Howard Pepper: Uniting Christians to Others...

Howard, I hope you don't mind me reposting some of your ideas here. Your post, "Seven Points to Unite Christians and Other Spiritual People" got me thinking.

Howard introduced seven ideas that he thinks have the ability of "leveling the playing field" so to speak (if I'm interpreting all right) between "believers" and "non-believers" - those labels themselves unhelpful, because there is so much overlap and ambiguity between and within those groups.

A few of this points include:

1. Biblical literalism is a stage of spiritual development that can be transcended with no spiritual or moral loss.

2. Visualized-result prayer, done with feeling and intention, is equally effective regardless of the worldview or theology of the pray-er.

5. The same motivations toward expansion and the same theology could have developed in early Christianity whether or not Jesus actually rose bodily from the dead.

6. Receiving the benefits of any atoning or transfoming work that may have been accomplished by the life or death of Christ does not require acceptance of any particular beliefs, including: 1) disputed history such as his bodily resurrection; 2) abstract theology such as the virgin birth or deity of Christ; 3) future expectations such as a rapture or second coming, Armageddon, or a millennium.

For the full list, click here!

Are these points that, first, most Christians can agree on? And if so, are they helpful in furthering respectful dialogue with non-Christians? One point in an introductory statement stands out to me: "The following are concepts that can be agreed upon by Christians of all but the most literalist or dogmatic type and, if taken seriously, will help unite Christians with many spiritually-oriented people not comfortable in the Christian fold."
I agree that opening our hands to broader understandings and interpretations of Jesus could allow folks burned or jaded by organized/corporate religion to approach the conversation and even the "body" of Christianity. But in my experience, in many - MANY - conservative, evangelical, pentecostal, non-denominational and fundamentalist churches, these are not concepts that would be agreed upon. And while I wish the larger body of Christians in America were more progressive, the Evangelical church does have numeric superiority over everyone else (except, perhaps, Roman Catholics? who have exclusionary ideological issues of their own...). I think the majority of Mainline Protestants could affirm much on this list, but to say "all but the most literalist or dogmatic" seems to suggest a very small number. The number is far from small, and it's the only one that seems to be GROWING in the US, as the Mainline dwindles.

Thoughts? Thanks again for the stimulating thoughts, Howard!


Irritable said...

That's my reaction as well. I want to say, "gosh, this all sounds nice," but -- no offense to Howard -- it seems like a pipe dream.

I think there's a deep truth here, that the this-worldly personal and social "goods" of evangelical belief could obtain even if the metaphysical underpinnings of that belief are not true in the way that evangelicals assume them to be.

What this ignores, and I think your reaction picks up on, is that even if these things do not need to be ontological true, for many (most?) evangelicals they must be earnestly believed to be true.

So, no matter how much literal belief might be a stage of development (which, as much as it seems true in my experience, is nevertheless condescending and normalizes a particular path), if you're at that stage of development this formulation simply doesn't make sense.

Joshua said...

I'm not sure that the theology of the early church would look the same without a resurrection. Considering that the resurrection of the dead was a huge part of early theology.

And, no resurrection would also be problematic for anyone holding a Christus Victor theory of Atonement.

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

I agree with Joshua that anyone holding a Christus Victor theory of Atonement would be unwilling to consider Christianity without the resurrection, if "resurrection" is understood to be the resuscitation of a corpse (see John Shelby Spong and others). But if "resurrection" means signing onto the work begun by Jesus (or rather, the work Jesus was doing)-- namely the restoration of "god's" realm of distributive justice-compassion, then we have something to get excited about. I am deep into the reclaiming of Christian scripture for post-modern, post-Christian, liberal thinkers. I'm glad there are some others asking the same questions.
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Howard Pepper said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful responses Peter, Irritable, Joshua, and Sea Raven. (Irritable, as to "what's in a name?", I presume you realize your handle might cause some to hesitate to challenge you :).)

Peter, yes, I'm quite aware re. likely reactions, and how large are the numbers of "conservatives," whose dogmas are pretty set. I think I assess the situation about the same, having spent 45 years in a great many Evangelical churches and institutions, plus a few "mainline" ones, briefly, before years at Claremont. But I was trying to appeal to all whose belief systems are open, or who question the orthodox formulation of dogma.

Irritable, I get and agree with what you are saying, and it's a valuable contribution to the conversation. And if I (and others) can get some Evangelicals to at least distinguish what is BELIEF from what is certain reality, I consider that a large and helpful step. Conversion and other "peak" experiences (cf. Maslow), with their sense of "knowing," not just believing in, a new reality, we tend to improperly LINK UP with certain beliefs... and that can happen gradually as well as suddenly.
I believe youth can grow up knowing this, and knowing at least some basic theory (not yet fully experienced, but that's true for all of us still alive) about stages of development, the social factors powerfully influencing belief, etc. If they do, beliefs will be taken on at least a bit more carefully and reflectively... a big advance over where we are now.

That also touches a bit on the prob. you rightly raise of sounding condescending... I've puzzled on that long, and will further, and not sure if one can fully circumvent the problem.... People will be most resistant to and reactive about the pull from those just SLIGHTLY "beyond" them, as they are close to the same positions, and likely to have common roots or even know the protagonists. And they fear the loss of what has sustained them so far (tho that fear is irrational), and the uncertainties of what lies ahead, if they should allow further development, plus the social tensions of moving "beyond" one's friends (likely to be perceived as "backward" movement, as in "backsliding," by the friends).

Joshua, I, too, don't think early X'n theology would look the same without resurrection belief and/or some profound encounters at least of the type Paul describes (tho differences with the Acts accounts present some questions as to detail). But branches of Jesus followers, strong in later 1st century into 2nd or 3rd, or beyond, though eventually diminished or disappeared, did not assume or even accept a bodily resurrection, or take it as an affirmation of deity. And they ARE a vital part of early Christian theology, tho they fairly quickly got labeled as "silly myths" or "doctrines of demons," "antichrist," etc. Some of them I'd consider "silly," misguided, etc. myself, but others less so, and also having good scriptural basis, as much as did what eventually became "orthodox."

Sea Raven, I appreciate your comments... I haven't yet gone to your blog, but will... good to know of another person on a similar mission, with substantial education.

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

I look forward to more dialogue.

Irritable said...


Thanks for responding, and so thoughtfully. I'm not really irritable -- it all has to with the Keats quote. So no fear. :)

I think that you're right that the appearance of condescension is difficult to avoid, and I think the fact that you're struggling with and know you will continue to do so is a good sign.

What we can avoid -- and I'm not suggesting you fall prey to this -- is the assumption that we are necessarily in the "higher" stages of whatever development schema we're fond of, or that our particular path is normative.

Wilber, for my money, is horrible about this, whereas Graves (whose work underpins Spiral Dynamics) and Fowler are more clear-eyed about the implications of developmental schemata.

I am encouraged by trends in the evangelical world where people who believe as earnestly (and sometimes as literally) as their fundamentalist counterparts are nevertheless moving from a "fire insurance" conception of the faith to a more holistic conception that impels them to get involved in social justice and ecological concerns. The content of their belief is largely the same, but it manifests differently and I see that as a positive change.

Howard Pepper said...

Thanks for your further comments, Irritable... helpful thoughts.

I read your interesting self-description a couple days ago on your site and was trying to post when my computer crashed, as it's been doing lately... couldn't get it re-going to finish. In fact, I may do this in 2 parts in case it does its "out of the blue" thing again. I understand your apparent need to stay anonymous, but I'm wondering if you may be in the Northwest, or if you can ID the general area where you are. (You also can email me at

I appreciate your ref. to Graves. I know Fowler some but haven't read Graves, and want to... is there a seminal work of his I should not miss, or a Spiral Dynamics author after him? In "Integral Spirituality" Wilber seems to appreciate and respect his work, in a limited way, but gives what seems to be valid criticism... "[he] assumed that his 'value systems' were actually 'levels of existence' into which everything could be plopped (despite the fact that his initial research was conducted on American, white, middle-class college students and consisted in their responses to only one simple question... an overall reductionism that is rather astonishing...." Do you think this is basically fair/vaild or unfair?

Could you elaborate on just what you think Wilber is horrible about re. assuming higher levels? That may be valid, but I recall that he at least makes an attempt to establish some kind of empirical (?) (not sure his term right off) criteria for what is "higher." It does seem to me pretty apparent looking "downward," but naturally questionable when looking "upward." (Our egocentrism almost compels that we view our own position, at least if we're over 30 or so, as "mature," if not superior.)

As to Evangelicals moving away from "fire ins." thinking, I do see that, and am encouraged. What I so far fail to see that is most frustrating and perhaps telling, is any Evangelical scholars I know of, w/ possible exception of NT Wright (Anglican) who I haven't read much of, who really address the key issues at their roots. I mean mainly in NT formation and Christian origins... e.g., the basis for seeing Jesus as fulfilling Hebrew messianic promises/predictions (as well as THEIR alleged "revealed" status, to the limited extent--in my view--they even existed as typically conceived); seeing him having divine attestation as such and/or as god-man, etc. These and related issues, and the nature of earliest Jesus-following, The Way, and then "Christian" belief, are SO filled with problems, relative to traditional views, that have been repeatedly brought out. The attempts to "solve" the problems or show the concerns misguided I find, with a fair amount of exposure and purposeful searching, to be very surface and inadequate... not for lack of sincere effort. Sometimes, as with Bauckham's work on eyewitnesses, there is GREAT detail, but no real substance to support orthodox early tradition and dogma as a unified and revealed (and/or witnessed) truth.

In the face of this, some scholars DO indeed "lose faith" (often in orthodoxy, not necessarily God entirely). But mostly BEFORE their terminal degrees... once credentials are established and one is "on record," whether teaching and/or writing, it is understandably hard to "change horses." But where is the SCHOLARLY pressure from "within" to be more intellectually honest, deeply curious, pursue the historical/social side of Christian origins, etc?

I emphasize scholarly bec. the main "agitators," McLaren, et al, bright as they are, are not in NT scholarship or serious academic theology. Pinnock is "radical," but mainly philosophically, not re. NT scholarship, that I'm aware. McLaren, per both his writing and his answer to a key question I posed to him in a group setting, seems aware of NT scholarship issues, but unwilling to address them head-on. (This I presume is for what are understandable reasons, from his perspective, though unsatisfactory to me.)

More to come... Thanks to whoever is "listening."

Irritable said...

I hope you didn't have that much written before the computer crashed! I'm going to be stubborn and not give away my 10-20, except to say I'm not in the Northwest (though I suspect I would like it).

Graves' notes were edited into a book called The Never-Ending Quest. Based on the book and some conversation with the Spiral Dynamics people, I think Wilber is making too much of the phrase "existence levels," and while I would believe that Graves' sample is as problematic as Wilber suggests, his methodology seems a lot more involved than a single question. While I prefer Graves and Fowler to Wilber, I regard all typologies, esp. developmental ones, with bit of suspicion. They can be very useful, but they can be hopelessly reductionistic. To be honest, I'm not sure Wilber escapes the charges he levels (no pun intended) at Graves.

There are many, many, helpful items in my philosophical knapsack that I would not have without Wilber. For many of us, his work was our first experience with the very idea of an integral perspective. That's cool. Flatland, the pre-trans fallacy, states vs. stages, transcend and include -- all very cool. Situating experience in a developmental context in addition to historical and cultural -- priceless.

Here's my impression, and I'd say maybe it's just me but I know it's not: Wilber's critique of postmodernism is valid, for the most part, but it strikes me as coming from someone who's glad to have found an excuse to avoid having to wrestle with its implications. It's like he took a shortcut. At the heart of postmodernism is a performative contradiction -- whew, glad we got that out of the way. Now we can be integral, baby!

This is completely unfair, because I can't point to anything specific in Wilber that suggests this nor can I clearly articulate what difference I'm looking for. I just don't think Wilber gets the joke. It's like the difference between Hauerwas and Yoder. Yoder is ironic in a way that Hauerwas never quite manages; there's something that Yoder got that Hauerwas has not yet, and I'm not presumptuous enough to claim to know what it is, but there's a difference there. (I could rant for a long time on things that bother me about postmodernism, so no snarkily suggesting that I'm stuck at "green," okay?)

I have difficulty with Wilber's articulation of the upper stages ("third tier") -- I have no doubt that the experiences narrated in this way are available, nor do I take issue with the idea of systematizing them. I also have no particular quarrel with things like "causal" or "subtle" bodies as an heuristic that makes sense of certain kinds of experience. But to read Wilber is to encounter these ideas as things, and that bothers me. There's an element of reification that I'm not comfortable with. It's as though in order to have validity, these experiences have to connect to something "really real" -- more real, even, than mundane experience. As a way of attaching meaning to those experiences, I get that. As for what those experiences connect to -- I'm just not sure.

I have reservations about formless mysticism at the top of Wilber's hierarchy, not because I'd rather something else were at the top but because there's a top. I don't think there's really enough data, and I don't buy Wilber's correlation of contemplative experience with scientific method. A developmental schema is one thing. A developmental schema with an end point is another. It privileges a particular kind of path and makes it normative. It suggests that there is a knowable Ultimate Reality, in this case, formlessness. Buddhism is a rich and beautiful tradition, not without its attendant problems, but nevertheless a life-giving path for many. But Wilber brings, to his otherwise valuable model of understanding, a lot of Buddhist baggage. Tacking states (or stages) of mystical awareness onto the Gravesian developmental model is a little like putting God at the top of the food chain. One can understand the inclination to honor God in this way but it misconstrues both the food chain and God.

Irritable said...

[Part 2]

I can kind of understand your beef with evangelical scholarship, but it looks to me like you're finding fault with conservatives for not being liberals, which seems a little like criticizing the French for not being born in Germany. What I mean is that any evangelical who met the criteria you've laid out would no longer be an evangelical. They would no longer be allowed to join the evangelical reindeer games. McLaren can get away with what he does precisely because he's not a scholar. To face head-on the kinds of questions you're demanding (and believe me, I get it) would be, in that thought-world, a kind of betrayal.

I hope I wasn't too irritable. :)

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Hi Howard --

I jumped into this blog commentary without knowing much about "emerging Christianity" other than Phyllis Tickle's book and MacLaren's book. I am claiming my own ground in the conversation, however, (at Tickle's implied invitation) from a liberal scholarly standpoint, not from the conservative scholarly standpoint. By that I mean, NT Write is a Christian scholar firmly entrenched in traditional orthodoxy. In other words, to my mind, he comes at the historical Jesus scholarship from the point of view of supporting traditional orthodox belief.

I have essentially abandoned orthodox belief, and base my ideas on the Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar work: Borg, Crossan, Funk, et al, but especially Borg and Crossan, along with Spong. Borg is easier for folks still attached to orthodox or tradition because he can speak that "god talk" with integrity. Crossan is much more challenging to traditional thinking.

Because I did jump in without reading much background on MacLaren, etc., I don't discern any kind of hierarchy in terms of "emerging" theology being somehow more valuable or better or more mature or whatever in terms of value.

In other words, if someone is unable to let go of belief in a resuscitated corpse that came back and said things, then took off in the general direction of Antares, promising to come again to judge the quick and the dead ... I don't think the person who believes that is ignorant or of a lower order than I. I just try to look for common ground for dialogue such as "the restoration of god's realm of distributive justice-compassion." So long as one has (in Crossan's words) signed onto Jesus's ongoing program of distributive justice-compassion, we can talk.

As soon as we're talking judgment and substitutionary atonement, along with retributive get-even "justice" we lose commonality, and I'm likely to walk away.

Peter said...

Wow, this discussion has really taken on a life of its own, and I'm enjoying the read! Thank you Howard, Irritable and Sea Raven for the thoughtful posts.

Irritable, you said: "what I mean is that any evangelical who met the criteria you've laid out would no longer be an evangelical. They would no longer be allowed to join the evangelical reindeer games." And this is precisely the thing I'm struggling with. I WANT to be an evangelical without the implied criteria. I'm not even ready to affirm everything Howard has put forward, but I'm certainly not threatened or angered by it. I wish there was room in the Evangelical Church for more vantages like his. And for yours ("out of the closet," so to speak).

Sea Raven, I'm attracted to Borg for the very reason you state: he can still authentically speak the language. It isn't b.s. It's not phony. It's certainly not conservative/orthodox/evangelical or anything else like that. But he can look you straight in the face and tell you he loves God.

Although I don't think Brian McLaren is the "2nd Coming" many Emergents knighted him for, I have always enjoyed his writing, even if it is a little high on fluff and light on research. BUT I think this string has highlighted something I hadn't fully appreciated about him until now: he's able to avoid a lot of the ostracism that guys like Spong and Crossan experience because he's not terribly INTERESTED in the questions they're asking. He may or may not agree with some of it, but by avoiding an academic audience, he doesn't have to go there.

It also demonstrates (I think) that he's more interested in having conversations with real people (via his books) than he is with impressing academia with earth-shattering theses.


Or maybe he's just trying to sell books. Either way.

Howard Pepper said...

Thanks for all the great elaboration, Irritable, and your input, Sea Raven, and your comments, Peter.

It's after freakin' 3 a.m., so I'll force myself to mainly just acknowledge the ongoing conversation, as I just did. It IS indeed stimulating. I especially like the eval. of Wilber by someone who has read him seriously (and apparently longer or further than I have), and takes him seriously, if not as "inerrant!"

I'm up so late partly bec. I didn't want to miss any of Stephen C. Meyer (of ID authorship) on Coast to Coast AM radio until 2 a.m. Pacific... fascinating where ID is going lately. Tho I looked briefly at his site and the Discovery Inst. one, and ascertain he is probably Evangelical of one stripe or another, I also perceive that the ID movement is managing to make (or keep) itself broader than a secularized version of creationism that is often even "young earth." (The height of anti-science in my view.) Hopefully I'll later get back to elaboration on the earlier topics... it's been a wonderful "find" to run into you all.

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