Paul O. Ingram Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
The older I become the more I have learned, often the hard way, that the editing out of ego is an essential prerequisite for religious experience. Mostly I learned this from my work as an Historian of Religions who now engages in theological reflection. The history of religions shows us that whenever and wherever human beings practice the kinds of lifestyles that restrain greed and selfishness, they experience a sense of transcendence that has been interpreted in different ways throughout history. Often, transcendence is interpreted as a supernatural reality, sometimes as a personality, sometimes as wholly impersonal, sometimes as a dimension that is entirely natural to humanity. However we see “it,” transcendence is a fact of human life on Planet Earth.
This is why Christian theological reflection is—or should be—a species of poetry, which when read quickly or encountered in the hubbub of noise, somehow makes sense. Like the words of a good poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths too good for words, that resist words and conceptualizations. So what makes a religious idea, practice, or theological system valid or invalid? What is the difference between “good” and “bad” theology? The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, or religious experience is this: if our understanding of God makes us kinder, more empathetic, more impelled to express sympathy through concrete acts of loving-kindness, this is good theology. But if our understanding of God makes us unkind, belligerent, cruel and self-righteous, or if it leads people to kill in God’s name, this is bad theology.
What we need is poetic theological reflection, not theological ideology, in all of humanity’s religious Ways because we might die at any moment. And we will certainly die long before any state of perfected existence comes to be realized, if it ever is. Life beyond history—in Christian theological reflection, life with God—is something we should envisage as just about to break in. Every moment of out lives shapes our lives beyond history as it is prehended by God and taken into God’s life in a transformed, redemptive way. Each moment the life of eternity is immediately close to us. In other words, as long as we live, “the kingdom is at hand” and it is each present moment that will be completed in it. This was Saint Paul’s view: what happens in the future of the physical universe happens because God has created each of us, along with all living things, as beings emergent from the physical cosmos. We are the cosmos looking at itself. This is so, according to Charles Birch, because “God animates nature by persuasive love.”
Or as Mary Oliver has it:
Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes? If you say the right words, the wine expands. If you say them with love and felt the ferocity of that love, the fish explode into many. Imagine him, speaking, and don’t worry about what is reality, or what is plain, or what is mysterious. If you were there, it was all those things. If you can imagine it, it is all those things. Eat, drink be happy. Accept the miracle. Accept, too, each spoken word Spoken with love.
 Charles Birch, Science and Soul (Philadelphia: Templeton Press, 2008), ix.
 “Logos,” in Why I Wake Early: New Poems by Mary Oliver (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 40.