I believe that many Christians put Jesus in a straitjacket. I see Jesus as a lively, contemporary figure, uncontained by our theologies and churches and constantly doing new and creative things in our lives. As companions on the Way of Jesus, we can do great things and claim our vocation as God’s partners in healing the world.
—Dr. Bruce Epperly, from Loosely Christian
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, theologian, spiritual guide, and author of nearly 30 books. He regularly contributes book reviews, lectionary commentaries, and essays for Patheos on his blog, Living a Holy Adventure. He pastors South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA and lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We talked with him recently about his new book from Patheos Press, Loosely Christian: Answering God’s Invitation to a Creative Faith for Today.
The term originally came up in a conversation with my son. We were sitting on the patio of Georgetown University Hospital, where he was being treated for cancer. A child of two pastors, he referred to himself as “loosely Christian.” I was intrigued by his self-description and pondered what it meant to have a loosely-held faith in the postmodern and pluralistic age. My son represents many young people and their parents, along with self-described emerging Christians, who see faith as lively, transformative, and constantly changing.
The term “loosely Christian” might give a few of us pause — insinuating a faith that is watered down or lacking any sort of spiritual center. Is “loosely Christian” loosey-goosey Christianity?
“Loose” reflects the fluidity of a living faith that embraces the best of tradition in light of new understandings of science, medicine, religious pluralism, and cosmology. To be loose is to be agile, constantly moving through history, just as God is constantly moving through history. I believe that God is faithful, but God’s mercies are also new every morning. In contrast, a rock solid faith is stuck in the past and asserts that God speaks only to people who share their beliefs. Non-Christians, agnostics, and seekers are condemned as theological infidels.
Lively faith is loose and growing. It says “yes” to life and constantly adjusts as well as innovates in response to changes in the world. I believe being a Christian challenges us to be at the forefront of personal and institutional transformation – as Martin Luther King asserted, we can be headlights rather than tail lights in responding to the social and spiritual movements of our time and the future.
What inspired you to write this book?
As a pastor-teacher, I’m interested in transforming people’s lives. I spend a good deal of time with seekers and pilgrims, both within and beyond the church. Many people feel marginalized by inflexible orthodoxy. They’ve also been hurt by those who question their faith because they ask questions or can no longer in good conscience believe everything in scripture, the Apostles Creed, or the Nicene Creed. Just this morning, a recent visitor to South Congregational Church, where I serve as pastor, asked if I would be willing to talk with her despite the fact she no longer believed in the Second Coming or a six day creation theory. I want this book to speak to the adventurer and doubter in all of us, providing a vision of Christianity large enough to encompass our growing awareness of insights from science, cosmology, and the religious pluralism of our time.
You speak of a “mystical Christianity?” What do you mean by that?
I believe that a holistic faith joins contemplation and action. It is grounded in this world and inspired to transform the world. It seeks to experience God first-hand as a companion and guide. A living faith sees God’s presence in all things. Ordinary actions can reveal God’s vision for our lives. Extraordinary moments that gave birth to our faith traditions – Buddha’s enlightenment, Mohammed’s auditory encounters with Allah, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, and Jesus’ unity with God – invite us to experience God as the central reality of our lives. A plaque at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania counsels, “Picket and pray.” We can awaken to God prayerfully even as we work to transform the world.
How does your new book relate to the emerging Christian movement? In what way might it be helpful to today’s emerging and emergent Christians?
I believe that Loosely Christian provides a theological vision for the emerging and progressive movements in Christianity. The emerging church is in search of a lively constructive theology that inspires worship and spiritual practice. This book is biblical, spiritual, theological, progressive, and emerging in spirit. It provides a theological vision responsive to the quests articulated by Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle. It takes us beyond the deconstructive postmodernisms, articulated by some emerging Christians, to a lively, humble, constructive vision God, human life, survival death, and religious pluralism.
You also use the term “Christian Shaman.” That sounds a little “new agey.” How does this term fit into your theological vision?
Traditionally a shaman, whether male or female, is a religious personage charged with joining heaven and earth, the spiritual and embodied, to bring healing to persons and the world. The shaman is transparent to the divine, aware of the currents of divinity moving through her or his lives, open to healing energy, and able to share that energy in healing ways with others. As a pastor, I am in the lineage of these ancient shamans as a healer, teacher, teacher, and guide between heaven and earth. This same energy and insight is available to lay people as well.
We need to expect great things of ourselves and great things of God.
One of your chapters is titled “Christ on the Loose.” What do you mean by that? Is it helpful to have a loose Jesus?
I believe that many Christians put Jesus in a straitjacket. They see Jesus as a one-dimensional figure, belonging solely to Christians. Their focus is on orthodox beliefs about Jesus rather than Jesus’ pathway of wholeness, hospitality, and transformation. I see Jesus as a lively, contemporary figure, uncontained by our theologies and churches and constantly doing new and creative things in our lives. Jesus wanted his followers to do great things – to become teachers, healers and prophets whose radical hospitality can change our world. As companions on the Way of Jesus, we can do great things and claim our vocation as God’s partners in healing the world.
Where do you see yourself in relationship to today’s spiritual and religious movements?
I seek to be an open-spirited Christian. While I have an affinity with emerging and progressive Christianity, I am also open to the wisdom of evangelical, mystical, and Pentecostal Christianity. As a pastor-theologian, I look for God’s wisdom everywhere and in every movement of spirit. I also listen to divine wisdom moving through the varieties of non-Christian experience. My calling is to be a global Christian, whose faith opens me to truth and healing wherever it occurs.
As a congregational pastor, do you relate what you’ve written here to your ministry? How do you share what might be seen as radical thoughts with a somewhat traditional congregation?
I preach a positive, open-spirited Christianity that is contemplative and active in nature. I share my understanding of a lively, fluid, and constantly moving God in ways accessible to peoples’ lives. I look for places of common ground, especially in the areas of mission, healing, and care for the vulnerable. I find people open to theological visions that are growth oriented and spiritually inspiring.
How do you respond to people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious?” How does this shape your writing, teaching, and ministry?
Theological reflection is always personal and concrete. I believe that self-described “spiritual but not religious” persons are in search of experiences of God. They want faith to be real and personal. Many people are on spiritual quests. As a pastor, I sponsor meditation classes, dialogue with persons from other faith traditions, and share insights of science and holistic medicine. Our healing service is aimed at Christians and seekers alike.
Even though our congregation is traditional in many ways, it is also a church of seekers. Many of our congregants have experiences with and know about energy medicine, reiki, and spiritual leaders from other faith traditions. My goal is to open people to see God in all things and all things in God and I do this as a preacher, writer, spiritual guide, and teacher.