The Immediacy Of God Pentecostalism And The Transcendent

In an earlier chapter, we noted that traditional Protestantism's emphasis upon an indirect knowledge of God, mediated through reading the Bible, led to "desacralization"—the creation of a culture with no sense or expectation of God's presence in its midst. This point has been stressed by a series of sociologists—including Max Weber, Charles Taylor, and Stephen Toulmin—who have, in their different ways, shown that Protestantism was the means by which a society that originally possessed a strong sense of the sacred became "disenchanted." The inevitable result of this was secularization—the final elimination of God from the world. As Francis Fukuyama points out in his End of History and the Last Man (1992), "the generally accepted agent for this secularization in the West was Protestantism."25

Historically, it is clear that a major determinant for the emergence of atheism as a serious cultural force is whether a culture has lost a sense of the divine. The absence of any expectation of encountering the divine directly through nature or in personal experience inevitably encourages belief in a godless world—the kind of culture that lives etsi Deus non daretur ("as if God did not exist"). By limiting knowledge of God to what can be known about God's words and God's will, some classic forms of Protestantism have in effect placed an embargo on any direct knowledge or experience of God.

Indeed, some sections of Protestantism, often deeply influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, continue to this day to emphasize "theological correctness" by stressing the overarching importance of having right ideas about God. These correct notions of God are to be determined by a reading of the Bible, which is understood primarily as a doctrinal handbook. Faith thus becomes an indirect knowledge of God, stated in terms of beliefs about God that, however correct they may be as far as they go, convey the impression that Christianity is little more than abstract theorizing about a God whose will is revealed in the Bible.

It is a danger that is well recognized within mainline Protestantism, and it was partly addressed through the rise of Pietism. The noted American Presbyterian writer James Henley Thornwell (1812-62) had no doubts about the danger of excessively rationalist or cerebral approaches to theology:

It gave no scope to the play of Christian feeling; it never turned aside to reverence, to worship, or to adore. It exhibited truth, nakedly and baldly, in its objective reality, without any reference to the subjective conditions which, under the influence of the Spirit, that truth was calculated to produce. It was a dry digest of theses and propositions—perfect in form, but as cold and lifeless as a skeleton.26

Such an approach to theology divorced it from the realm of experi-ence—and hence from the reality of everyday Christian life, especially among believers who did not find intellectual analysis natural or easy.

This is precisely what Harvey Cox describes as "text-orientated believers"—that is, those Protestants who believe that God can only be accessed (and then to a limited extent, in the form of abstract religious ideas) through reading the Bible or hearing an expository sermon. For Cox, Pentecostalism celebrates the resurgence of "primal spirituality" and absolutely refuses to allow experience of God to be limited to the rarefied world of abstract ideas. God is experienced and known as a personal, transformative, living reality.

The contrast with Pentecostalism on this point could not be greater. Pentecostalism's emphasis on a direct, immediate experience of God avoids the rather dry and cerebral forms of Christianity that many find unattractive and unintelligible. It is thus significant that Pentecostalism has made huge inroads in working-class areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, in that it is able to communicate a sense of the divine and its implications without the need for prayer books and the other traditional paraphernalia of Protestant culture. Pentecostalism eschews the aridity of dogmatic theology and sets in its place the personal renewal of the believer through the Spirit—something that can be narrated and proclaimed rather than logically dissected and analyzed.

Pentecostalism declares that it is possible to encounter God directly and personally through the power of the Holy Spirit. God is to be known immediately and directly, not indirectly through study of a text. Whereas traditional Protestantism is wary of allowing any such immediate experience of God, Pentecostalism celebrates it and makes it a hallmark of Christian living. God has an impact upon the totality of existence and is not confined—as in some traditional Protestant tradi-tions—to the world of the mind.

So why is this so important? These observations need to be set against one of the most dramatic developments to take place globally in the aftermath of the Second World War—the spread of Marxism. Although imposed by force in many parts of eastern Europe and central Asia, Marxist ideas proved inspirational to many groups in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that were disillusioned with the existing social order and wanted to change it radically. Marxism offered a worldview that promised to transform society—and it was a worldview without God.

In Latin America, Marxism quickly gained the initiative, with Cuba emerging as a revolutionary template. In Brazil, Marxism adapted to the local situation, and theorists such as Caio Prado (1907-90) presented its socioeconomic vision as the remedy for the nation's ills. Recognizing the importance of dealing with the social issues this reflected, some prominent Catholics in the region developed "liberation theology," which emphasized the transformative social vision of the gospel.27 Liberation theology was not, however, compelling. Part of its problem was that it offered a vision of social transformation in which the individual seemed to have no particular role. Pentecostalism, in marked contrast, offered a vision of personal transformation in which individuals sorted out their own lives, then those of their families, and then moved on to broader social issues.

Pentecostalism creates a strong sense of expectation of a direct, personal, transformative encounter with God in the worship of the church and in personal experience. Personal transformation subsequently leads into social concern. Far from being oppressive or fraudulent (as Marxism argued), belief in God has been liberating and transforming. How could God's existence be doubted when God is such a powerful reality in people's lives? And how could God's relevance be doubted when God inspires people to care for the poor, heal the sick, and work for the dispossessed? The outcome of this movement has been remarkable. Pentecostalism is displacing Marxism as the solace and inspiration of the urban poor.

Important though this development is, the relevant point in this section is Pentecostalism's resacralization of everyday life. A permanently absent God can quickly become a dead God. If the existence of God makes little or no impact upon the experiences of everyday life, the business of living might as well be conducted without reference to God. By opening up again the possibility of a transcendent reality virtually closed off by modernism, Pentecostalism injects the presence of God into everyday life—through social action, politics, and evangelism.

The rise of Pentecostalism thus represents a challenge to the more cerebralized forms of Protestantism. It urges them to reconsider their excessive intellectualism and to discover the forbidden realms of imagination, emotion, narrative, and experience. This kind of experiential and transcendent impoverishment of faith is partly due to early trends in sections of Protestantism, which are open to challenge and correction, and partly due to the excessive influence of modernism upon the movement as a whole, which is subject to historical erosion as well as principled rejection. Protestantism is not wedded to such a distancing from the transcendent; the rise of Pentecostalism may yet prove to be the stimulus for it to reconsider this question—to the enrichment of the movement as a whole. Protestantism, after all, is a work in progress that subjects itself to constant review and is willing to correct mistakes and wrong turnings.

Yet many mainstream Protestants feel that Pentecostalism itself might represent precisely such a mistake and a wrong turning. We must therefore move on to consider some tensions between the movements and their implications for the future of both movements.

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