A Tapestry of Belief and Experience

Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity after Religion
explores the tension between spirituality and religion, and experience andbelief.  Her work is more descriptivethan constructive, but it sets the agenda for Christians who wish to addresstwenty-first century spiritual challenges and not the issues of a bygone
era.  Bass notes that belief has oftenbeen a deterrent to taking Christianity seriously among the self-described “nones”and “spiritual but not religious.”  She
reflects on her experience of a baccalaureate sermon that focused on Christ as
imperial and sovereign, rather than loving, as theologically shattering.  Bass appropriately describes that sermon as an example of theology that alienates rather than joins.

In aworld of multiple spiritual possibilities, today’s seekers focus on experience
rather than doctrine, and rightly so.  In their experience, doctrine divides and deadens while experience unites andtransforms.  Still, I believe that the
example of the baccalaureate sermon and recent political events reminds us that
fluid theological understandings are more important than ever for seekers,
“nones,” and persons who attempt to be both spiritual and religious.  Humble and loosely-held theological positions, connected with our experiences of the holy, can nurture spiritual experiences and inspire mission-oriented commitments.Theological
reflection is, like all human endeavors, ambiguous, but it can be healthy and
life-changing.

First, the bad news abouttheology: certain understandings of theology have led to the recent culture wars regarding contraception, abortion, personhood, social justice,
immigration, same sex marriage, and economics. Other theological positions placed a chasm between faith and medicine,and scripture and science.  Understandings
of theology have lead to apocalyptic scenarios that have inspired followers to
be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good and to the denial of human
involvement in global climate change.  After
all, if human behavior can destroy life on Earth, then God’s prerogative of
Earth-destruction is challenged.

What allthese positions have in common is an emphasis on some of the following

  • A changeless God who establishes unchanging rules.
  • Authoritarian and unilateral images of God; the image of God as primarily omnipotent and sovereign.
  • An implied competition between God and humankind such that any human achievement detracts from God’s glory.
  • A view of humankind as passive in relationship to God.
  • Moral absolutes grounded either in an absolutist view of scripture or ecclesiastical authority.
  • Revelation limited to select groups or scriptures.
  • Grace as encouraging passivity rather than partnership.
  • Thefuture as closed and determined in advance by God.
  • Truth and salvation as limited.

Second, the good news about theology: Healthy theology can bring healing, wholeness,and unity to our lives.   While there aremany possible healing theologies, I believe a theology that emphasizes thefollowing is best suited to our current spiritual and planetary condition.

  • God as lively and active in the world
  • God as primarily relational, rather than unilateral.
  • God as the non-competitive source of possibility.
  • Godas encouraging creativity and innovation.
  • Godas working through the world situation rather than from the outside.
  • Godas embracing the world, and being influenced by our actions.
  • Unlimitedpossibilities for innovation and creativity such that our alignment with God enables God to do new things.
  • Revelationas global and touching everyone.
  • Grace as encouraging interdependent responsibility and creativity.
  • Ethics and doctrines that are contextual and constantly subject to transformation.
  • Anopen-ended future.
  • Partnershipbetween God and the world in creating the future.
  • Truth as abundant and multi-faceted

We will never have a perfect and all-inclusive theology, but we can have lively,
growing, and life-supporting theologies.  My own personal preference is process theology, given its open-endedness and understanding of God in terms of relationship and love, rather than independence and power.  I invite you to consider your own theological journey – and ponder what theologies give life and what theologies deaden the spirit.

[Must-reads in introducing process theology, a short list:

John Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age

John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition

Monica Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way

Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living

___________, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church

___________, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed

Patricia Adams Farmer, The Metaphor Maker

Catherine Keller, On the Mystery

Jay McDaniel, Living from  the Center

Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence]

 

 

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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