The Adventurous Lectionary: Epiphany Sunday

The Adventurous Lectionary: Epiphany Sunday,  January 6, 2013

This past Fall I was blessed to teach a course on “Whitehead and World Religions,” during my tenure as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  In each class session, we confronted the reality of spiritual, ethical, and cultural pluralism.  We explored what it means to balance faithful affirmation of your own faith tradition with openness to the wisdom of other religious traditions. Sadly, too little theological reflection has been given to religious pluralism among progressive and moderate Christians.  We clearly do not accept the either-or, imperialistic, and exclusive approach held by most conservative and fundamentalist Christians.  Yet, we seldom present a viable theological alternative to religious pluralism.  (I will focus on Epiphany, revelation, and pluralism in this week’s Patheos commentary.  You may look at my Process and Faith commentary for a reflection on all four scriptural passages: http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary.)

I believe that it is impossible to be a faithful and relevant Christian today without coming to terms with the realities of religious pluralism.  Epiphany gives us an opportunity to explore God’s presence throughout the multiplicity of spiritual traditions as well as the witness of humanists, pagans, and seekers.  Epiphany begins with the affirmation of “holy otherness.”  While we cannot exactly pinpoint the spiritual and ethnic identity of the magi, they clearly are “spiritual others.” Most scholars believe them to be priests of the Zoroastrian religion, light followers and light bearers, likely from Persia.

This Sunday’s readings and the spirit of Epiphany emphasize the universality of God’s revelation.  Not confined to one culture or religious expression, divine word and wisdom touch all humankind – and the non-human world – providing the guidance we need to find wholeness for ourselves and others.  The pastor as theologian of her or his congregation needs to directly address issues of Christian attitudes toward other religions not only because the interplay of identity and unity are essential to good theology but because her or his congregants face pluralism on a daily basis at the workplace and soccer field and in the media.

Historically, Christians have approached others in the following ways:

  • Exclusivist – Truth and salvation can only be found in relationship to Jesus, the church, and the sacraments.  Oftentimes, a particular denomination or movement has seen itself as the only way to salvation even among fellow Christians.  Denunciation, critique, and conversion are the only appropriate responses.
  • Relativist – All truth is relative and Christianity is one of many possibilities. There is no need to attempt any integration or explore the various truth perspectives of faith traditions.
  • Superiority yet Recognition – Other paths have value but Christianity or a particular form of Christianity is the fullest expression of truth and salvation.   Remember the ironic Roman Catholic proclamation which asserted the viability of other Christian ways and also the fullest expression of faith within the Roman Catholic Church.  While this is preferable to exclusivism, I felt a good deal of anger at the audacity of the magisterium’s imperialistic pronouncement.
  • Inclusive – All religions come from the same source and are paths to the same destination.  Persons of other faiths are “anonymous Christians” or “on the way to being Christians.” Hindus have made the same assertion, “all people are Hindus.”
  • Pluralist – Religious movements reflect different visions of reality, spiritual goals, and understandings of human wholeness.  There is no need for uniformity; rather, our goal is to find appropriate ways of embracing and dialoging with otherness.  Mutual growth and affirmation is called for in a pluralistic age.  We will remain Christians but widen our vision and deepen our spirituality through the embrace of spiritual multiplicity.

While preachers may address these issues variously, progressive, emerging, and moderate Christians will typically find themselves in the relativist, inclusive, or pluralistic camps.

I believe that solid incarnational theologies call for a fluid and centered pluralism in which we take seriously:

  • The universality of God’s revelation in the world.
  • The manifoldness of God’s nature and revelation.  Rather than being a simple monad or entity, God’s experience may be complex and evolving, thus opening to the possibility that varying religions may be “right” insofar as they experience different aspects of the divine.
  • The particularity and concreteness of God’s approach to humankind.  God calls to different cultures and people in different and variable ways.
  • The particularity, concreteness, and time-bound nature of receiving revelation. Religion is mated with receiver who shapes the nature and intensity of revelation by her or his uniqueness.  All revelation is perspectival and finite.
  • The particularity and concreteness of divine call and human response leads to different but authentic perceptions of the divine and differing visions of human nature and possibility.
  • The evolving nature of religious traditions.  As John Cobb says, building on Whitehead’s comment, “religions in the making.”  No religious tradition or experience is complete or finished but grows in relationship with others.
  • The value of stature – wide and fluid embrace of otherness – in spiritual wisdom.
  • The interplay of self-affirmation and affirmation of one’s own “truth” and recognition of other possible “truths.”

The journey of the magi shouts out universalism, while affirming particularity.  It is unclear if the magi ever left their own religious tradition to become solely followers of Jesus.  It appears that they worshipped the child, honored the revelation of a dream, and then returned home enriched but still committed to the faith that brought them to the Christ-child.  Perhaps, they were among the first embodiments of what we describe as “multiple spiritualities,” insofar as they integrated the light of Christ with the light of their Zoroastrian faith that had inspired them on their journey to the Christ-child.

 

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).

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    I appreciate your take on the magi. It’s hard to give myself permission to go into the territory you’re describing. But it’s worth wrestling with.

  • http://fulc.com/ Susan Strouse

    Thanks so much for this article. I agree 100% with the statement “The pastor as theologian of her or his congregation needs to directly address issues of Christian attitudes toward other religions not only because the interplay of identity and unity are essential to good theology but because her or his congregants face pluralism on a daily basis at the workplace and soccer field and in the media.

    I know that many people in our congregations want to hear some guidance from their pastors on this issue. In my last congregation, a member of the adult discussion group studying the world’s religions came to me with a concern. She said that by accepting the validity of other religions, she was “betraying Jesus.” This started me on an Epiphany journey of my own, which led me to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to pursue a D.Min. The title of my thesis was “Crossing Over and Coming Back: What Does It Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World?”
    I also know that many seminarians are looking for guidance. Every single one of the students I’ve supervised has expressed strong interest in this. But even at the interfaith GTU, this kind of intra-faith theology isn’t being done.
    My hope has long been to write a book – a guide for clergy and congregants to do just the work you’ve said is so necessary. I was hoping to get a grant that would allow me to have a sabbatical this summer to do the writing, but alas I was turned down. But your article gives me renewed hope, and I’ll continue to research other possibilities.
    Thanks for all your articles and commentaries!

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