Looking for the Spirit

I grew up in a very rationalistic faith tradition. For most of its history, the Churches of Christ have endorsed a Word-only pneumatology (Note: pneumatology is your doctrine of the Holy Spirit). That is, I was taught that the Holy Spirit only worked through the Bible. The assumption I grew up with was this:

Bible = The Holy Spirit
The bible is "the sword of the Spirit." Thus, if you wanted to be directed, prompted, or guided by the Spirit you simply studied the bible.

Of course, this equivalency between the bible and the Spirit was deeply problematic. First, and most worrisome, it borders on idolatry. Well, it is idolatry. The bible was treated as a part of the Godhead, a part of the Trinity. We, as a church, were worshiping the bible as if it were God.

A second problem was that this belief privileged rationalism. Knowing the bible, in and out, was the mark of being a "spiritual" or "mature" Christian. Being "filled with the Holy Spirit" meant knowing the bible really, really well. Head knowledge was privileged over the body and the heart.

And, truth be told, I thrived in this environment. I'm a thinker. I live in my head. Too much so. So this rationalism suited me. And I still love it. Good preaching is important to me. And I want bible classes to be deep and connected to the biblical text.

But during college I started to worry about the rationalism of my tradition and of my faith. It began to feel like I was reducing God to a multiple choice question. That my relationship with God (and my eternal destiny!) hinged upon me bubbling in Answer C rather than Answer B on a doctrinal test. That faith meant endorsing certain propositions.

So I made a move to emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy. As James 2.24 says: "a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone." Or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: "If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing...And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Love, I concluded, is what would save me. Not doctrine.

And yet, this shift toward orthopraxy hasn't, as of yet, helped correct the impoverished pneumatology of my youth. That is, my sense of "right practice" is still pretty rationalistic and moralistic. Thus, I have a very good sense of what it means to be a "good person" but I still don't think I know what it means to be "Spirit-led" or "Spirit-filled." And, due to my rationalistic tendencies, I tend to find a lot of the charismatic experience to be prone to excess, irrational, and triumphalistic. Enthusiastic in the worst sense of the word.

But then again, I don't know what I'm talking about. I've never been exposed to the best of the charismatic and Pentecostal traditions. In fact, as a member of the Churches of Christ I've been suspicious of them my whole life. So who am I to judge these expressions of faith?

Why am I telling you all this? Well, as you know, I've started working with a bible study at a local prison. And I've discovered that this community has a more charismatic feel than what I'm used to. To be clear, no one is dancing in the aisles or speaking in tongues. But there is a lot more "Yes Lord!" and "Thank you Jesus!" And more talk about the Spirit being active and moving.

Now, in theory I don't have a problem with any of this. In fact, my suspicion is that oppressed and marginalized communities will tend to gravitate toward a Pentecostal experience. And that in itself is interesting to me. So I want to honor and learn from this experience. Why do the charisms manifest like this in marginalized communities?

And yet, due to my upbringing, I'm finding it hard to turn off the rationalistic switch in my head.

However, I'm slowly finding myself to be more open, intellectually speaking, to this new way of being with God (spiritually speaking, the jury is still out). A part of this is due to finding this lecture by Dr. James Smith from Calvin College to The Society of Vineyard Scholars. The title of the talk is "The Spirit of Knowledge: Outline of a Charismatic Epistemology." A part of what Dr. Smith does in the talk is to suggest that Pentecostalism shares in the post-modern critique of the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment project. Specifically, Dr. Smith argues that the use of the body and the emotions within Pentecostalism are their own "ways of knowing" which express truths that cannot be captured by reason or intellect. In a similar way, we can think of prayer and liturgy as unique ways of knowing, distinct grammars that allow us to express truths about God, truths that cannot be captured by or reduced to rationalistic discourse.

I find this whole line of argument very interesting. Particularly given that I'm beginning to participate in a more "Spirit-filled" community. At the very least, it makes me want to take one of Dr. Smith's classes.

SVS 2011 Plenary #3: James K. A. Smith from Society of Vineyard Scholars on Vimeo.

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37 thoughts on “Looking for the Spirit”

  1. I am a very emotional person, but I've come to adopt the following attitude despite (or because) of this: emotions should be welcomed and experienced fully, but then bottled, labeled, and shelved for further examination later. I thought I had struck a nice middle ground, but realized it was only emotion in the cage, not reason.

  2. I am going to suggest that you will find what you seek, not mainly among the Pentecostalists, but among the Eastern Orthodox. (disclaimer: I'm not one myself.)

  3. I'm a personal friend of Jamie Smith and a long time reader of your blog. So I was tickled by your mention of him. It's funny, because I always thought Jamie could use a little dose of Richard Beck!

  4. I can very much identify with what you are saying here Richard. I have a similar background to yourself and share a similar liking for Jamie Smith's lecture (and his books) which I have been following recently. From my intellectual perspective and a safe enough distance I appreciate charismatics

  5. "I've never been exposed to the best of the charismatic and Pentecostal traditions."

    I wonder why you assume that there is even a best that you need to be exposed to - has someone who spent most of their formative years in charismatic circle, I'm not sure there is a centre that holds in this way.

    I have no doubt that interesting philosophical arguments can be put in place for Pentecostalism, however the actual practice of such things is quite far from these sorts of philosophical justifications. Furthermore, such arguments don't really deal with the observation that most behaviour described as Pentecostal is reproducible in similar socio-religious settings throughout the world - though the die hard Pentecostal has a ready explanation, everything outside Pentecostalism is of the devil!

  6. I identify pretty closely with your very rationalistic upbringing, which is actually one of the reasons why I began to diverge in my own soteriology from that of my church. Why, I wondered, would a good and loving God only save the few people who seemed to be wired for rationalizing and happened to be born into an environment that could cultivate and encourage that? It seemed a pretty heady arrogance. What kind of God wasn't available to peasant farmers and down syndrome babies? Besides, didn't Jesus say the Kingdom of Heaven was comprised of children?

    On the other hand, I've been to a number of charismatic churches, and while some of the people were kind and wonderful on an individual basis (witness: my grandma), as institutions I found them universally manipulative, appealing to emotions, to the exclusion of all else.

    I also went to a number of hip churches, where the focus seemed to be on saying "Jesus Loves You," and wearing cool t-shirts and designer jeans.

    All of this lead me to develop the idea that all churches were screwed, and the only thing that differentiated them was which part of the god-head they were going to privilege to the exclusion of the others. I came to see churches as mystery-killing machines, power-structures designed to try to cram God into a box.

    I know (hope) there are exceptions out there. But around here, mostly, I've given up.

  7. in the spirit of being aware in ways other than through words:


    if the link doesn't open- rob bell's breathe (nooma)

  8. I guess I just assume there's a good side to everything. Another piece of this is my interest in William James' The Varieties of Religious experience and well as Luke Timothy Johnson's Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity and Philip Jenkin's The Next Christendom. The prior two books make me interested in religious experience as a "way of knowing" and the last book suggests, in light of global trends, that charismatic Christianity is growing to be worldwide force. So I'd like to get out in front of that to see what the deal is.

  9. if ya didn't know better i tell ya it your skewing of the course as i am although
    your to young
    dang boy....

  10. I think Philip Jenkin's thesis needs to be qualified a little - there's a difference between churches which are charismatic by conviction, and those that are charismatic by biography.

    [I'm a Christian from the global South - I'm not necessarily convinced that 'Orthodox' Christianity is all that Western-centric, nor that the expressions of Christianity seen in the South necessarily bring along insights that have hitherto been absent from the church at large].

  11. I like the way Smith fleshes out and gives an epistemological backbone to Macdonald's assertion that it is what we 'know' deep down to be true about God that should eclipse what we 'believe' about God, and that we are accountable for our response to the former rather than the latter.

  12. I've taught my kids that emotions are like a thermometer: they read the conditions of the moment on your emotional skin. A thermometer has a useful purpose. But it's not a compass, and should never be mistaken for one.

  13. I too, have tended toward the more rational. Looking back, I'm a bit grateful for that as it also helped develop some critical thinking skills with which to examine head on, the fundamentalism of my youth. At present, I'm identifying with a more Spirit led movement, but through the avenue which Richard Rohr is presenting.

    My interaction with Pentecostalism has not been that positive. From interacting with a group who used their "gift of tongues" as evidence that their denial of Jesus' divinity was accurate..."We couldn't do this if we were wrong." -TO- Those insisting we must pray in tongues or the devil will hear and understand our prayers. For these, the devil is everywhere.

    The above strikes me as going backward toward superstition.

  14. I can relate to this a lot. Ironically, 80% of my church life was spent in a famous charasmatic system. Reason/analysis was peceived as not trusting God or not submitting oneself to the Spirit. I participated in a Christian rock band where the leader spoke/prayed in tongues all the time, one time letting himself go publicly during a concert ... man. I ernestly participated in an invitation to receive the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" - nothing seemed to change with regard to my character or "power" ... probably my fault. Finally, I met my wife in this "non-denominational" denomination (both of us participating in music ministry). At one time we complimented one another greatly (she being very Spirit driven and myself being Biblically/doctrinally driven). However my dabling with universalism has blown us worlds apart with regard to our respective "faith" ... and marriage.

    Eventally, I got fed up with people who would claim to experience God supernaturally, yet conduct themselves in a very arrogant, coveteous and judgmental manner - how does the Holy Spirit fit into that? Finally in the midst of a small Bible study, the discussion on the gifts of the Spirit, seemed to run out of control. I asked a rhetorical question - "What about the FRUIT of the Spirit? Shouldn't EVERY Christian (albiet a constant work in progress) manifest just a little fruit - why can't we prioritize that instead? The gifts aren't meant to be a toy of self-indulgence - aren't the gifts designed to edify the body? I'd like to meet a person who has the gift of mercy". Everybody became awkwardly quiet and ... well I made an ass of myself.

    I admit to having an obvious bias (and perhaps bitterness if I'm really honest) against the Charasmatic approach - therefore I must step back and also say there are many wonderful people in charasmatic fellowships who really mean to please God and follow Christ.

    Gary Y.

  15. My experiences with charasmatics has not been positive. They come across to me as people who have been swindled and manipulated, and have incorporated that manipulativeness into their own ways of being.

  16. What you've hit on with this post is something I've been thinking about for a long time. Looking back over my experience growing up in the CofC and now understanding the rationalism that was applied to the Scripture, it now seems like they were using human means to accomplish a divine end (human effort > godliness). But that exists well within the framework of Bible = Holy Spirit doesn't it? It now seems to me you may have hit on a much more significant concern with Stone-Campbell theology. It doesn't leave a whole lot of room for the Holy Spirit. But then again, rationalism doesn't leave a lot of room for mystery.

  17. I grew up 4th generation Assemblies of God (Pentecostal). My brother and uncle are Pentecostal pastors, my sister for awhile Pentecostal missionary. My mom is a worship leader at a Pentecostal church. I went to an Assemblies of God Bible college and did children and youth pastoring at an Assembly of God church for 3 years.

    I gradually and respectfully started to distance myself from that because it didn't fit me as much as I wanted and became somewhat of a black sheep.

    While Pentecostals/Charasmatics are all over the intellectual spectrum, my background comes from a fairly anti-intellectual mindset. Things like seminary = cemetary, asking questions = bad faith, and extrabiblical knowlege could = deception were commonplace. While it was a little problematic for me growing up, I did see some elements of good in it. I compare them to the blind man who was healed in John. My church was like a bunch of really amped up, recently healed blind men that jumped up and down saying, "I have no idea how my faith works. All I know is that I once was blind, but now I see." Maybe that's enough for some people. I'm not sure. It attracts well people of the same mindset, but I saw a lot of people sitting in the pews of Pentecostal churches that needed to be elsewhere. Sadly, leaving a Pentecostal church for something a little more orthodox was about as bad as denouncing Christ - at least at my church it was.

  18. Hello Joshua - I've checked out your website and I am really enjoying and appreciating your takes.

    Gary Y.

  19. Wow Gary thanks! I appreciate it. I don't get a terrible amount of viewership so I always appreciate feedback. I'm but a padawan, espeically compared to cats like Dr. Beck.

  20. Although I was raised Roman Catholic, in college I was baptized through the ministry of independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Still, I didn't encounter this "Word only" pneumatology until I was at Harding University, and even there the professors opposed it. It's a very strange idea, given that it at least implies one can have "more Spirit" through reading/memorizing more of the written Word. And, of course, as you mentioned in your post it elevates the Bible to a Person of the Godhead.

    Even still, I also find myself wrestling with rationalist skepticism regarding spiritual manifestations. While I certainly don't think ALL expressions are truly the Spirit's doing, does that mean NONE of them are?

    Two quick stories:

    Once in Arkansas I attended a fifth Sunday rally at a Christian Church. After a lackluster series of old hymns, a gentleman got up and enthusiastically said "couldn't you just feel the Spirit move?!" I thought, "no, not really."

    In Brazil I did an mission internship with a few of the Pentecostal Churches of Christ there. I didn't know when I went that they were Pentecostal, and later discovered that the movement of churches of Christ has three distinct branches in Brazil, one of which is indeed Pentecostal. In any event, I saw things there that definitely made me question, at least for a time, my cessationist tendencies.

  21. I heard this in a lecture years ago: "Liberation theology opted for the poor and oppressed. The poor and oppressed opted for pentecostalism." I went to the hometown of Latin American theology's herald, and earliest voice, Gustavo Gutierrez. What I found was a dead liberation theology and a booming charismatic movement. Liberation theology offers the possibility of socio-political emancipation in the unforeseen future, while charismatic community offers the experience of emotive-personal emancipation today.

    I just wish the poor and the oppressed would opt for delayed theological gratification.

  22. Richard, You're barking up an old tree of mine. As usual, your musings and observations are challengingnand stimulating. Our "scholarly community" in Churches of Christ has spent quite a bit of timemand energy self-critiquing on this issue [ie, specifically Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes). The Disciples began figuring it out a long time ago. By the 70's and 80's we were really doing some serious questioning about our rational- empericism. Allen advocates a relational Trinitarianism, personalized and Spirit-filled. But I think your direct confrontation with Pentecostalism is an authentic and extremely fruitful (vineyard, get it?) approach. Let's hear more!

  23. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Pat Brooks is my father in law, who has published some of the best and earliest scholarly work on the epistemology and Word-only pneumatology of some of the early founders of the Churches of Christ, Alexander Campbell in particular. See: Pat Brooks, “Alexander Campbell, the Holy Spirit, and the New Birth,” Restoration Quarterly 31 (July 1, 1989) a paper building off his cutting edge 1977 thesis at ACU "Lockean epistemology and the indwelling Spirit in the Restoration movement."

    Needless to say, his daughter is as brilliant as he is.

  24. > In fact, my suspicion is that oppressed and marginalized communities will tend to gravitate toward a Pentecostal experience.

    I think the questions implicit in this post are very closely related to the questions you asked before actually attending the study. The more general question is something like:

    Why does a certain group of people accept (and seem to benefit from) answers or explanations that I've rejected?

    So, for example, prison ministries seem to get a lot of mileage from penal substitutionary atonement. And marginalized communities seem drawn to triumphalism, health-wealth theology and pentecostalism. Which leads a reflective person to ask: Are these answers to big questions as valid as mine? If so, what does that mean? If not, so what?

    Come to think of it, I guess I have the same questions about most Christians.

  25. Very interesting post. My background is similar and I am finding myself wanting to peek through the rationalistic fence to see what's in the neighbors yard.

  26. Thanks so much for this post, Richard. And wow, I really ate up that talk by Smith. Brings this to mind:

    "Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." Your whole body and person. Not just the mind =)

    I can relate to this post in a number of ways. I'm an engineer by profession, and went to college in NYC. I was a Christian through college; as you can imagine, I was in a minority demographic in terms of "worldview". I was surrounded by types who would spend hours in the labs debating (a little too audibly - some of us are tryina study here!) funky ideas like the Bible being a most unfortunate cultural artifact of an age prior to the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Among other things.

    Coming out of this environment, my main obsession was developing a consistent apologetic to internalize and present when faced with questions and/or vitriol. But things changed one year when visiting my mom in the Philippines, where she's an active lay minister. There, like in many other places, spiritual warfare can be a daily reality. And I saw and experienced things that I couldn't deny.

    On the other side of the coin, my mom would visit me in the US. Until a year or so ago, I attended a Presby church in MA that had a really scholarly crowd, and my mom would say "why do you guys have to nitpick, analyze, and theologize Scripture so much?! It's actually so simple." Well, I just can't help it! I need to think! And what about historical and literary context?! In terms of a more empowered/Spirit-filled praxis, though, I was still thirsty...

    Last year, I moved back to the NJ/NY area, and prayed to find a church that was unafraid of serious theology, recognized charisms, and was outward-focused. One thing led to another, and I found a church plant. I've been attending for several months now, and as time goes on and I get to know people better and read/listen to what the church and its parent org are all about, I'm positive that my prayers being answered.

    And thanks, Richard, for the intro to SVS! I've been hungry for the kind of stuff cats like Smith have to say. So far I've only heard/read about people calling for serious development of a robust charismatic theology, but it's refreshing to finally see one of the circles where it's happening =)

  27. Andrew,

    It is easy to accept "shallow" magic. "Deep magic" that Lewis uses to describe the work of Aslan seems to me to be, well, deeper. And while not wanting to minimize some charismatic experiences (because God is at work regardless of what I think), Macdonald is pointing us Godward.

  28. I have never come into close contact with Church of Christ followers, but my experiences from reading all your heretical comments is that you're all a bunch of judgmental, misdirected and misinformed individuals whose understanding of the Bible is very limited, if not totally flawed. If you claim so much to be Word-centered, you'd better start talking the talk and walking the walk because you're CLEARLY not reading the Word of God for all its literal and figurative meaning and worth but MERELY for your own benefit(s) in which you misinterpret the actions of others as manipulative when you yourselves are NO better because what you are doing is solely using the Bible to SELECTIVELY validate your assumptions and preconceived notions/convictions!

  29. There's nothing completely rational about criticizing other denominations, especially when you have ZERO knowledge  of how they operate and why they are what and who they are. Being inside a Pentecostal church for a few years doesn't make you any more an expert of DOCTRINE than studying plants for a few years qualifies you to be a botanist or horticulturalist.

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