The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on May 29, 2013
A Fire Transforming the World

Pentecostal-Slovaks-2

The British journal The Tablet, which I find very useful for what goes on in the Roman Catholic Church, came out with a “Pentecost edition” on May 18, 2013 (the feast was on May 19). Pentecost was the event recounted in the Book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit was poured out over a gathering in Jerusalem of  disciples of Jesus several weeks after his disappearance from this world; the three stories in the Tablet issue deal with people who believe that this outpouring, with all the miraculous signs reported in the New Testament, is continuing with great force today.

A theological piece by David O’Leary laments the relative neglect of the Holy Spirit in contemporary Catholicism, supposedly buried in “deadly doctrinal description”. Of course theologians can define the place of the Spirit as the third person in the divine Trinity. In ordinary Christian piety, outside the Pentecostal/charismatic community, people have a pretty clear idea of the roles of the Father and the Son, but that of the Spirit tends to be vague. O’Leary holds that this is regrettable. He quotes Teilhard de Chardin, arguably one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century, to the effect that the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in the transformation of the world inaugurated by the events in the life of Jesus. This transformation, Teilhard proposed, is “the divine fire hidden in the body of the world”, not just in some eschatological future, but here and now. That of course is the faith of the global charismatic movement, in the Catholic Church and far beyond it.

In the Catholic milieu this movement is known as the “charismatic renewal”. Mark Cartledge (an Anglican priest, who directs the Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies at Birmingham University) describes how immigrants from the Global South are bringing the dynamism of non-Western spirituality into the tired churches of Britain. This influence is still largely confined to immigrant congregations, but it appears to be attracting the attention of some white indigenous Britons. There is then a longer story by Kristina Cooper (editor of a magazine of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement), which decribes monthly meetings of about a thousand Catholics from Kerala at a Pentecostal center near Birmingham. (Kerala, in southern India, has the highest percentage of Christians in any Indian state. Tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas, one of the original followers of Jesus, first brought Christianity to that region.) The services were first in Malayalam, the regional language, but have recently switched to English in order to reach a much larger constituency.

Within world Catholicism, the charismatic movement is influential, though probably stilll a minority phenomenon. Within world Protestantism, it is almost certainly a majority. There is the sizable core that explicitly calls itself “Pentecostal”, but there is also what has been called “Pentecostalization”—the infusion of some or all the “gifts of the Spirit” into churches that used to be much more sedate. In all likelihood most of Protestantism in developing countries has been “Pentecostalized”. While most Pentecostals are, broadly speaking, part of the globally huge Evangelical community, there are traditional Anglicans, Presbyterians, even Lutherans, who speak in tongues, heal the sick and perform other miracles. Segments of eastern Orthodox churches (for example in Ukraine) have been “Pentecostalized”. Scholars have coined different terms for the components of this global movement – “Pentecostal”, “classical Pentecostal”, “neo-Pentecostal” (sometimes “pentecostal” appears in lower case), “charismatic”, “renewalist”. There usually is a reason for these terminological differentiations (and scholars love classificatory schemes). But these fine distinctions tend to obscure a fundamental fact: There is one enormous and quite coherent phenomenon, characterized  by the “gifts of the Spirit”, which all these sub-categories have in common. One can quibble endlessly about this or that typology of charismatic Christianity, but if one has had any degree of experience with the charismatic phenomenon, one knows immediately when one encounters it—the defining characteristics are unmistakable.

The charismatic movement within Catholicism has had distinctive problems of its own, most of them rooted in the hierarchical structure of that tradition. The hierarchy continues to be suspicious of the movement—bureaucrats are always suspicious of free enterprise—but concessions to charismatic turbulence have been made for strategic reasons, especially where Pentecostalism in one form or another competes for lay allegiance in countries that used to be monopolistically Catholic. But one cannot understand the Catholic charismatic movement unless one sees its profound affinity to a phenomenon transforming much of Christianity worldwide. I have written about this before on this blog, but modern Pentecostalism (under all its names) must be the fastest-growing movement in the history of religion. Its origin is often dated from the 1906 Azusa Street Revival, when William Seymour, an African-American Holiness preacher started services in an abandoned stable in Los Angeles. The usual charismata soon appeared, to the patronizing amusement of some local journalists who reported on it. If they could have looked a century into the future, they would have stopped laughing. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (the most active and reliable conductor of survey research on religion, located in Washington), celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Azusa in 2006 by publishing a multi-country study of charismatic Christianity. The study estimated the worldwide number of adherents at 600 million. My hunch is that this is very probably too low a figure (it does not allow for the scope of “Pentecostalization”, and it does not figure accurateoly the explosion of this type of Christianity in China). Todd Johnson and Brian Grim (located, respectively, at the Center for the Study of World Christanity near Boston and the Pew Forum) have just published The World’s Religions in Figures. They estimate that what they call “renewalists” consisted of 0.2% of Christians worldwide in 1910, 25.8% in 2010!

It is very important to note that the global distribution of this category of Christians is very uneven: Still a minority in Europe and North America, it is very probably the majority in Latin America, Africa and Asia. One must relate this fact to another basic finding of religious demographers (of whom, I would say, Johnson and Grim may be deemed deans): that the demographic center of Christianity has moved from north to south. In other words, there are now more Christians in the Global South than in the Global North. The implications of this are more significant for Europe than for the United States. The latter contains a robust Evangelical community, much of it supernaturalist with charismatic affinities. But what about the churches in heavily secularized Europe? Cartledge, in his Tablet piece, asks “the old sociological question” (it happened to be a core question of Max Weber’s sociology of religion): Will the order, embodied in the sedate churches of Europe, “routinize” the charisma splashing into their neighborhood from overseas, or will the charisma revitalize the order? I will not speculate about this here, except to suggest that developments extraneous to religion (mostly political and economic) will greatly influence the direction taken by religion in all countries.

On May 22 the Associated Press reported on an incident in Rome. On a mass celebrating Pentecost on the preceding Sunday, Pope Francis I laid his hands on the head of a young man in a wheelchair who seemed to suffer from some kind of paroxysm. After the Pope had touched him the young man slumped in his wheelchair. An Italian television station interviewed some exorcists, who opined that the Pope had performed an exorcism. The Vatican issued a statement saying that he had not “intended” to perform an exorcism, but that he frequently prayed for sick people who came before him. This leaves some wriggle room, since, intentionally or not, such a prayer could be perceived as freeing an individual from demonic possession. It was then pointed out that Francis frequently mentions the devil in his homilies and that there has been a rising demand for exorcisms among the faithful. I suspect that Catholics were divided in how they reacted to the incident: Some more progressive ones may have hoped that Francis is not about to lead the Church back to what they consider to be medieval superstition; more conservative ones will welcome any sign that the Pope has not given up on the supernatural aspects of the faith. The second group will have more dark-skinned people than the first.

[Photo of a Pentecostal service in Slovakia courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    It is perhaps no surprise that Pentecostalism was birthed in an abandoned stable by a Black minister in 1906 on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. As sociologist Max Weber might have postulated, there was an elective disaffinity between the modernization of Los Angeles and the experiences of the “oppressed” at the bottom of the social order.

    Weber wrote that there was an “elective affinity” between the “Spirit” of Protestant norms of a work ethic, discipline, saving and Capitalism. “Elective affinity” means a resonance or mutual attraction between a particular economic status, political power or powerlessness, and religious practice and worldview in a way that all complemented the other. By “spirit” Weber meant the powerful synergy of all these forces.

    1906 California was undergoing modernization by the coming of the railroad monopolies – specifically the Southern Pacific Railroad – that allowed railroads to run over people. The price to transport goods to markets were set by monopolists based on “rational” pricing to cover their costs and make a profit not on what prices farmers or open markets sought. Hence the pejorative term: “railroaded.” This was captured up in Frank Norris’ leftist novel The Octopus: A Story of California about how wheat farmers lost their leased railroad lands to larger farm operations. From this experience, the Progressive Political movement was concurrently birthed in California. As Pentecostalism became a religion of the oppressed the Social Gospel became a religion of elites.

    In the 1920’s Aimee Semple McPherson established the Foursquare Church in Los Angeles and was a pioneer in religious radio and media. She drew crowds to her Angelus Temple. She was a farm girl and émigré from Canada. McPherson married a Pentecostal minister who died of malaria. Her new husband was an accountant who she converted to Christianity and speaking in tongues. McPherson was also a faith healer.

    Into the vacuum of meaning that Weber’s “Iron Cage” of modernity brought with it in Los Angeles came the Pentecostal religious movement of religious mediating structures: spirits, ancestors, objects, speaking in tongues, religious operas, trances, faith healing, and spontaneous body movement, with little hierarchical or even gender distinction.

    Weber inferred that rationality is too limited to provide an answer whether life has meaning in the face of suffering — theodicy — and the homeless alienation that modernity brings with it.

    Pentecostalism initially was the experience of reality unmediated by orthodoxy, a priestly hierarchy or Pope, or even by Holy Scripture as epitomized by the Pentecostal “Oneness” movement. To Pentecostalists it was an encounter with what Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendem of a transcendent reality. All overly rational plans, laws, and bureaucracies were revealed as arbitrary and insignificant.

    A secularized version of Pentecostalism emerged much later with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Unlike Pentecostalism, the Esalen movement sought wholeness and the “realization” of inner human potentiality rather than transcendence. Drugs gave an escape into an alternative reality. Instead of tongue speaking and spontaneous bodily movement of Pentecostalism came meditation, yoga, “spirituality,” Buddhism, and healing by organic food. If Pentecostalism was a mediator of modernization, the Esalen Movement was post-modern or anti-modern rejection of the world. The Esalen Movement of post-modern elites went nowhere; Pentecostalism spread around the world mostly in societies undergoing rapid modernization.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    For those interested there is an interview in this week’s Forbes.com magazine online with Peter Berger: “Is Religion an Essential Driver of Economic Growth?” (May 29 issue).

    If the Mortgage Bubble was a secular version of “inner world profligacy” then its antidote might be “inner world aestheticism” as discussed in Forbes interview with Berger.

  • roastytoasty

    In the 2000+ years since God walked the earth as a man among men, much of traditional, man-made religious practice in Christianity has moved farther & farther away from the original mission. Regarding the work of His Spirit, the words of the LORD Christ himself are instructive: Gospel of John, chapters 14, 15, 16 & 17: http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Jhn&c=14&v=1&t=KJV#top
    A contemporary example of the Holy Spirit at work:
    http://www.worldinvisible.com/avlib/html_series/What-is-the-Baptism-of-the-Holy-Spirit.html

  • Jim__L

    Another article from the self-confessed “incurable” but curiously asymptomatic Lutheran…

    “I will not speculate about this here, except to suggest that developments extraneous to religion (mostly political and economic) will greatly influence the direction taken by religion in all countries.”

    Doesn’t Berger’s bland statement here constitute a complete rejection of Pentecostalism, and perhaps even Christianity itself? It’s hard for me to see how Luther’s “Sola Gratia” principle coexists with Berger’s “extraneous developments”.