By Bruce G. Epperly
I’m a sixties type of person and I’ve always been nervous hearing the word “should,” especially when it comes to the spiritual life. I was raised in a conservative Baptist environment where we were told what we should believe with the implied threat of hell-fire and brimstone if we deviated from the one true path to salvation. My own journey to a new and personally-convincing vision of Christianity came through the encounter with American transcendentalism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Transcendental Meditation, and process theology. They were invitational, mind-expanding, and open-ended paths, which led me to discover a vision of God as intimate, open-spirited, creation-loving, non-competitive, and creative. I discovered a God who cherished innovation and freedom and encouraged humankind, and all creation, to be free and creative in ways congruent with the well-being of the world.
So, I will not share any “shoulds,” but I will make some confessional comments, first, about my response to the list in 25 Books Every Christian Should Read (from Renovaré) itself, and then about the texts that have transformed my life, all of which still transform my faith journey. Perhaps you will find the texts I list of help in your own theological and spiritual journeys. Here, I do not separate theology and spirituality – our theologies and spiritualities shape one another; what we believe shapes our practices, and our experiences shape our theologies.
First, I found the list both insightful and problematic. I have read virtually all the texts and have profited from my time spent with them either in the classroom or in devotional reading. Of the 25 texts, I have been most influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict, the North African Desert Fathers and Mothers, Julian of Norwich, the Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God, and the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I wrote a text for pastoral spirituality in partnership with my wife Kate Epperly based on the wisdom of Brother Lawrence, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (Alban Institute).
I realize that what I found problematic reflects my own dynamic, relational, earth-oriented, embodied, and global approach to spirituality. The list of 25 books is both traditional and quite “orthodox” and parochial in approach. It focuses, with few exceptions, primarily on people and movements from centuries before our own. I believe in the spirit of the words of the United Church of Christ that “God is Still Speaking” and that revelations and classics are being written as we speak. Being dead is not necessarily a qualification for being the author a classic, and then “how long dead?” While I appreciate Henri Nouwen’s work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, it was published less than twenty years ago. A good many other contemporary texts rival Nouwen’s in depth, breadth, and insight. Further, apart from Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and this was written prior to his life-changing encounter with Buddhism, none of the texts reflects an encounter with the global spirituality of our time.
Second, I would have liked the group to speak about the importance of translations. I was never able to get through The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, The Rule of St. Benedict, The Dark Night of the Soul, and the writings of Mechtild of Magdeburg until I discovered the translations of David Fleming, Norvene Vest, Mirabai Star, and Gabriele Uhlein, respectively. Just as spiritual practices need to be updated for our time, so do the translations of spiritual classics.
Third, the texts in many cases reflect an other-worldly, penitential, sin-redemption spirituality that devaluates the creativity and value of the creature in deference to the sovereign prerogatives of the Creator. This is especially the case in terms of Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, John Calvin, G.K Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. There is a Neoplatonic bias against change and embodiment that runs through the text. There is also a bias toward images of God that exult adjectives such as eternal, unchanging, and sovereign in contrast to temporal, dynamic, and relational. The text needs a good dose of creation and creativity affirmation to encourage agency and innovation in response to global climate change and radical economic inequities.
Location, location, location are good words for spirituality as well as real estate. My spiritual and theological location is within the progressive, emerging, global church. I am committed to individual and global healing, involving body, mind, spirit, and relationships. I find theologies of change preferable to theologies of constancy. I believe that spirituality needs to be embodied, and embodiment needs to be spirit-filled. Put another way, the spirit is embodied, and the body inspired. My faith as a Christian continues to grow, but it has been shaped by my embrace, through the grace of God, of global spiritualities, Celtic spirituality, process theology, quantum physics, holistic healing and the healing ministry of the church, along with the evangelical experience of my youth, open-spirited progressive Pentecostal experiences, and the emerging/emergent church movement.
The books and theological/spiritual movements that have shaped me are a patchwork quilt. I would list my five key texts/movements as:
Gerald May’s The Awakened Heart, a spiritual primer that invites the reader to pause, notice, open, yield and stretch, and respond. Gerald May’s work recognizes the “dark night of the soul” and sees grace and insight emerging in our most challenging moments.
Agnes Sanford’s Healing Light is an invitation to embrace the healings of Jesus as a living reality. Jesus’ healing ministry is alive in our world. Healing need not be seen as mythical or supernatural, but as a reflection of God’s love moving through the intricacy of cause and effect relationships. Touch can transform, whether in the form of liturgical “laying on of hands” or reiki healing touch. Prayer changes things, and our prayers create a space for greater manifestations of divine creativity. God is concerned with our cells as well as our souls.
John Cobb’s Christ in a Pluralistic Age. While theological in approach, Cobb affirms a global Christianity in which Christ is the principle of creative transformation inspiring every healthy path. Christians can grow by encountering Buddhism as well as the sciences, medicine, and art. Cobb charts a truly growing and evolving Christianity that has inspired global, embodied, earth-affirming, and creativity-encouraging spiritualities such as Jay McDaniel’s Living from the Center and Marjorie Suchocki’s In God’s Presence. These theologies and the spiritual practices they encourage take a very different path from one of today’s most popular spiritual texts, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, which sees spiritual formation in terms of discovery and obedience rather than creativity and adventure. If, as Warren asserts, God has already determined the most important events without consulting us and has already chosen our purpose in advance, then creative “coloring outside the lines” is spiritually dangerous and puts our soul at risk. My text Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living sought to challenge this Augustinian-Calvinist approach to spirituality in light of the insights of process theology and its affirmation of creativity and adventure. I believe spirituality involves moving forward, swimming in the whitewaters of divine inspiration and not returning to a primeval and static state of perfection. God wants us to color outside the lines. Like a good parent, God says, “Surprise me with your creativity and agency. Your faithful creativity enables me to explore new ways of being present in your life and the world.” Spirituality is intended to nurture our vocation as God’s partners in healing the earth.
Other process-oriented texts that have deepened my spiritual journey are Alfred North Whitehead’s Religion in the Making, Adventures of Ideas, and Modes of Thought. The parent of process theology and philosophy envisaged a patient God who moved through the world persuasively rather than coercively and who shaped the world in terms of possibilities and imaginative challenges, inviting us to be innovative rather than passive in personal and communal lives. Another process theologian, Bernard Loomer, in his essays on the “size of God,” inspired me to see spiritual growth in terms of stature, that is, how much of reality you can embrace without losing your center, rather than world-denial, exclusion, asceticism, or homogeneity. Faithfulness is more about abundance than scarcity, embrace rather than exclusion, embodiment than asceticism.
The work of Howard Thurman, most especially the Growing Edge, has been pivotal in inspiring a holistic, celebrative, justice-seeking spirituality. An African American pastor and theologian, Thurman sought to bring together global wisdom and interfaith partnership with a concern for social transformation and justice for the marginalized.
Finally, I would include the Wisdom of Non-Christians and Those at the Edges of Christian Faith. Today, lively faith embraces truth and healing wherever it is found. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step grounds our faith in breath prayer and mindfulness and elaborates on John’s description of Jesus encounter with his disciples, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Thich Nhat Hanh represents a growing creative synthesis of East and West that is transforming Buddhist and Christian spiritualities. Jerry Jampolsky’s Love is Letting Go of Fear, inspired by his work with cancer, represents the insight that the edges can become frontiers. Though he stands at the intersection of Christianity and the new age movement, Jampolsky introduced me to the role of the mind – and the use of spiritual affirmations – to transform our lives. He also invited me to embrace the wisdom of holistic spiritualities and complementary medicine in personal transformation. As a result of encountering Jampolsky, I encountered the healings of Jesus and reiki healing touch, both of which have transformed my life and spirituality, and shaped my writings and ministry over the past twenty years. We can choose abundance or scarcity, love or fear, in responding to the challenges of life.
I also go back to the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching as a constant reminder that simplicity, persistence, and open-heartedness enable us and others to find our authentic voices in creativity shaping the world. Finally, I would include the philosopher Plato, whose Timaeus, Philebus, and Phaedrus invited me to imagine creation in terms of visionary persuasion that joined both divine and human creativity. We become like the gods we follow, and Plato saw God as innovative, good, supportive of creative, and persuasive. God’s wisdom is found everywhere and we can learn from the wisdom of non-Christians and Christians alike.
Study is a form of prayer. These texts have enhanced and still enhance my prayer life and spiritual journey as a pastor, writer, theologian, and spiritual guide. Read adventurously, joyfully, and creatively!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty-one books, includingHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Adult Study,and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached for lectures, retreats, and seminars at firstname.lastname@example.org.