pentecostalism; the non-violence of mimetic, Quaker, and Anabaptist theologies; the stability of fundamentalism; the unrest and challenge of liberation theology; the diverse wisdoms of womanist, feminist, and indigenous theologies; the incarnational spirit of Orthodox Christian theologies; the sacramental character of Catholic theologies; the wild adventurousness of Celtic theology; and the fiery spirit of mystical theology…and more. All these are part of a good enough theological diet.”  (Bruce Epperly, “A Good Enough Theology,” in Ponderings on a Faith Journey, August 10, 2010).

Last week, I asserted that a good enough theology requires a balance of many perspectives.
Just as a good diet requires different food groups, healthy theology requires varied foods for the spirit. A healthy theological diet has what Bernard Loomer described as “size,” it embraces diversity around an evolving center. In the weeks ahead, I will explore different aspects of a healthy theological diet, recognizing that no one perspective is all inclusive. While I believe that process theology provides the most holistic and inclusive basis for a healthy moderate and progressive theological perspective, I recognize that there are other perspectives that shape the theological journey.

Today, I will reflect on the integration of silence, vision, and action, characteristic of the Quakers or Friends. My words will be evocative and practical, rather than scholarly. I will be relating how Quaker spirituality and theology has shaped my journey and belongs in good enough theological diet.

When someone from a liturgical church asks me what happens in a Quaker meeting, I often humorously reply, “nothing.” We sit around a circle in chairs, we listen for God’s voice, and now and again, someone stands up and shares words that they feel have emerged in the silence. Quakers remind us that God speaks in a still, small voice – that God’s Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words. God’s Spirit intercedes and speaks within, however, all of us, not an elect or chosen few. Within every life shines an inner light, the light that John’s gospel describes – the light that created the universe and enlivens each person. We live in a God-filled, God-inspired universe, in which the least likely – the vulnerable, outcast, youthful, or physically or mentally challenged, reveal God’s presence.

Now, that’s a big vision: God is present in everyone’s life. There is a democracy of revelation that embraces both slave and master, outlaw and law abiding-citizen , alien and resident , poor and wealthy. This big vision leads to big political and cultural consequences: if God is present in every life, then every life is precious and deserves justice and fairness – this affirmation included in early Quaker history, African slaves and First Americans. Slavery and genocide are “heresies” because they deny God’s image in our brothers and sisters. (Later, Bishop Desmond Tutu was to call apartheid a heresy for the same reason.) Deep down, we are “friends” of everyone, recognizing the divinity in others is at the heart of the Christian journey.

Vision leads to action, and so does contemplation. In many progressive and moderate churches, contemplation and action, and spirituality and justice are placed in opposition. You can’t do both – social action is combative and disturbs our spiritual equanimity; spirituality is naval gazing that turns us away from justice and equality. The Quakers saw contemplation and action as interdependent, complementary, and requiring one another. Without contemplation, activism polarizes, repeats the sins of the oppressors, and leads to personal burn out. Without action, contemplation becomes “so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.”

In this brief reflection, I hope that you have gotten a first course in a good enough theology – we need a spiritual vision – a vision of God’s omnipresent care, revealed in each creature; we discover that vision by taking time for silence that awakens us to the divine light in ourselves and others; we complete circle by visionary action aimed at enabling all persons, indeed, all creatures, to have the opportunity to experience God’s inner light as their deepest reality.

This first course can be preached, prayed, and practiced, and be part of a balanced theological diet.

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 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.


Don Scrooby said…
"Without contemplation, activism polarizes, repeats the sins of the oppressors, and leads to personal burn out. Without action, contemplation becomes “so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.”

I cannot agree enough. During the appartheid era in South Africa there were so called prophets who suspiciously began to look like the very authorities we were apposing. But then, there were those who always kept what can only be described as "contemplative distance" that space of discernment before engagement. Many of the activists found it extremely difficult to understand that distance, but it was that distance which gave essence to the action taken. The action was profoundly fruitful because it was discerned action. One of the great memories I have is of the way contemplation and action came together in a remarkable unitive expression. It will always serve as an example never forgotten. Thanks for a great post. I look forward to the rest.
Doug Sloan said…
My experience with a traditional Quaker meeting (unprogrammed silent worship) is that, indeed, it was always unprogrammed (unpredictable) and usually anything but silent.

There would be great moments of silent contemplation and great moments of speaking - each interspersed with the other. It would be a time of people wrestling with the spirit and wrestling together for discernment and consensus.

Out of the silent contemplation and the wrestling together came great action for the Kingdom of God: opposition to the draft and war, marching for civil rights, delivering medical supplies to North Vietnam.

The Kingdom of God is us here now.
Brian said…
"Without contemplation, activism polarizes, repeats the sins of the oppressors, and leads to personal burn out. Without action, contemplation becomes “so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.”


What you communicated clearly and simply is something that has fueled my sense of mission for years. Social justice and contemplation are two sides of the same coin.

Three examples that inspire me: Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Thomas Merton.

I look forward with eagerness to the following installments of this series.

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