The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 6, The Heart Has a Way of Knowing

The fourth aspect of the pentecostal worldview described by James Smith in his book Thinking in Tongues is that pentecostal spirituality is "rooted in affective, narrative epistemic practice."

More simply stated, pentecostal spirituality is "rooted in the heart and traffics in the stuff of story."

As we know, pentecostal spirituality is very emotional. And as I described in the very first post of this series, this was the part of worship at Freedom that took a lot of getting used to. Historically, the Churches of Christ have been very rationalistic and wary of emotional displays. So a shift to a more charismatic and emotional style of worship was a big change for me.

The worry with such emotionalism is that it is antirationalistic. But according to James Smith the better way to see the situation isn't to see charismatic worship as antirational but as a critique of excessive rationalism.

The heart has ways of knowing that the head knows nothing about.

Once again, I've seen all this play out in my own experience at Freedom. Before my life at Freedom I'd say I was trapped in my own head. My faith, such as it was, was very cerebral, rationalistic, intellectual, and propositional. But when I encountered the spirituality of Freedom I quickly realized how stunted and limited this rationalism was.

I'd look at my brothers and sisters at Freedom and say to myself, "I have a PhD. I have written three theology books. But these people know something about the faith, about God and Jesus, that I know nothing about." Intellectually, I knew many things. But on another level I didn't know a thing. Despite my intellect and education I felt like a child among spiritual adults.

This is why James Smith describes pentecostal spirituality as an "epistemic practice," as a way of knowing. And as James recounts, modern psychology has pointed out to us that our emotions often function as pre-cognitive filters in how we interpret and ascribe meaning to the world. Emotions, in many ways, are primary. Cognition is often secondary, given the task of making sense of the emotional data. You have to explain to yourself, in a post hoc fashion, why you feel the way you do. You have to "make sense" of your feelings.

This has huge implications for spiritual practice and formation. As James writes,
[I]f our emotions construe the world before and more often than our intellectual, cognitive perceptions, then the shape of our emotions makes our world most of the time--in which case, discipleship would be more a matter of training our emotions than of changing our minds. It is this intuition that I think is inchoately central in pentecostal worship and spirituality.
That's a pretty important insight. Emotions make our world. And if emotions make our world then attending to the emotions is a critical, perhaps even the central, task of Christian discipleship. Discipleship is more a matter of training our emotions than of changing our minds.

Consequently, as a result of my life at Freedom I've come to focus more and more on orthopathy (right affection) than upon orthodoxy (right belief), and even upon orthopraxy (right practice).

For a progressive Christian like myself this has been an important shift. As we know, many progressive, liberal and emergent Christians have shifted focus toward orthopraxy over orthodoxy. I've done this myself. It's a move I highly recommend, especially if you struggle with doubts.

And yet, I've discovered two inter-related problems with this focus on orthopraxy.

First, when progressives think of "practices" they tend to think of social justice. As they should. But they don't, as a rule, think of praying, fasting, and worshiping, the practices of what David Kelsey has called doxological gratitude, which I consider to be key to the formation of a loving, Christ-like spirit (see The Slavery of Death for this argument). 

This is why, in my estimation, many progressive Christians, despite their focus on social justice, still struggle with being kind, gentle, forgiving and loving human beings. If you aren't attending to the affections in your pursuit of social justice you're prone to becoming harsh, angry and judgmental. Or just burnt out. Joy rather than righteous indignation has to be what carries you forward.

This lack of attention to the practices of doxological gratitude is also why I think progressive Christians chronically struggle with spiritual dryness, listlessness and cynicism.

Which brings me to the second issue, the role of the church. The practices of doxological gratitude, the rituals that shape our affections, are often practiced corporately. That is, when progressives think of "right practice" they don't often think of the practice of the church. Because, on the surface, there's not a lot going on at the church that has anything to do with social justice. And that's true. But as I've experienced Freedom Fellowship I've come to see how the practices of doxological gratitude in our charismatic worship, which privileges the emotions, are shaping my affections and, thus, fueling and supporting my interests in social justice. Orthopathy is supporting orthopraxy.

Concretely, given how my affections are being shaped by the charismatic worship at Freedom I'm more joyful and at peace. My heart has grown softer and more tender.

In short, by eschewing the church and the practices of doxological gratitude I think progressives have often failed to attend to the heart. To be clear, progressive Christians are amazing theologians. In the pews they may be the best theologians in all of Christianity. But theological sophistication can be a trap. It trapped me. In my head.

But as I learned in the charismatic worship at Freedom, the heart has a way of knowing that the head knows nothing about.

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18 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 6, The Heart Has a Way of Knowing”

  1. Slightly off-topic, but you say "Emotions make our world. And if emotions make our world then attending to the emotions is a critical, perhaps even the central, task of Christian discipleship. Discipleship is more a matter of training our emotions than of changing our minds." That happens to be the burden of my book ( ) and I'd happily send you a free copy if you're interested. It's very short.

  2. I like Thomas Merton's quote, "Reason is in fact the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say
    no more.”

    Coming from a legalistic background I, for a long time, carried the baggage that everything had to "figured out, argued out, without a doubt". To be honest, I find myself picking up that old baggage from time to time when something peaks my curiosity, thinking I have to come up with THE final answer, stated in a perfect way. But it is so nice to know now that I can drop it and move on without becoming a lesser hungry, thinking child of God.

  3. Ah, this hit very close to home.

    I spent the first 10 years of my life (in Hungary) in Evangelical-Pentecostal-Charismatic churches, It's in my blood. After that came a decade or so in the Reformed Church, then trying to find my way back to evangelicals unsuccessfully, then spending a few years with Catholics (whom I came to really love and appreciate in so many ways), then another few years without a church. Finally, about a year and a half ago I moved to Sweden and found a wonderful international evangelical church I am an active part of now.

    Anyways, during those few years after the Catholics and before Sweden I discovered first Fred Clark's Slacktivist, and from there RHE, Sarah Bessey, You, NBW and all the other amazing... post-evangelical? emerging? people whose blog posts, books et all shaped my somewhat fundamentalist and conservative views into something pretty progressive and helped me to grow a lot in my faith. A crazy amount.

    As I have said before, in my heart I am still very Pentecostal. I move around in the world of Christianity by having a lot of Big Feelings about just about everything but many times have a hard time explaining them. I also have a hard time finding the balance between approaching things in a charismatic or a rational way, because my while my brain is usually leaning towards the latter nowadays, my heart is still very much works in the former way.

    Not quite sure where I am going with this... just wanted to say... thank you for this.

  4. Great series...and I really loved the trajectory on this one. As someone deeply involved in both a charismatic community (The Vineyard movement) and justice (I'm on the steering committee for the Vineyard Justice Network), this really resonates. In 2011, Jamie Smith was the keynote speaker at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference in Seattle, and I thought it was very interesting that possibly for the first time he articulated the connection between his work in 'Thinking in Tongues' and his newest endeavour with the Desiring the Kingdom series. Profound stuff...thanks Richard!

  5. Ah, yes, Pascal: Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. [The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.]

    Of course Pascal, a mathematician, was not anti-rational. In another pensèe he writes: "Submission and the use of reason are what makes true Christianity." I'm sure he'd like John's Merton quote (below).

    For me, the imagination is another crucial dimension of faith. In fact, I think one pretty good definition of faith is that it's "an imaginative perception of reality" (something I think Blake and/or Coleridge said). Intellectually, without imagination we are left with the desiccated and insipid "theologies of fact" that you find in fundamentalism. The imagination has also inbuilt orthopathic and orthopractic qualities: there is an imaginative element to empathy and sympathy, and using our imagination may both inspire creative worship and also help us discover new and startling ways to perform the kingdom (Matthew 5:38-42 is a sublime example of the imagination of Jesus at work - illustrations of counter-intuitive, situation-changing, nonviolent actions in the face of overwhelming coercive power.)

    I guess what we're all searching for - and disciplining ourselves to observe - is a holistic faith

  6. Ktamas,

    I think that you nailed the challenge with this: "I...have a hard time finding the balance between approaching things in a charismatic or a rational way..."

    To me the challenge is to be responsible, and not just theologically/epistemologically, but even more so with respect to holding power structures in churches accountable. To a theological perspective that critiques "excessive rationalism," hurrah and amen! To working toward an "orthopathy" that leads with joy and "doxological gratitude," hurrah and amen! To that "...theological sophistication can be a trap," hurrah and amen! And to "radical openness to God as a hermeneutical activity," (prior post) well, as a starting point, yes.

    And yet there must be balance, and that means a responsible set of intellectual commitments that prevents abuse. For if openness and positive affect alone define a church culture, the voice of responsibility will out of bounds till damage has been done... I do not know this first hand, but at very close second hand--two young-adult children whose faith has been damaged by irresponsible leadership.

    I told them so as it was happening, but that counted for nothing at the time, and counts for less than nothing after the fact. It was and remains humiliating, really, that I was so ineffectual at preventing the damage and now at helping to address and heal it.

    If I'd been able to give the hurrays and amens to them to enthusiastically endorse what they found so appealing in charismatic worship and spirituality, while presenting a balanced view that kept a responsible theological/ethical perspective in hand, well, then I might not have been discredited along with the church in my kids eyes. (I'd describe their experience as presenting them with a theology for old poops vs. one for fools.)

    Well, I'm embarrassed to admit the content of this comment, Richard. But here's why I am posting it: I'd trust you--not absolutely, but close to it--to maintain responsible leadership in a setting that leads with affect and openness. But I wouldn't trust most persons. That means I think that you have some pretty important perspectives to share, which need to be shared, if you are to advocate for a more charismatic approach to "church."

    Wow. That's a lot to lay on you. Sorry!

  7. Thanks SO much for this whole series, especially this post. This addresses what had been bothering me in following your blog for a year or two.

    For some reason, the "progressive" wing of Christianity, especially in what I perceived to be its condescension of evangelicals, seemed to be missing the way that evangelicals (in my humble opinion) are doing a better job with "orthopathy" than with orthodoxy or orthopraxy.

    The critique of evangelicalism I often heard was very rationalist and even picky, e.g., emphasizing the way that evangelicals use the wrong words. I never thought the progressives were wrong. (I certainly thought they were more theologically sophisticated than their sometimes-unfortunate evangelical sparring partners.) But I did think they were missing what really makes evangelicalism goes.

    Of course, it takes some reflection to decide which deeply-felt religious affections and practices count as "orthopathy" rather than mistakes. (As an analogy, it also takes deep reflection to decide whether certain active ways of serving the helpless--such as picketting abortion clinics in order to keep unborn babies alive--count as "orthopraxy" rather than mistakes.)

  8. Side 1 agrees with you _in toto_.

  9. This is all so true to my experience as well.

    As well as affective worship, affective prayer also makes the heart grow tender. In fact when I was a novice nun for a couple of years and experiencing very dry worship, it was a deepening affective prayer practice that sustained me and transformed me.

    These days I am a member of a progressive Anglican church, and though the theology is better and social justice is a key focus, I am feeling increasingly arid in my heart and I had been wondering why. Your post explains exactly what's going on for me - thankyou so much!

  10. The "head" community to their extremes can get caught up in doctrinal masturbation, bound to books and chalkboards. The "heart" community to their extremes can abuse spirtual gifts, turning them into self-indulgent fetishes, serving their own compulsive emotional whims vs. EDIFYING the body. It seems doing the LOVING and RIGHT thing (for the sake of doing the loving and right thing) involves a process of decision which necessarily supersedes emotions - which to me makes up 90+ percent of what we might call "faith". Like what you do Dr. Beck in leading the prison study every Monday evening or driving the van to help those with special needs every Wednesday evening - I dare guess at times you might not always FEEL like doing those things (being legitimately tired after a long day at the university, or perhaps real life happening with you, Jana and the boys, etc). Many in the charasmatic movement use emotion as their final gauge to decide if what God is telling them "is from God" or where God is "leading" them. Glad Jesus didn't rely on emotion make His decision in Gethsemane. It seems "faith" most of the time is deciding to do what is loving and right (mostly for others and not ourselves, which is exactly the thing that makes it difficult) - we have to leave the classroom AND we have to overcome our emotions. I dare say those in that fellowship can learn a few things from you concerning orthopraxy. Thanks again Dr. Beck!

  11. This is fantastic, Richard. I wrote just a couple of days ago aboutfeeling love rather than just deciding to love after considering the verb splagchnizomai, where Matthew and Mark speak of Jesus being moved with compassion.

  12. Tracy, this is well said.

    Richard, as a fellow extreme rationalist, help me work through this. I have read James Smith and I really like his work, but the "extreme rational me" believes that the experiences you are describing are little more than an emotional fix (or high) that psychologically may result in a posture of gratitude but at the expense of your own pneumatological commitments (you are merely participating in an study in which you know you're the participant who was given the placebo). This especially seems to be true for someone, like yourself, who doesn't appear to be making the claim that the Spirit is the agent behind the experiences you describe (of course I may be misreading you). Indeed, after reading this series, it seems as though you believe something else is going on psychologically with the members of Freedom. If so, is this not shaping people's affections through manipulation?

    Long term, I'm not sure a spiritual placebo will actually benefit me. Rather, I'm afraid in the end it will all be exposed as an illusion and come crashing down.

  13. If you aren't attending to the affections in your pursuit of social
    justice you're prone to becoming harsh, angry and judgmental. Or just
    burnt out.

    Or as a long-time activist I knew once said, "Some people think they're standing up for social justice, but really they just need to work things out with their father."

    Have you ever read Jacob Needleman? He wrote this fantastic book, "Why Can't We Be Good?" - which is surprisingly accessible for something written by a philosophy professor - which seeks to answer the question: Why do we repeatedly violate our most deeply held values and beliefs? (Or put another way: why do so many people who are deeply committed to social justice treat the people around them like crap? And why are so many organizations that are committed to social change so unbelievably dysfunctional?) He also wrote a book called Lost Christianity, which addresses something that was always a core issue for me: that Christianity tells you that you are supposed to live out certain values - like forgiveness and love - but doesn't give you the tools to actually do any of that, so we never live up to our stated belief system and just feel guilty all the time. There's no intermediate part that helps you get from point a to point b.

    Anyway, I love his stuff and it addressea a lot of what you have been talking about - albeit not from a Christian perspective. (Also I don't know why part of this is in bold, but it won't let me fix it.) I think the charismatic wing of Christianity has something to add to the discussion, but I've also been forcibly prayed over in tongues and wouldn't recommend it.

  14. Hmm... so when you wrote your introduction to this series and mentioned "affective, narrative epistemic practice", I was expecting something else. I think I see what you're getting at though, and yes, it is a charism of the charismatics. I was expecting there to be an understanding along the lines of Brian McLaren's "The Story We Find Ourselves In" where the emphases are on "narrative" and "epistemic". I think in what you're saying here the emphases are on "affective" and "practice," yes?

    If I do understand you, that would match my experience growing up A/G, btw.

  15. No worries at all. This is an important counter-point and caution. I think harmful leadership manifests itself in all church settings. But it might, perhaps, be the most worrisome in charismatic settings because of what I'm talking about--its emotional openness and, thus, emotional intimacy and vulnerability. So it's a two-edged sword. And because of that vulnerability and exposure the leadership has to be rock solid.

    All that to say, I have little experience with charismatic churches as organizations and as principalities and powers. This series and this post is simply speaking to my recovery of the heart.

  16. In continuing to think about this, I've realized that my request for an account of what responsible leadership would be was a way to deflect responsibility for my hang-ups about my kids getting involved with a charismatic group--which embarrassed me (sorry!). (I've been thinking about this in Sixties slang: My cop out derives from my hang ups which made me uncool, whereas I like to think of myself as cool...) When the Apostle Paul called on the Galatians to move beyond the law, the "tutor," I think he had something like that in mind: get over your hang ups so you don't cop out on love. Big fail on my report card there, I suppose. But maybe the lesson is sinking in. Thanks so much for listening!

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