by Fr. Barnabas Powell
In this, the fourth of a series of articles on Pentecostalism and his journey to the Orthodox faith, Fr. Barnabas sets the stage for his own spiritual odyssey.
THE FIRE FAILS
As I have said previously, I am convinced the modern Pentecostal movement offers the Christian Church a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with the timeless faith of the Apostles and the balance of mystery and rationalism that has all but been lost in the Christian West.
However, I also believe that Pentecostalism is a system of theology that cannot and will not bring anyone to the fullness of the faith
“once for all delivered to the saints.”
This is not because Pentecostal people are “bad.” It isn’t because Pentecostal or Charismatic theology is “wrong” or “evil.” It is because the underlying theological foundation for Pentecostal and Charismatic theology is poverty stricken. It is simply too weak to bear the weight of the fullness of the Apostolic faith.
Coming as I do from a Pentecostal background, that word “Apostolic” holds a particularly pregnant meaning. Unfortunately, my understanding of “apostolic” was quite deficient during my days as a Pentecostal.
In fact, the very tendency in the West to break off into “factions” and “denominations” is particularly strong among Pentecostals. This revealed itself early on in the movement over the issue of water baptism. Being cut off from the wisdom of the Church these sincere believers embodied all that was wrong about the Protestant innovation of “Sola Scriptura.” They did not have access to the wise understanding of the Trinity preserved in the Church so they mistook the trinitarian teaching for tri-theism and reacted against what they perceived as a heresy.
But this so-called “new issue” demonstrates the first theological poverty of Pentecostalism: A poverty of communion with the saints.
Since Protestantism tends to reduce the Christian faith to certain theological propositions, the Pentecostals allowed this reduction full flower in their attempts to “recapture” the power of the first century Church. Feeling no sense of connection with their fellow Christians throughout the ages, the Pentecostals only care for those first century believers that they see as their true heritage. They are also willing to adopt other heretical groups through the centuries that seemed to bolster their notions of ecstatic experiences as THE theological stamp of approval.
This lack of connection with the Church through the centuries meant that the Pentecostals were left to their own devices and fell into many, if not most, of the heresies of the past.
The second poverty of Pentecostalism is the rank individualism that permeates the entire movement. this again is a flowering in the Pentecostal movement of the general poverty of Western Christianity. Individualism reduces faith to “me and Jesus got our own thing going” and reduces Church to either a religious pep rally or, worse yet, a Christian self-help group. Worship is measured by how it made me “feel” rather than what it reveals about the Uncreated God. Hence Pentecostals and Charismatics tend to measure their spiritual growth by their experience of “victory” in their personal lives. But the narcissistic weakness of this religious poverty guarantees a perpetual spiritual “kindergarten” for these believers.
One of the unintended consequences” of this gross individualism is the “cult of personality” that naturally arises when a dependence on individual abilities is emphasized. Pentecostal groups are usually founded on some strong personality who has the gift of gab and a flare for the theatrical.
Unfortunately, “the arm of flesh will fail you” and the cultural landscape is littered with the sad lives of men (and some women) who simply could not maintain the fevered pitch expected of them from their loyal following. The stories of emotional, psychological, and event physical manipulation, all for “God’s glory,” are simply too numerous to mention.
Another poverty that I see in Pentecostalism is the weak theological dependence on ecstatic religious experiences. This true hunger in the soul of a person for an authentic and intimate experience of the presence of God cannot be truly satisfied with self-centered religious phenomena. In fact, much like sweets ruins your appetite, so the spiritual “cotton candy” of shallow ecstatic religious experiences, brought on as much by psychological peer pressure as by anything divine, deaden this good hunger and eventually creates an almost narcotic dependence on these less than satisfying religious events.
Interestingly enough this emphasis of emotional experiences not only leads to a kind of religious addiction, but also feeds other physical desires as well. Most Pentecostals do not like to talk about the strong minority of sexual weaknesses that tend to dominate many Pentecostal and Charismatic sub cultures. This emphasis on keeping the emotions heightened at all times, or reducing worship to experiencing a religious “high” tends to reinforce a lack of physical discipline. Recent events are the exceptions that many times prove the rule.
Finally, the greatest poverty I see in Pentecostalism is theological. While this is changing, Pentecostalism has traditionally been suspicious of theological training. Seminary instruction was considered suspect, and a reliance on the education of the “Spirit” was more valued. But beyond that there is a real and debilitating “historical amnesia” among Pentecostals that impoverishes their religious education.
There is so much wisdom preserved in the Church that is simply unknown to most Christians nowadays and that ignorance is dangerous. It means there are generations of believers who will have to learn all over again lessons already learned by their brothers and sisters of the past.
What you don’t know CAN hurt you.
There are hopeful signs. A recent Pew Poll found that speaking in tongues, a strong distinctive of Pentecostalism, is waning. Post-graduate work is becoming not only acceptable among Pentecostals but expected. And whole new denominations have formed by Pentecostals and Charismatics wanting to overcome the inherent weaknesses of their own shallow religious traditions by discovering the wisdom of ages past.
For me, however, the natural home for Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians is the Orthodox Christian Church. Here there is a trustworthy “fireplace” for the Pentecostal “fire.” Many are surprised to hear me say that it was my Pentecostalism that prepared me for my journey to Orthodoxy.
In Eastern Orthodoxy there is a comfort level theologically for paradox and mystery. As opposed to the West where rationalism has been allowed free reign, Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the present work of the Holy Spirit provides a theological balance for a sterile theological rationalism that may excite the mind but leaves the soul cold. Pentecostals and Charismatics will discover in Orthodoxy the wisdom necessary to avoid all the pitfalls so often present in the world of Pentecostalism.
There are theological remedies for and spiritual medicine that provide authentic healing and spiritual health for those weary of the eternal search for the everlasting “goose bump.”
Pentecostalism reveals the primary spiritual poverty of the West. This is its greatest gift to the Christian world. But we cannot remain ignorant of the fatal weaknesses of Pentecostalism without condemning generations of sincere believers to a life of a perpetual “spiritual kindergarten.”
So, to all my precious Pentecostal and Charismatic friends, I say to you what Philip said to Nathanael:
“Come and see!”
Do you still speak in tongues? I speak as someone who was raised in the Pentecostal faith but can definitely understand the allure of Orthodoxy. Most of my ancestors were of the Orthodox faith in South India.
Fr. John says
It is a rare gift given to those who have purified themselves from the passions. It exists, but it is not blathering in gibberish, but speaking in a real language, usually for the benefit of someone who is listening so that they may understand the glorious works of God.