skepticism-smWhat do 21st century United Methodists actually believe about the Holy Spirit?  Are we in danger of lumping the trans-rational in with the irrational and dismissing anything and everything supernatural with a primitive and premodern understanding of the world?  Secular critics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens delight in “proof-texting” religious history to elevate the gross abuses of religious power from history and the ignorant faith-as-magic modern aberrations as the “norm,” seeking to ignore any and all good spirituality has wrought in favor of religion’s failings.  By relegating religious belief to the immature, infantile and primitive, it is simple to dismiss it wholesale.  Yet, this ignores that billions upon billions of people find great hope and peace in religious belief.  And beefers like Dawkins refuse to include anyone with half a brain in his definition of “religious.”  But there is a bell curve in every belief system, scientific, religious or otherwise.  Certainly, there are those simple folk who believe in a benevolent grandfather sitting in the clouds, waiting to grant wishes in the form of prayer to change the natural order and defy physics and biology, but they are the tail three standard deviations from the norm.  They are the easy target, used to make religion seem silly and embarrassing (yet, people have the right to believe even this if they so choose…).  At the other end of the curve, however, is a small segment of brilliant, progressive, insightful and creative people (scientists included) who are deeply religious and spiritual.  When I traveled from college campus to college campus conducting interviews for the seeker study in the early part of the last decade, I encountered dozens of young minds turned off by the tail of the bell curve, but totally ignorant of the leading edge.  I introduced many students to a whole new range of voices (including Frank Brennan, Ken Wilber, Jim Wallis, Sebastian Kappen, Leonardo Boff, Charles Hartshorn, Sri Aurobindo, Neill Hamilton) that actually resulted in some becoming Christian.  I cannot count the number of people whose gratitude rests in the fact that Christianity was redeemed for “smart” people.

It is a tragic failing that we have allowed spirituality to become associated with simple-mindedness and magical thinking.  A very prominent concept during the enlightenment was that of afflatus — divine inspiration, or a deeply spiritual creative impulse that allowed human beings to transcend their earthly limitations to think great thoughts, compose great music, author great literature, create glorious art, and strive toward goodness, truth and beauty.  In the Christian faith, afflatus was the “breath of God” (Holy Spirit), alive and at work within the body of Christ.  Do we, in our cynical and skeptical age, still believe in afflatus?

Contemporary physics, exploration of the human mind and the potential of artificial intelligence, the scope and nature of the cosmos — these and other “scientific” disciplines are raising questions much more metaphysical than physical?  The ground of all being, the purpose of life, the eschatological fate of creation — these explorations occupy a lot of time and attention today.  In every generation, great thinkers stand at the limit of human understanding and look into the void wondering what else is out there.  In this respect, we are no different from our primitive/pre-modern ancestors.

Within organized religion, the challenge that afflatus affords is critical.  Christians have become not a people of “The Book,” but a people of “books.”  We do not have one authoritative Bible from which we all draw.  Fewer and fewer leaders in our churches can read Hebrew, Greek or early Latin translations.  The deeply flawed and heavily biased King James Version of the Bible is still widespread and beloved, but it has given ground to newer translations.  Differing theological biases color and filter translations, and the more recent mania for paraphrases and contemporary vernacular renderings of English versions of earlier translations of the Latin from the Greek rephrasing the Aramaic cause reflective thinkers to ask “what is getting lost in translation here…?”.  We turn to commentaries, and expository authors — choosing those who espouse most closely what we already believe.  We don’t seek to learn or be challenged — but to hear “experts” confirm what we want most to believe (Wright, Spong, Wallis, Warren, Hamilton, etc., come to mind).  Add to United Methodists our holy-of-holies Book of Discipline and what a fine stew we have!  What possible room have we left the Holy Spirit to teach, guide, challenge or perfect?

Do we entertain the possibility of divine revelation in our day?  When we hear about it in the dominant culture, it is generally framed in terms of some whack-a-doodle being told by voices to commit mayhem or worse.  The idea of visions, spiritual guidance, or messages from on high belong to the realm of mental illness, delusion, or corruption (just send me $20 and I will lay hands on my computer screen and pray for you…).  What would we do if an angel suddenly appeared one Sunday morning in our worship service?  (Don’t worry, if angels are among us they are probably showing up where need is great and where they might do more good than listening to our announcements about the upcoming church supper.)  If one of our own shared an experience of divine intervention or inspiration would we test the spirits together in a prayer for discernment, or would we simply dismiss the individual as flaky?

We in The United Methodist Church profess a trinitarian belief — God in three “persons”: creator/Father/Mother/Parent/Originator, Son/Savior/Redeemer/Word made Flesh, Holy Spirit/Sustainer/Transformer/Advocate/Counselor.  But do we really believe?  Do we afford a place not only of honor, but of authority to the “third person”?  I am not sure we do.  I think we have become too smart to believe in Spooky, the Holy Ghost.  The concept has been so attacked, so ridiculed, and so ignored (even IN the church) that we do not have an authentic pneumatology to match our varied theologies and Christologies.

So, what am I calling for?  I believe we should bring to bear on our faith the most rigorous thinking, scientific method (experimentation), empirical engagement (meditation, prayer, fasting) with the expectation that we will indeed have an encounter with the divine.  We need to do this in community — no loose cannons spouting off what God told them individually — but working and reflecting in wise counsel what we believe God is saying to us today.  We have lost credibility with the most highly educated strata of our culture.  The powerful witness of a transcendent and trans-rational faith is being subsumed and destroyed by those who make no distinction between this and a primitive, premodern, mythic-magic, immature faith.  When we say “come, Holy Spirit,” we need to mean it — and to understand what we mean when we ask for it.

9 replies

  1. I know this sin’t necessarily about this post, but then again, in a way it is about Dan’s “larger picture”. Yesterday, I was sharing some thoughts with some friends via email, when the following “came flowing out”.
    True Methodism is an active, living religion, it is truly the body of Christ in action, whether collectively or individually; that is another thing The UMC has forgotten, it is not necessarily about the collective church being “out there”, it is also about the individuals being “out there”–like the planner of the triathlon–that was not a “church-sanctioned” event, that was one person “out there” publicly declaring his love of a triune God of holy love who is way more verb than noun to 400 athletes–and he did it in the most subtle yet profound way–it was all part and parcel of “who he is”. True Methodism is not about inviting people to church, it is about enticing them into a relationship with a triune God of holy love who is way more verb than noun.

    One of my “low moments” in the part of this journey I have been on was after the above referenced triathlon. My daughter and her friend participated. Of course, immediately after it was over, there was all the excitement of “Wow, I did this.” But when we got in the car for the ride home, the first thing out of the friends mouth, was a reference to the prayer given by the organizer of the triathlon before the event started–and it impacted her very much. She has “felt the nudge”, but doesn’t know how to respond, and her initial encounters with “Christians” has not been positive. And there I sat with all my “religious pedigree”, unable to respond, feeling like I was not much farther along than she was–more questions than answers.

    The concept of “tue Methodism” will have to “keep me going” as I realize I will be going back to the local UMC.

  2. One more comment. I have learned more about “what this is about” in the last week and a half by delving into the Heildelberg Catechism along with M. Craig Barnes’ book, “Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism” than I have during a lifetime of being a good Methodist–it has been almost overwhelming.

    Part of the answer to the very first question brings the Holy Spirit into play early on:

    “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me whoeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

    Question 20 of the catechism deals with the Holy Spirit:

    “What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit?
    First, that he Spirit, with the Father and the Son, is eternal God.
    Second, that the Spirit is given also to me, so that, through true faith, he makes me share in Christ and all his benefits, comforts me, and will remain with me forever.”

    Barnes calls the catechism the bridge between the Bible and life and that is exactly what it is doing for me. Through this catechism, rank and file Christians of the 1500’s were given way more knowledge and understanding of God and themselves than we are today.

    Just for reference, I am working off the 2011 version fom Faith Alive Resources of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. There is more than one modern translation out there, this is just the one I found. Having “muddled around in a grey area” for most of my life, I love the idea of this type of catechism as a teaching tool! This is not just dry knowledge concerning doctrine and theology.

    “In recent years there has been a renewed interest … in the Heidelberg Catechism ….Perhaps that is because we are finally returning to our tradition to gain insights about contemporary life. And maybe it is also because we live in a day when people are searching for a clear and tender presentation on what it means to believe that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” ” M. Craig Barnes

  3. The United Methodist Church has become afraid of people who are “too smart.” I was constantly ridiculed for my background in the biological sciences while serving as clergy in that denomination. I am also aware of talk from the West Michigan Annual Conference’s board of ordained ministry where they said that the woman they had just interviewed was too “intellectual” to be effective in ministry–essentially her intelligence and broad background in many disciplines threatened them. That has to change before you can broach the topic of systematic theology in the UMC. Right now the advice to new pastors is, “Don’t tell them what you learned in seminary. They cannot handle it.” Shocking but true.

  4. Thank you. When I was delving somewhat into Wesley, I actually had an Aha! moment: “Wow!” it is about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.” I recently wrote a piece to help me understand my rather complex relationship with The UMC; as far as knowledge went, after more than a few decades, I came up real short with regards to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Following is an excerpt dealing with that:

    I knew there is a Trinity:
    The Father had some substance from Old Testament stories;
    The Son, Jesus, was in the shadows, murky
    There were stories of wonderful things He did while walking this earth
    We celebrated his birth
    He rose from the dead
    I knew He died on a cross, but that was never directly addressed:
    Church went directly from Palm Sunday to Easter;
    leaving me to wonder, “What is so Good about this Friday?”
    The Holy Spirit was something “I believe” when I recited the Apostle’s Creed.
    It had more to do with “that church” over there.

    I could have written the following assesment of 20th century Methodism; Donald Haynes wrote it–I was stunned to read it a year ago, it described my experience so accurately:

    “…a different journey began in Methodism as long ago as the 1880’s. Methodist Sunday School literature began to emphasize the “stories” of the Old and New Testament and almost censored any references to the Cross and experiential conversion. The philosophy of the religious education movement replaced conversion with “gradualism”….by the 1960’s, confirmation classes became the major means of bringing children to personal faith and/or church membership…We had “slip-sided” our way from experiential grace…of early Methodism to decision confirmed by attending a class. ”

    I have also recently become very aware that we really never get past the resurrection–Jesus’ ascension to sit at the right hand of God the Father to be our advocate and the gift of the Holy Spirit are what are most reelvant for us today. I don’t think interest in the Holy Spirit is new because I learned that from delving into the Heidelberg Catechism originally written in the 1500’s. The best description I have heard about us losing the Holy Spirit is “Pentacostalism cost us pentacost”.

  5. As a newly certified spiritual director, I can attest that Dan’s description of the state of spiritual knowledge and engagement in the UMC is accurate. It’s even more accurate among those of us who view ourselves as “progressive” Christians clustered toward the right-hand side of the bell curve. Because we can’t measure and pigeonhole the Mystery, we dismiss it as aberration.

    Yet the Mystery abides, and even some progressive Christians, such as the Rev. Fred Plumer, president of Progressive, are beginning to engage in a new, public exploration of what it means to ponder and invoke the Holy Spirit.

    FWIW, the certification program from which I graduated at Perkins School of Theology (which alas has been gutted by budget cuts) had a strong Jesuit influence in its rigorous exercise of spiritual practices and intellectual examination. As all students of church history know, the Jesuits are anything but slackers when it comes to rigorous intellectual demands. Having just scaled that particular mountain, I can heartily endorse Dan’s final paragraph of recommendations on how to proceed along the pathway of “trans-rational” spiritual experience.

  6. Phyllis Tickle says that for the 2000 years prior to Jesus, the primary way and mode of understanding God was God the Father (first person). After Jesus’ Resurrection, the next 2000 we saw a shift into trying to understand God the Son (second person), and now we are entering a shift into a new 2000 years of trying to understanding God the Spirit (third person). That might be too overly simplistic, but I do get a sense that the Holy Spirit is the leading edge of Christianity. This is the case Tickle makes in her book Emergence Christianity.

  7. Dan – This resonates with me to a great degree. I am a United Methodist seminary student. The primary reason I am in seminary is from the Holy Spirit filling my life. I also believe that God has made it clear that I am to be under the UM denomination. I, a person who could not imagine being called, was led here loud and clear. Yet when God fills my life with the Holy Spirit so clearly and moves me in such awesome, scriptural ways I hesitate to share it with the United Methodist congregation. I have a fear of the doubt of the parishioners and even worry that my credibility will be questioned. This is my greatest concern in becoming a UM pastor. I want to see the church filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit rather than seeing it being concerned about the Doxology falling in the right place in the bulletin. Your posts are thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you.

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