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Archive for the ‘Emergence Movement’ Category

Tucson, Arizona is about an eight hour drive from my home in southern California, but the long weekend of the Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the time to make the trek. While visiting good friends there, I had the pleasure of attending St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist church on Sunday. David Wilkinson is the pastor there, and we share a love of process theology though he was a student of John Cobb long before I became aware of Claremont and process thought.

Pastor David drew his sermon from the New Testament story of Paul addressing a gathering  – including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – in the Areapagus where he claims that the “unknown god” Athenians honored was the same as the creator God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:16-28). One of the main points David made in his commentary was that the term “God” was better understood as a verb than as a noun, and that the God who could never be fully known would not be pinned down or boxed in but must be followed into an unknown future.

In their book Tending to the Holy, Bruce and Katherine Epperly write that by “invoking Stoic philosophy to undergird the life-changing wisdom of Christ’s message and resurrection, Paul affirms that divine revelation is universal despite its variability from culture to culture. Paul recognizes that God is truly present in the pluralistic theological and spiritual environment of the Areopagus.” (25) In this text on preaching and teaching, the Epperlys assert the need for public ministries to affirm the “ever-present, dynamic, and intimate reality” of divine inspiration. (24) Oddly enough, such an awareness of divine presence seems hardly to be spoken of in many churches today where politics and sexual morality take precedence.  

Back home here in California, you can find me most afternoons at one of the local dog parks with Cotton, and today we met a woman with an Australian Shepherd named Benji (we humans never learn each other’s’ names!) After sharing where I was attending school, our conversation quickly moved to a deeper level, and Benji’s “mom” told me she was a “recovering Catholic” who had little patience for a church who saw women and other faiths as “less than.” She described herself as “spiritual” and as someone hungry for a community of faith, but she wondered what the church could offer to skeptical people who reject exclusivist and misogynistic doctrine.

The Epperlys describe the responsibilities of a Christian pastor in this way:

To share the gospel so that congregants may experience the fullness of God in their lives, discover the life-transforming presence of Christ, discern the guidance of the Spirit, find comfort in times of uncertainty and pain, and commit themselves to becoming God’s companions in the quest for shalom in their local and global communities. (28)

I think if more churches did just this, we wouldn’t be bleeding out membership and headed toward irrelevancy.

 

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Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Mark 1:9 (NRSV)

Some years back, I was teaching an adult education class at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marietta, GA, and the topic was healing. I’d become interested in healing and healing ministries while exploring the mind-body-spirit connection and aspects of alternative medicine. Early in the class, I wanted to show the biblical basis for our study, and pointed the people gathered there to many scriptural texts that touched on healing. One of these texts described how Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs with these instructions:

 

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment…
Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

After I read this passage, one of the men in the class interrupted me, saying “Wait a minute. There was ‘good news’ before Jesus’ death and resurrection?” We all had to stop and think about that question for quite a few minutes. We had all been raised on the Gospels, we knew the stories, we knew that the core of Christianity as it’s always been taught is Jesus’ death and resurrection. So how could there have been “good news” before these events even happened?

It is clear in both of the passages above that Jesus believed there was good news to share – right then and right there – seemingly unrelated to whatever might occur in the future.

What if the “good news” of Jesus has nothing to do with what happens to you after you die?

What if the “good news” of God is more about your present life than it is about your after life?

In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Dr. Bruce Epperly gives us the process perspective:

Process theology asserts that God’s aim for the universe and human life is toward beauty and complexity of experience and, as Bernard Loomer would assert, greater stature in our embrace and transformation of diversity, novelty, suffering, and beauty…I believe that process theology embraces Jesus’ sense of vocation…Living out his vocation as God’s beloved messenger, fully open to God’s wisdom and power in his life, Jesus saw teaching, healing, and transforming at the heart of his mission. Although deeply rooted in the Jewish faith of his parents, Jesus nevertheless challenged his tradition to reflect God’s all-embracing realm of Shalom, that included oppressed and oppressor, outcast and righteous, and foreigner and neighbor. Jesus’ message and mission, process theologians assert, was not supernaturally-oriented toward life beyond the grave, but a call to embody God’s vision for this life and this world. [italics mine] (p. 70-71)

If we ask, with John Cobb, “Can Christ become good news again?”, I believe the answer is yes, but only if we share the real good news with our neighbors.

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My transistor AM radio in 1970 was always tuned to WABC where I especially loved hearing Cousin Brucie. I’d carry it with me as I walked back and forth to Grace Wilday School in Roselle, NJ, the first community to be lit by electric lights and overhead wires in 1883. One of my favorite songs of that era was “Spirit in the Sky,”

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best.
(© 1969 Norman Greenbaum)

At the time, I thought it was quite cool for a pop song to mention Jesus and I still think it’s a really catchy song. But I no longer believe in the Spirit in the Sky.

That is, I no longer believe in a Spirit that’s just in the sky.

I believe that God’s Spirit is present everywhere, in everything, and in every being, human and non-human.

Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, where I am a doctoral student, recently hosted an event featuring Brian McLaren as one of the speakers. McLaren serves on our Board and is a known figure in the emerging church. His books include A New Kind of Christianity and his most recent, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? During the presentation, he told us a very compelling story.

Seems an economist friend and McLaren were discussing our current environmental crisis and what might be done about it. The economist had written that he believes we have been operating under two narratives in the U.S., both of which are “ecologically devastating”:

  • The first is the story of the “Grand Machine” that undergirds naturalistic science. In this story, the world and all of its non-human components are just machines or machine parts that have only instrumental value, and no intrinsic value or subjectivity of their own. According to the economist, this story is “bankrupt” and “cannot catalyze human energy” for addressing our very present crisis.
  • The second is the story of the “Distant Patriarch” that undergirds Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In this story, there is “a dangerous and threatening divine being” and all of our human energy must be focused on appeasing this being. This story also has little power to mobilize us to take action even while the crisis worsens before our eyes.

What’s needed now, said the economist to McLaren, is a new narrative, the story of the “Integral Spirit.” This story says [in as close a paraphrase as I can offer],

The world is not just math and physics. There is a Spirit here that is involved in the processes of the universe, a present Spirit working within the universe that can help us deal with our problems. Everything has value and is a manifestation of this Spirit, and we’re all connected. Only this story can offer hope and has the power to heal, but this story – embraced by many – has no institutional home.

No institutional home. Is the Church listening?

This story of the “Integral Spirit” has been told by process theology for decades. As Bruce Epperly has written in Emerging Process,

In contrast to Enlightenment deism and conservative supernaturalism, both of which are grounded in the belief that God operates from “outside” the world, intruding occasionally in ways that subvert nature’s regularity, process theology affirms that God’s Spirit moves within all things, inviting us and them to be ‘more’ than they or we can imagine…Imagine a spirit-filled world! Imagine God’s spirit, breathing in and through all things, giving them life, energy, chi, ki, prana, ruach, and inviting them to evolve toward the wholeness in God’s realm of shalom, beauty, and love. (p. 88-89, 91)

Imagine how much could change if we embraced this story, if we really believed that God’s wondrous, grace-giving, enlivening Spirit was right here, right now. I think even Norman Greenbaum could tap his toes to that tune.

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I’d spent half that day in 1995 holding on to my hat as the open-air truck bounced us around Canyon de Chelly, a most beautiful National Monument in Arizona. Under expansive and gorgeous azure blue skies, we saw cliff dwellings perched precariously in the red-brown canyon walls, examined pictographs sketched centuries earlier, drove through occasional groves of green cottonwood trees, and passed homesteads of Native Americans who farmed in that rugged landscape. When the “shake and bake” truck tour ended, I decided to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon from one of the overlooks at the rim.

I drove my rented car into the lot of the first overlook I came to, noticing that there were no other cars and no other people. I walked out and sat on a rock hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, watching the now-ant-sized truck tours below and listened to the hawks and the gentle breeze.  It had been an interesting vacation where I traveled alone, flying from Atlanta to Albuquerque, renting a car, and driving about a thousand miles to see a good bit of the American Southwest. This canyon was my last stop before getting back on the plane the next day.

As I sat on that rock, in what the Celts would have called a “thin place,” my awareness and sensory experience suddenly underwent a dramatic shift. My consciousness expanded and I could fully feel in every cell of my body this one truth: I was an infinitesimally small speck of dust in the universe. And I was connected to everything. I would say that the rest of my life since that moment has been an attempt to integrate that one truth. That moment – one that could be called “mystical” – revealed the Holy for me. It was certainly a “big” picture view.

Last week, I wrote about meeting God in a hummingbird, probably one of the smaller of the earth’s creatures. So the Holy can be revealed just as clearly in the “small” picture view as well. But isn’t it all too easy to miss God in those small moments?

As a scholar of process theology, I am most drawn to this school of thought because of the way in which it presents God as being very much in this world, not just transcending it. In “emerging process spirituality”, writes Bruce Epperly, “God is present as a source of guidance and inspiration in every moment of experience and in every encounter. According to process theology, all things and every moment reveal the holy.” (p. 132, Emerging Process) He writes,

Revelation is not other-worldly, nor does it draw us away from our concrete experience of God’s wholeness/holiness in the here and now of historic, relational, and embodied experiences. Encountering God calls us to love God in this concrete, ever-emerging world, rather than deferring issues of justice, peace, and self-realization to a disembodied afterlife.

Might God be revealed in our day-to-day encounters with friends? In our workplace? In our dogs, cats, and the wild things out back? In our battles with depression? In the crying infant a few rows up in the airplane? In our night time dreams and the meaningful coincidences or synchronicities that give us pause? Where do you meet the Holy?

 

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I found my outer home when I was 46 years old, but even before that, I’d found my spiritual home.  This week, I’m fortunate to be able to reconnect with both while here at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, NC to attend the annual Haden Institute Summer Dream Conference.

Kanuga Conference Center, Hendersonville, NC

I moved to the metro Atlanta area shortly after I graduated from college and lived there for 25 years before I ran away to the mountains in 2006 to experience life in a small, rural community that I’d loved visiting for many years. Despite having been born and raised in NJ, I knew as soon as I found the 100-year old farmhouse for rent that I’d come home. The house was surrounded by eight acres of gorgeous land with pastures, woods, a creek, a lake, and a completely picturesque barn up on the hill. Though its perfection was marred slightly by its close proximity to a busy road, I grew to love that house and believed with all my heart that it loved me too.

It wasn’t just the house, but rather the whole region that spoke deeply to me. The landscape itself felt sacred and my soul settled in there in a way it had never settled before. Spaces seemed to open up inside of me that breathed freer and sighed more deeply than was true in any other place in the world that I’d set foot.  Western NC is a landscape cut from the same topography – tapping into the roots of the Blue Ridge Mountains – and so it feels much like home as well.

I’ve been living in southern CA since last July, and though it’s a good place to be, and I know it is the right place for me to be right now, it’s not the place my soul likes to put its feet up and kick back with its eyes closed. It’s not the place where I feel most rooted.

The joyful icing on the cake is that I am here this week in NC to join with about two hundred or more seekers to talk about our dreams and our relationship with the Sacred. The people who come to this gathering know or at least suspect that there’s more to those night visions than the looking-glass-world flotsam and jetsam that appears at first glance. Those of us who’ve been turning over dreams and synchronicities like archeological treasures for a long time know that there are deep veins of wisdom and grace running through them if we’ll only take the time to look.

At a time in my life when I wasn’t sure I could even remain a Christian because I’d become so disgusted with the public expressions of the fundamentalist and politically power-hungry religion that was masquerading as Christianity, a friend brought me a different kind of archeological treasure – a book by Joyce Rockwood Hudson called Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity. In this book, Joyce showed me how the Jungian psychology that I’d felt so resonant with could be integrated with my Christian tradition in a way that brought life to it again. I knew I’d found my spiritual home.

I’m here at Kanuga until Friday, and my plan is to take as long and deep a drink from this Living Water as I can possibly manage, and to take as many long, loving looks as possible at those mountains before I leave here; at least enough to last me until next year.

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Earlier this morning, I moderated a session at the National Student Conference at Claremont Lincoln University, where I’m a PhD student in process theology/philosophy. The theme of the session was Religion & Politics, and three students talked about the Occupy movement; Kafka, Marx, and economics; and native Hawaiian land rights.

A post-session discussion sparked some thoughts about what I think is troubling America.

The threads I want to weave together on this include comments Phyllis Tickle made in a recent address to Claremont about the “Great Emergence,” as well as an article I read online that made a good case for the argument that all this fighting about access to birth control coverage was really just a fight about sex. So let me see if I can bring this all together in a way that makes sense.

When I read the article about sex (and I really wish I’d kept the link), the author talked about how birth control loosened the power grip that men had over women and their bodies and who they had sex with, and how all this hoopla about health care coverage of birth control was all a struggle to keep women disempowered. I think there’s a lot of truth to that – as there’s been a long history of men controlling their daughters and their wives in this way in centuries of patriarchy. But I think the problem is deeper than that, and it’s one we’ve not been willing to face in the U.S.

I think it’s about the fact that everywhere we look, the foundations of life as we once knew it are crumbling and people are overwhelmed and very frightened deep down. There’s a lot of talk in religious circles these days about the “emergent church” but Phyllis Tickle thinks it’s not just the traditional structures of organized religion that are crumbling but that we are currently going through an epochal upheaval of the kind that seems to happen every 500 years or so.

Here are just a few of the foundations that have been crumbling around us (from a non-historian’s perspective):

Gender roles – women entering the work force during WWII, the feminist movement, and access to birth control have certainly played a part, and men, who were used to being the locus of power in the marriage, in the family, in the workplace, and in their communities are being asked to learn a different way of being (as are women).

Family relationships – this goes back even farther, to the start of the Industrial Revolution when people became much more mobile in order to follow the jobs and extended families no longer stayed near to each other. Moreover, whereas people who farmed or crafted things used to own their own means of production, industrial capitalism meant that the means of production became concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists and the laborers traded their labor for cash, losing more and more control over their economics but gaining what they thought was security. And for a while that was true, but that security has proved to be elusive, and workers now have less and less cash for their efforts while the capitalists take all the flow of profit that is earned by their workers’ increases in productivity.

Faith in an absolute, transcendent and powerful God – the Enlightenment and the rise of science tore assumptions about the existence of God right out from under us, and the predominance of scientific materialism – along with the horrendous genocide of WWII and the Holocaust – caused philosophers to proclaim the “death of God.” We’ve lost this access to the sacred – both in an outer way and in the inner way of soul – which is something humans cannot live without, and so we try to substitute sex, drugs, rock and roll, and other transient things that don’t deliver any lasting sense of meaning to life.

The illusion that we have control over anything – though humans have never really been in control, we’ve always thought we were, but economic collapse, the perception of increasing violence, constant war, unemployment, and a host of other chaotic realities have shaken us to the core.

Neither our religious leaders nor our political leaders seem to have a clue about the degree to which people feel shaken and crushed by the ever-increasing upheavals and changes that predominate. Though maybe it’s long overdue for those who’ve always been the recipients of status and privilege (white people in America) to experience their own dose of disempowerment, it’s still traumatic.

And so – I think – when we hear people yell “Let him die!” regarding lack of healthcare, or when people seem to care less and less about the poor, or about racism, or about sexism, or about homophobia, or about indigenous rights, or about the environment, or about the myriad of other looming problems that we face, and run for the hills into the safety of “Dancing with the Stars,” I think these are just symptoms that point to a much deeper loss of soul and a loss of center that has us feeling like we’re in the perpetual “spin cycle.”

I will write more about this as time goes on, but let me just say for starters that I think the only way we’ll survive this upheaval is for us to change the way we view embodied life on planet Earth. We must be willing to let go of the idea that there are bedrock and eternal doctrines and structures from which we must never deviate, and instead understand that life is inherently chaotic and riddled with change and that the only way to survive is to learn to ride the waves. We must learn how to release the anchors that were never really securing us anyway, and learn how to open to the flow of Life that comes to us every day with a mixture of novelty and order, beauty and terror, but which is girded underneath all surface appearances by the power and energy of Grace.

I welcome your thoughts; let’s have a conversation.

 

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