Part of the larger Christian context in which Orthodoxy lives today includes not only Catholics (of various sorts), Protestants (of even more sorts), but Pentecostals as well (of which there are quite a few sorts). Indeed, having come splashing onto the modern religious scene around 1900, Pentecostals have been by far the fastest growing of all Christian groups, and have had huge influences everywhere, with only the possible exception of the Orthodox. The “Worship Wars” (as my dear friend Terry Mattingly the columnist dubs them) would be unimaginable without Pentecostalism. Pentecostals, and their upscale cousins, the Charismatics, have taught Catholics to sing (sort of), Episcopalians to clap their hands (how shocking!), and even Baptists to speak in tongues with such frequency that this year Baptist Conventions were loathe to say that Baptists should do not such things. So called “contemporary worship services” are a direct influence of the Charismatic Movement.
The history of Pentecostalism is a special branch of Church history. Rooted somewhat in the Holiness Movement, itself an offshoot of Methodism, Pentecostals can trace some of their roots back to the Great Awakenings of Whitfield and Finney. What nervous Anglicans once disdainfully called “Enthusiasm” (when it was being manifested by early Methodists) we today would call “being slain in the Spirit” and other such common phenomena.
My wife and I met in a charismatic house Church so that I do not write as a stranger on the subject. I spent two years, as well, living in a charismatic commune. Many years ago I would have been about as hard core as they come. Today I judge the matter quite differently and see, with fear and trembling, Pentecostal thought and practice in a different light.
A little history is worth sharing. The story of how I became involved with all of this is not germane to this present story. More to the point is why I left. My main reason for leaving is what I would today call a “schizophrenia” in the movement itself. The language used for religious experience was (and is) quite concrete: “God spoke to me…etc.” Everything had this twist. To speak in lesser terms was to speak without faith. The schizophrenia came when I looked at myself and those around me. We spoke one language and lived another. This is not to simply say that we were hypocrites. Of course there was hypocrisy – all Christians fail to live what they believe. It is called sin. This does not and did not shock me.
However, a danger arises when the language of the Christian life is spoken at such a high level that even the most normal of experiences becomes baptized with the language of God. The price of hypocrisy grows in such a setting. Indeed, the price of everything grows. There are promises made in Pentecostalism that are simply not true and represent poor spiritual teaching.
The Great Awakening (late 1700’s) was among the first to make such promises – promises attached to a particular experience. Whether it was confusing the language of being “born again” with the theological fact of being born from above by the Spirit and adopted as God’s child or confusing that experience with strongly felt emotions or a definitive experience of sorrow or what have you – the link was made – a single experience can change your life. Those passages in Scripture that referred to being “born again” had traditionally always been interpreted as references to Baptism and were now transferred to the realm of subjective experience. Thus today when people are asked if they have been “born again,” in popular American Christian parlance, they are being asked about their inner experience.
I speak now in the Orthodox Tradition. A single experience is a single experience. It can be important in your life and may even be a catalyst for major change. But there is no single experience in which we were one person and become another. St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is drawn in very dramatic terms and repeated several times in Acts. I believe the story and believe that St. Paul’s allegience to the risen Lord changed immediately. I do not believe, however, that Saul became St. Paul at that moment. Saul became a repentant, Baptized Christian (once he’d made his way into Damascus and found the Christian to whom God directed him). But there then began a protracted period in St. Paul’s life. In Galatians 1:17, Paul mentions a sojourn in Arabia (by which he meant the desert East of Damascus, not Saudia Arabia) that some scholars estimate to have lasted as much as 10 years. He returned to Damascus and still spent 3 years there before going to Jerusalem. He took time, not just to sit in the desert and have Christ dictate his story to him, etc., as some fundamentalists want to think (they treat some New Testament figures with more legend than we Orthodox do). Paul had a long way to go before becoming a saint.
This is his witness in 2Corinthians 11:
Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.
Of course, these are just the headlines. The whole of what the blessed Apostle experienced would be impossible to record, but he became the great man of God not because of a single experience, but because of all he experienced, particularly in the abundance of his sufferings. And he says as much in the passage above.
I have said before that Americans want the spiritual life of Mother Teresa and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos. And much of modern day Pentecostalism and its offspring have offered just this: an experience of God which can turn the blandist of personalities into prophets of the Kingdom without at the same time turning them into the ascetics of the desert. Paul was an ascetic, not a Pentecostal.
I turned away from the Charismatic movement in my early 20’s because I found it driving me to atheism. My simple thought was that “if the language in the Bible (which sounded just like everyone around me) had no more reality within it than the nonsense I saw then (and now in the same movement), then perhaps there’s no reality in the first place.” It was the temptation to despair. What I wanted was a solid witness to the existence of God (I did not and do not deny the importance of experience) but not a witness that was whipped into belief or mesmerized into being.
I had read enough to have heard of the sober witness of the Christian Tradition. I began then a turn back to the Tradition, though making it all the way to Orthodoxy took years, and not without detours. But my initial criticisms and hunches continually proved to be true.
Orthodoxy, without hesitation, has guarded the validity of man’s experience of God. The unmediated knowledge of God in the experience of the Divine Energies is a matter of Dogma for Orthodoxy. It is not up for debate or change. Having said that, we do not have a “come get the Divine Energies Vision service.” There is a recognition that such mass offerings are delusion, at best.
We come, day in and day out, to the hard lesson of obedience to God’s commandments. We confess our sins. We receive absolution. We receive the Body and Blood of God. We are taught to pray without ceasing (though this is rarely acheived). We fast regularly. We read the Scriptures. We read the lives of the saints. And we ground ourselves in theology that wasn’t necessarily written yesterday. There is not a “latest revelation” to be had – there is Christ. He is the revelation of the Father. The rest is frequently something else – but not from God.
I am not surprised that American Pentecostalism is growing and forming and shaping many things around it. It is, in many ways, an American experience, well-suited to support the expansion of our dominance of world culture. It has African elements as well (but so does the American experience). But if you would see African Christian spirituality at its roots – then travel to the deserts of Egypt or the monasteries of Ethiopia. There you will find centuries of sober theology, transformed into the lives of true saints.
True theology must finally be grounded in the truth of the living experience of the Church. “We speak of what we know,” as Christ said of the Jews. What Orthodox theology teaches it offers not with the subtle ratiocination of medieval schoolmen nor simply of dry, rationalistic formuations. We worship the true and living God Whom We Know in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Miracles have never ceased from our midst.
The other day I had “an Orthodox experience” that has become somewhat common in my life. I arrived at a parishioner’s business place “just in the nick of time.” She had walked to work earlier in the day. It was now nearly time to close shop. It was beginning to rain, and she had a modest sized machine that needed to be carried home. I was thinking of her, of some conversations earlier in the week, and I simply went by to touch base.
But both of us realized that I was not there by accident, but by providence. “In the nick of time,” also carried within it a sense of “in God’s time.”
I contrast this with a life in which, deep in prayer, I “suddenly feel led” to go by her shop. God got me where he wanted me, but there were no bells and whistles and nothing to make me think any higher of myself than Balaam’s ass (a most appropriate comparison, I assure you).
Another time I sat on a dock, contemplating the confession I was soon to make (I was visiting at St. Silouan’s Retreat on Wadmalaw Island in S.C.). While I waited I noticed a kayaker in the river who eventually came to shore (he was from somewhere completely different). To my surprise he eventually came to the dock. I spoke politely then ignored him. To my consternation, he began a conversation. I have to say at this point I was dressed in an entirely civilian manner. Before long his conversation, which was about spiritual seeking, turned to Orthodoxy and he said he had been looking for someone with whom to discuss Orthodox Christianity.
At that point I interrupted him. “Do you know where you are?”
“No,” he replied.
I told him. I also told him I had an appointment in five minutes that clearly belonged to him and not me. I led him to the chapel, introduced him to Fr. John Breck (the priest there) and quickly told him of our encounter. “He’s clearly here to see you. I’ll make confession after Vespers.”
No bells. No whistles. Just God at work. I’ve gotten used to it, more or less. My friend, the Byelorussian Monk, Fr. Innokenty says, “You Americans! You talk about miracles like you don’ believe in God.” Too true.
I understand the hunger that feeds Pentecostalism and am sympathetic. The secularized culture in which we live has robbed many people of faith in God or a belief in any reality beyond their own experience. And yet the heart hungers for God. This is not wrong – it’s right. Our hearts are indeed hungry for God. But for me, that same hunger makes it impossible to quietly look the other way while people engage in emotional manipulation and bad theology to manufacture an answer that is not God.
God is too important for us to settle for anything other than Him. One of the largest elements in Orthodox spirituality is a keen sense of the problem of spiritual delusion. The classic work, The Arena, is probably one of the finest works on the subject. Our hearts are restless for God, but they are also easily subject to conterfeits, even within Orthodoxy. Experience is deeply important, but inherently treacherous territory. Only the wisdom of God, as manifested in Scripture and the lives of His saints, can guide us through such a place. The greater the claims of experience, the greater the need for mature theology – indeed the greater the need for the whole of theology – which is the Christian inheritance we know as the Orthodox Church.