Finding God everywhere: Pastor Peter Stilla of the First Congregational Church in Hadley pens new book about Christian Universalism

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 02-23-2024 1:50 PM

Peter Stilla of Deerfield has had multiple careers. For much of his life, he was a journalist. This work included stints doing editorial work at the Greenfield Recorder and its sister paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

In 2000, he decided to attend Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. He received a master’s degree in theological studies and was eventually ordained as a Christian Universalist minister. He currently serves as pastor at the First Congregational Church in Hadley.

When he took the job, he told me in a recent interview, he was upfront in informing the membership in Hadley that he was not a Congregational minister. He maintains, however, that Christian Universalism is compatible with most American Christian denominations.

That compatibility and much more form the basis of his new book, “Naturally Miraculous: The Way of God as All” (Wipf and Stock).

The book is the result of years of reading and contemplation in theology, spirituality and philosophy. It took him about two years to write, Stilla explained.

“I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader of spiritual and religious literature. Over a couple of years ago, I had just finished a book by Richard Rohr, ‘The Universal Christ.’ After reading this, I thought, ‘You know what, I think I’m ready to write something of my own.’

“I kind of formulated in my mind a lot of the things that I’d learned and read over the years and conceived of what I’ve called a holistic spirituality and a new way of being Christian that is based in Christian Universalism.”

He noted that he hopes that the book will appeal to an academic theological audience and to general readers as well.

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“Maybe also [to] Christians wondering what might lie slightly outside their vision of Christian orthodoxy and what might be the future of Christianity in the 21st century,” he added. “I’m hopefully casting a very large net.”

The book outlines many of the characteristics of Christian Universalism, including panentheism, the idea that God is literally everywhere and can frequently be found in nature.

Stilla stretches it further with a sub-denomination of Christian Universalism he calls Mystical Christian Universalism. This system uses techniques such as meditation to bypass the ego and make contact with God through the mind and spirit.

“Its basic principle is that God is not separate from creation in any way,” he elucidated. “It’s not as if God is over here, and creation is over there. The physical part of the universe is what God is … Because of that, people can reach mystical understanding through contemplation of the physical world.”

Scilla told me that Universalism is an ancient religion. “The church before the rise of Roman Catholicism was a Universalist faith,” he stated. “Roman Catholicism came to be, and they just kind of took over. It’s been the same old story for 1,600-odd years.”

He explained that the American Universalist church was formed around the time of the American Revolution and thrived into the 19th century. It was bypassed in popularity by denominations that looked for God less in self and nature and more in church doctrine, but it has experienced a resurgence in the last 20 years or so.

He clearly hopes that Christian Universalism and its mystical side will soon come to dominate the American Christian landscape.

“There are church services taking place everywhere in America that have a connection with Christian Universalism. I believe that there is nothing in my vision for the church that most Christians would be uncomfortable with at all,” he said.

“I think it fits very well with the basic American Christian framework that people have come to understand throughout history.”

His faith certainly seems to fit in with the church in Hadley. He came to the job almost by accident, he recalled.

“My wife applied for the Christian Education director position there. This was last spring. During the interview, the church mentioned that the minister there had recently resigned, and they were looking for a minister.”

After delivering a few sermons from the church’s pulpit in the spring, he was brought in to preach on a regular basis. He now preaches every Sunday and recently signed a one-year contract as pastor.

“So far so good,” he said with a smile. “It feels like my church home now.”

“Naturally Miraculous” is available from online booksellers and by special order from local bookstores.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning cookbook author and singer known as the Diva of Deliciousness. Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.