I want to be a Pentecostal too

Marvin offers a review of Allan Anderson’s book on global pentecostalism that really makes me want to read it. The essence of charismatic Christianity, according to Anderson (according to Marvin) isn’t speaking in tongues or some of the other trappings usually associated with pentecostalism, but rather “A shared conviction that the Holy Spirit can and should be experienced immediately and powerfully.”

I’ve often complained that mainline Protestant Christianity lacks an emphasis on “transcendence” or the direct experience of the Spirit. The usual reasons offered are that mainliners have accepted the worldview of modernity, which doesn’t leave much room for direct experience of the supernatural, and are overly focused on social and political change at the expense of experiential religion. There do seem to be some signs of change here. For instance, in The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes about his own mystical experiences and about the importance of spiritual practices and the “thin places” where the Spirit seems to pierce the veil of natural causality. And in his view, this isn’t opposed to, but goes hand-in-hand with, a focus on social justice.

Overall though, it does seem that, for mainliners, direct experience of the Spirit, whether in its more charismatic or mystical forms, isn’t something we’re comfortable talking about, much less encouraging. How would we go about changing that?

(See also my earlier post on Krister Stendahl and speaking in tongues.)

12 thoughts on “I want to be a Pentecostal too

  1. Casper

    I was about half way through an essay on the book and specifically pentecostal identity about 18 months ago but lost steam. It is an ecumenical definition but personally I have concerns regarding whether experience is universal to the extent it is a unifying phenomenon. I may well knock up a post on it off the back of this post.

    Incidentally, the book is a good one and well worth looking at.

  2. I did find the first half difficult b/c Pentecostals are so fractious it’s hard to keep up w/the alphabet soup of churches, denominations and missionary societies. Fortunately there is a two-page list of abbreviations at the beginning to help you keep score at home.

  3. Casper may have really hit it. Talking about a specific experience, if it is not truly universal, really doesn’t encourage experience. It homogenizes it. It may shut out people whose experience doesn’t fit the norm. I think Roman Catholicism may be better at this with all its saints. Most people can probably find someone whose spirituality matches theirs. But is there room in Pentecostal circles for a Thomas Aquinas?

  4. What I’m talking about is incorporating more “experiential” religion (mystical, charismatic, whatever) into the broader stream of ecumenical Christianity rather than upholding a particular type of experience as universal norm. I think many of our churches that may be strong in some areas (social witness, theology, etc.) are weak in that one.

  5. Okay. That makes more sense to me. I still have some questions, though.

    The main one is, is “experiential” a label that gives you a good sense of what kinds of experience are valid? (Or is validity even a good question in your book?) Even if I narrow it down to the mystics, I still find myself making distinctions. Many are engaged in something I suspect is not helpful. (What Luther would term seeking God outside of the Word.) Others (e.g. Julian of Norwich) I find engaged in something that looks more like an illuminated contemplation of things they have found in Scripture. I’m somewhat surprised they share a common label.

    In the Lutheran tradition, I have been intrigued to find that what I was first introduced to by Bonhoeffer, Scriptural meditation (in his book Meditating on the Word), has a long tradition, but has been left so untaught that it can almost look foreign when people run into it. I don’t know if this qualifies as the “direct experience” you mention. Some might call it mediated, since Scripture is the medium. But there is an expectation of being met and illumined now.

  6. Casper

    I certainly agree regarding the need to be more open about spiritual experience, for one thing it is likely to stop a lot of denominational splits. Given so much liberal theology has been predicated on an experiential foundation this aversion is confounding.

    Interestingly i have been exploring Quakerism quite a lot recently and this is a movement birther in ecstatic charismatic “quaking” yet, now often seems to run from any sort of experience or conviction that is not of a still small (and unobstrusive) voice variety.

  7. The point is God happens. And that part of Pentecostalism in which I grew up is right on.

    I don’t think that it is necessarily true that we mainliners are uncomfortable talking about mediated immediate experiences of God whether charismatic or mystical. We account for them differently, in poetry, or hymnody, in service. Note what I pinched from Rahner “mediated immediacy”. Our sacramentality won’t allow for us to ignore that our experiences of God are mediated, whether in sacrament, word, or through our own bodies in encounter.

  8. I appreciate the point about mediation–one that both Rick and Christopher seem to be making in slightly different ways. And I wouldn’t want to simply valorize “experience” as an end in itself. What I have in mind is something like the distinction William James drew between “second-hand” and “first-hand” religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

    “Churches, when once established, live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine.”

    I take it that “direct, personal communion” is the aim of mystical and charismatic forms of religion, and that, in truth, this is the goal that Christianity upholds for all people (even if it’s something that will only be fully realized in the next life).

    That said, I also have a hunch that different people are simply “wired” differently when it comes to religious experience. I for one don’t seem to be particularly prone to vivid religious experiences. But on the other hand, I wonder if that’s just because the appropriate conditions haven’t been present in my life.

  9. There’s a lot of fun stuff to discuss there. James is fascinating. His idea may be behind a sect versus denomination typology we learned in Sociology of Religion. The professor pointed out the Assemblies of God as a body that was quickly moving from the sect camp to the denomination camp. I knew at seminary that this was true when I would see guys from that denomination with their Ante-Nicene Fathers collection in their bookshelves.

    I was wired to have an initial interest in these kinds of things, but I’m also very introspective. I tried speaking in tongues. For several days. Trouble was, I got better at it, and when I paid attention, I saw that I was telling myself to vary the vowels and consonants more. I realized I was teaching myself to fake language-like activity. Then I would go to a gathering where this was practiced and hear someone whose talk was dignified with an “interpretation.” But while he was talking I would think, “I can do better than that myself, and I don’t believe I have the gift.” There were a very few whose language sounded genuine, and I would note that where there had been repetitions of words in the original, there would be similar ones in the interpretation. Well, I can think of cynical possibilities for how that happened. I remain agnostic on the issue. If there is such a genuine gift, I think it’s rarer than it is portrayed in some circles. In any case, I think one thing that is true about wiring is that many have wiring that allows them to be swept up into things like crowd dynamics. This would at the very least make me wary of gatherings that functioned in such a fashion, whatever else I decided to do with experience.

  10. Sam

    I just found and have been reading some of your blog posts.

    I’m a former Pentecostal church pianist who came out of the closet and found a faith home in a very progressive United Church of Christ congregation. I tried just about everything, from Episcopalian to Lutheran to Methodist to Unitarian to Quaker before I found this place.

    My church is a few blocks from a major university and the most progressive mainline church in town so its the extreme other side of the religospiritual spectrum from my Pentecostal background. My real adjustment was to the music but I need this theology so I adjusted and very much like it this way now.

    I didn’t give Pentecostalism, its spirituality and theology another thought until a couple years ago when I started stumbling across books on spirituality. True, mainline Protestants downplay spirituality and I downplayed it, too. Then someone in my church pointed out that I wasn’t so much stumbling across these books as the Holy was laying them across my path.

    Interestingly, I find a lot of spirtuality in this congregation. What I don’t find is proselytizing. They may not talk about it so openly in groups but some of these people are deeply spiritual.

    Granted, I am the only one who occasionally speaks in tongues though nobody knows. Sometimes I hear the pipe organ play, I feel that Pentecostal feeling and I have raise my face and let the tongues speak. At first, the theology freaked me out but I think I understand it now, just not in a Pentecostal way.


  11. Hi Sam:

    Thanks for your comment and for reading. Your second-to-last paragraph echoes something I said on another thread: that perhaps mainliners don’t have a language for talking about spirituality. Certainly they seem to me to be uncomfortable talking about it.

  12. Sam

    Lee, I have read others saying the same thing, maybe Diana Butler Bass, that mainlines seem to lack a language for talking about spirituality. Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel has a great book on the subject. Last year during Lent our congregation featured testimonies during Lent. People were clamoring to offer their testimony.

    As president of our church council I start out our meetings with reading and discussing one of the lectionary readings. Some participate in the discussion more than others but I think we are learning. One of recurring themes (something I have heard in the readings, anyway) has been what has God called us to and how do we hear God’s call?

    Another great book is A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice by Jane Vennard. She suggests asking sisters in brothers in church, “How is your prayer life?” I haven’t tried that yet, but perhaps I should.

    Pentecostals do have a certain passion and complete faith in God. My very progressive, non-theist faith means I don’t experience the Holy intervening in my life and answering my wish list. But, the Holy is working in my life. I hear the Holy speaking to me, not in an audible voice, of course, but I do SENSE the Holy speaking to me, luring me closer and in directions of the Holy Presence.

    Perhaps I should be talking about it more, to encourage others.


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