Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Two Areas of Concern

When I first tried writing an ultimately un-posted critique of my pentecostal-charismatic experience, I realised that my frustrations, concerns and criticisms fell into roughly two broad areas. The first is what some refer to as revivalism, and for the second I use the admittedly complex catch-all term, fundamentalism. It is the second of these that I am most concerned with in my present theological pilgrimage, but let me first say a little about the first as I will no doubt return to it from time to time also.


By using revivalism in a critical way, I am decidedly not criticising belief in revivals (as sovereign moves of God) or commitment to spiritual vitality and an experiential-emotional dimension to our faith (as opposed to
just intellectual, moral or pragmatic). I am committed to these positive truths. But a number of writers on the contemporary church use revivalism in a critical way to refer to what would be a distortion of those truths, into what many of us would perhaps call 'super-spirituality.' It is a kind of experientialism which foregrounds fads, gimmicks and techniques for achieving spiritual experiences; it tends to push for external signs and phenomena; it is disposed towards the esoteric and the elitist as one is expected to have experienced certain things to be considered spiritual or 'with it' in the latest 'move' (and it develops its own jargon for the most recent craze); it undervalues reflection, spiritual disciplines and ordinary life and routines; it tends towards a triumphalism, failing to appreciate the struggle and challenge of the Christian life; and it does not value enough the perceiving and the practising of the presence of God in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane even, and in daily discipleship, in what Eugene Peterson calls 'a long obedience in the same direction.' It emphasizes the instant, the external, the obvious, the direct, and the immediate. I am sure some of these issues will come up in this blog from time to time. But it is the other area that bothers me most at the moment.


I am aware that this term is used widely and carelessly as a pejorative term to dismiss a wide range of religious people and groups (Christian and non-Christian). To most secularists, I would certainly be a fundamentalist! But the term has a particular history within the Christian faith, and it also denotes a certain sociological, cultural and religious trend in the world right now (involving reaction and defensiveness in a global village characterised by pluralism and complexity) that we can easily get caught up with and that we do well to reflect sensitively upon. My own thoughts on it, coming from my experience within a pentecostal-charismatic world that has significant currents of fundamentalism within it, are partly what prompted me to start the blog and to engage in this theological pilgrimage. I have come to feel and believe that the pentecostal-charismatic tradition needs to free itself from its fundamentalist ties, and develop its own particular theological perspectives and commitments. So as part of this process, I will highlight what I think are five key characteristics features of the fundamentalism that I would want to avoid in order to engage in a true pilgrim theology (I will explain that term in my next post, I hope). Who might actually qualify as a fundamentalist is very difficult to say, and it is more of a mindset that I want to avoid rather than any particular group or people; but I will speak of fundamentalists as a generic group to help me identify the characteristics of the mindset. I will just introduce them and unpack them a little more in future posts. They will no doubt be recurring themes:

  • a flat approach to the Bible - an insufficient appreciation of the complexity and diversity of the biblical revelation, an unimaginative hermeneutic that fails to do justice to the nature of Scripture as the divine-human stories/Story, and to the historical contexts, and a lack of recognition of the spiritual-charismatic dimension of engaging with Scripture, or of other sources of theology.
  • dogmatism - with such a belief that the Bible is clear, simple and straightforward, fundamentalists are sure that their interpretation is the right one and are reluctant to engage with a wider conversation with others who have alternative interpretations, and certainly would not accept that there can be acceptably diverse readings of Scripture. This point in combination with the first is well-summed up in the popular but silly phrase - 'The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!' 
  • sectarianism - being sure that they are right in what they believe, they are quick to draw attention to other Christians who are wrong; they act as the heresy police and are quick to draw boundary lines and determine who is in and who is out. They therefore tend to separate themselves from much of the rest of the church and other Christian traditions, and remain in their own exclusive groups of people who believe the same as them. 
  • separatism - not only do they want to remain separate from other unsound Christians but also emphasise the need to keep themselves from being contaminated from the world; the world is so messed up and wrong and the Bible has all the answers to everything so they don't feel they can learn much from the world at all, whereas I and others would argue that God has actually deposited quite a lot of wisdom, goodness and beauty in the world that we are able to connect and engage with (we'd have to explore different meanings of the use of the word 'world' in biblical theology). 
  • a fortress mentality - the two previous points are expressions of this defensive mentality that sees 'the truth' being under attack and in constant need of defending from the apostate and  secularist  (and which I think is also an expression of a common current religious trend); this fortress mentality does not sit well with the pilgrim approach I advocate which values openness, continual reflection, conversation, indeterminacy (on some things) etc. It is not that the faith never needs defending but it is a question of emphasis and focus. 
I hope that gives readers some idea of the kinds of ways of thinking that I want to disentangle myself and others from in order to be free to journey. In future posts I want to explain a little more about what I mean by pilgrim theology, why I feel such theological freedom connects with spiritual freedom and how we avoid it becoming theological anarchy. Hope you'll keep reading!

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