To be a progressive Christian involves affirming “God in all things and all things in God.” Progressive theology asserts that we live in a lively, evolving, and visionary universe in which God’s presence touches every moment and every life. Although it is often obscured by our lack of attentiveness and waywardness, all things reflect the divine reality in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) With the Celtic spiritual guides, we progressives are on the alert for “thin places,” environments that join the infinite and finite and the everlasting and temporal. This orientation is captured in the first “point” of progressive Christianity: following the path of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.
Despite its reputation for hyper-rationalism, there is a mystical streak in progressive Christianity. Historically, liberal and progressive Christians have affirmed the continuity of all life and the immanence of God in the world. The continuity of life points, first, to the reality of life’s interconnectedness. We are part of the evolutionary process, finite and incomplete, but brothers and sisters with all life forms. We are star stuff, but we are also companions to dolphins, whales, monkeys, and fireflies. We share in the energy of air, earth, fire, and water, and experience the winds of the spirit blowing through all creation, including our own spiritual lives. Second, the immanence of God in the world points to the holiness of all things. In the ancient story, Jacob awakens from a dream of ladder of angels and calls the place where he stands “Beth-El,” the gate of heaven. Amazed by his sense of the numinous energy of God, he exclaims, “God was in this place, and I did not know it.”
Progressive spirituality invites us to affirm “God is in this place, and we experience God right here.” Our spiritual practices serve as pathways for us to experience the holiness of all life, grounded in the lively omnipresence of God. If God is present everywhere, God is can be experienced by every creature. More than that, God’s presence emerges from the depths of each experience, as the “sighs too deep for words.” (Acts 8:26-27)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asserted that one of the primary characteristics of religion is a sense of “radical amazement.” This amazement is at the heart of progressive Christianity at its best. Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer captures the progressive spirit in her song, “Holy as a Day is Spent.” The song writer experiences the divine in folding laundry, cooking breakfast, encountering a checkout clerk, watching a dog run in her sleep, and observing geese fly overhead. As a writer, I am enthralled by one line:
The empty page
The open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Encountering the holy for Newcomer and for progressives turns us toward, rather than away from the world. Progressive spirituality is this-worldly and embodied. In discovering the holiness in all things, we are inspired to seek the wellbeing of all things. As Newcomer affirms:
Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can.
Progressive spirituality gives birth to a mysticism that is both heavenly minded and earthly good. In perceiving the world as an icon of divine grace, progressives seek to bring out the holiness in all things by acts of affirmation, justice, and service. In a world in which God is immanent, that is, moving in all things, there is no polarization between action and contemplation, or this life and the next.
We are all mystics, or mystics in the making. Our inability to experience God is not a matter of divine abandonment or hiddeness. Even when we turn from God, our turning reflects, albeit dimly, the energy and love that permeate all things. Perhaps no one has captured the foundations of a progressive mysticism better than the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose work undergirds process theology. Whitehead believed that each moment of experience emerged through the interplay of the impact of environment, both intimate and distant, and God’s initial aim, or possibility and energy relevant to that particular moment. In the lively call and response of life, God’s vision is intimate and variable – when we change, God’s vision for us changes; our drawing near to God makes greater divine presence possible. This is the foundation for mysticism and the inspiration for faith practices or spiritual disciplines.
Spiritual disciplines – prayer, meditation, hospitality, worship, service, study, etc. – are ways we become more fully aware of God’s inner movements in our lives and the world. Progressive spiritual disciplines – world-affirming and embodied – enable us to experience God in the midst of our lives and become partners with God in healing the world. This is the heart of progressive mysticism.
This is the first of two essays on progressive mysticism; the second essay will focus on mysticism and healing. Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church to be released in January. But, above all, he seeks to share good news in ways that transform lives and heal the planet. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.