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A Different Kind of Liberal

Allan Bevere posted a link to three posts by Roger Olson, in which Roger successively defined Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Liberal. Now Energion author, United Church of Christ pastor, and theologian, Dr. Bruce G. Epperly, responds to Roger Olson’s definition of Liberal.
A growing number of liberal Christians are rethinking what it means to be liberal. Many of us are choosing to call ourselves “progressive” as testimony to our dynamic, energetic theological naturalistic vision of reality. We don’t see ourselves or our theologies as “shallow, insipid, plastic, and fuzzy,” as Olson suggests. In fact, despite the inherent limitations of every theological vision, theology is important to us – a lively, well-articulated theology that privileges the love of God, the partnership of God and humankind in healing the world, original wholeness rather than original sin, the affirmation of science, interdependence, and spiritual practices that are both heavenly minded and earthly good.
For the most part, we are universalists, but our universalism joins heaven and earth and this world and the next and joins grace and judgment in a realm where “love wins.” What we do matters as we seek God’s vision “on earth as it is in heaven.” God will not rescue us, nor can God violate the laws of nature just to get us out of a jam, personally or institutionally. The world process is such that God cannot stop nuclear warheads originating in either North Korea or the United States.
God needs us to be companions in healing the earth. We don’t wait passively for a long-expected Second Coming nor do we create universally-mistaken time tables of Jesus’ return. God comes to us – and all creation – in every moment, inviting us to choose life for ourselves and our descendants. We look forward to the afterlife, but affirm the holiness of embodiment, the non-human world, and the creative process. To progressive Christians, these this-worldly affirmations are at the heart of historical dynamism of biblical theology.
And, we affirm the spiritual, miraculous, and paranormal without reliance of supernatural interruptions of the predicable patterns of nature! While “old school” liberals may have minimized – even denied – anything spiritually-oriented, such as the healings of Jesus, contemplative practices, or accounts of interactions with angels and demons, our naturalistic theism sees divinity embedded in every moment, joins spirit and flesh, and affirms leaps of energy often identified with the miraculous. In contrast to the three-story universe, still affirmed in much popular theology and its historical antecedents, our world is multi-dimensional and spirit-filled. We can affirm the existence of “higher beings,” both positive and negative in spirit, just as we recognize in everyday life beings less complicated than ourselves. Our faith tells us that although we are created in God’s image, we are not the crown of creation.
Old school liberalism is often accused of being purely horizonal, with no room for dramatic acts of God. While both liberals and progressives see God’s presence as primarily contextual, immanent, and relational, many of us believe that there are also decisive moments – often identified with spiritual and physical healings and mystical experiences. These moments are not “supernatural,” that is, disruptive of the trustworthy patterns of nature, but reflective of the gentle, and sometimes lively providence of an ever-present, always active God, whose power is relational rather than coercive. In certain moments, there is a congruence between God’s graceful aim at wholeness and our openness to divine healing and inspiration. While answers to prayer may be unexpected and surprising, our prayers, or better yet, God’s prayers within us in terms of “sighs too deep for words,” create a field of force in which God’s “working for good” can be fully realized. The healings of Jesus involve life-transforming manifestations of what is present at the depths of creation.
I have tried to articulate a robust, open, well-grounded, and clear theological vision throughout my teaching and writing career. I believe that progressive Christianity, with its vision of naturalistic theism, divine-human partnership, and global interdependence can be a catalyst for personal and social transformation, inviting us to expect great things from God and great things from ourselves as God’s companions in healing and wholeness.
(For more on this progressive vision, I recommend a number of my books – Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision; Healing Marks: Spirituality and Healing in Mark’s Gospel; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus; The Energy of Love: Reiki and Christian Healing; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.)
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