Re-imagining The Holy Spirit: Emerging into a post-charismatic world?

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Steven Hamilton’s post on Deep Church earlier this week has raised some great questions.   Let me contextualize my response in some passing comments by Jason, when setting up this series.

Firstly, “how little there is within emerging church resources about the Holy Spirit.”

Secondly, how Jason’s own church plant within Vineyard has “tried to explore our emerging identity and remain within our charismatic tradition” (my italics).

Thirdly, that many of his longstanding emerging church friends are “post-charismatic.”

These suggest two related tensions at work.   One, a loss of confidence in the ‘received wisdom’ about the Spirit bequeathed to us by the 20th Century charismatic movement and Pentecostalism.   The other, a discomforting awareness that while we may no longer feel able to embrace 20th Century charismatic understandings, a fresh pneumatology with which we are comfortable has yet to emerge.

The combined result is an ‘unfilled space’, precisely where a vibrant theology and praxis of the Spirit ought to be located.

It’s like an empty lot, that we drive past each day, on our journeys to and fro other places, with no reason to stop by.

It’s time to rebuild, but many of us find ourselves in reaction:

  • For some of us, a virtual wholesale rejection of that tradition, having witnessed such embarrassments, errors and abuses under the banner of ‘charismatic spirituality’ that we feel nothing good can come out of it.   In an earlier comment, Mike McNichols spoke of “an understandable reaction to groups that have caricatured the Holy Spirit into the facilitator of exotic manifestations.”

In this view, 20th Century charismatic and Pentecostal pneumatologies are simply irredeemable, in anything like the form they are currently practiced at the popular level – we simply have to close that chapter and open a new one.  The extent to which this is a reaction against the pneumatology or against the ecclesiology, theology and culture of its practitioners is another question.

  • Some of us, meanwhile, are still clinging precariously to a certain element of our inherited ‘charismatic tradition’, on the basis that it (or something quite like it) simply must have a place in our experience of a deeply relational God who tangibly engages with us in Christian life.

In other words, since we (rightly) see personal, experiential relationship with God as central to both gospel and ecclesiology, and believe in God’s personal activity in the world, we are loathe to ditch ‘the charismatic’ entirely, despite some considerable discomfort with it as widely practiced. So, with no clear way forward, as an interim measure we scale back, but without abandoning all charismatic praxis (because, like Fox Mulder, it is still the case that “I Want To Believe”).

  • Others, though,  find ourselves (alone or in combination with the above) simply fearful of engaging with the Spirit at all, or afraid of getting it wrong,  so we withdraw into apparently ‘safe’ (yet, empty) territory.

All of these positions, and no doubt others, might be dubbed ‘post-charismatic.’   But as we know from postmodernity, the prefix ‘post-’ simply indicates a moving beyond.   It does not tell us anything about what might replace it.   It’s an in-between state, primarily defined by its negative critique of what came before.

This, then, may be where we find ourselves in our own relationship with the Spirit.

Our position is not helped by, on the one hand, the elusiveness of the Spirit, as part of his very nature, and on the other, the scantiness of biblical instruction on the Spirit.

Not only is pneumatology somewhat underdeveloped in Scripture, it is notable that the Creeds offer us relatively little.  The Apostles Creed, for example, is content simply to state “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, without further elaboration.   Creedal references to the Spirit are, as Clark Pinnock notes, “brief and occasional, at times sounding almost perfunctory” (Flame of Love, Downers Grove: IVP, 1996, p.10).

If, then, we are earnestly seeking to re-imagine the Spirit in our emerging context, but we find the inherited legacy of 20th century charismatic and Pentecostal teachings and praxis an unsatisfactory place to start, how might we develop an orthopraxy of the Spirit that:

  • is faithful to canonical Scripture,
  • respects tradition, especially creedal affirmations, and
  • wholly engages with ‘who we are’ in our contemporary culture?

Steven Hamilton suggests we explore some impulses from our deep church history, such that our forebears’ understanding and praxis might inform our own experience of God through the Spirit.   Since the Holy Spirit “epitomizes the nearness of the power and presence of God” (ibid. p.9), this seems an entirely valid starting point, for the Spirit is, fundamentally, God experienced.

It was the Early Church’s reflections on their own experiences of the Spirit that led them to a fully-Trinitarian theology.*   Just as their experiences of Jesus inevitable led them to certain conclusions as to his Person, so also did their subsequent experiences of the Spirit’s work – it is clear in Luke’s narrative that he sees the Spirit continuing to do what Jesus began to do and to teach (Acts 1:1).

Fundamental to our conception of his 'doing' and his 'teaching' is his ‘being with us’ (Matt 1:23; Jn 14:9), which the Spirit of Jesus continues (Jn 14:16; Acts 16:7).   To ‘experience’ the Spirit, then, whatever else it may be, is – first and foremost – to engage in a relationship with a Person, who has come to be with us.

Following Steven, I would strongly encourage our exploration of the mystic impulse, particularly within an environment of sacred space; for whatever our emerging doctrine of the Spirit looks like, it will be experienced, not just framed and hung on the wall.

At the same time, we shall need to ‘deconstruct’ all our assumptions about the Spirit inherited from the charismatic traditions.  The Spirit is not simply some amorphous ‘mode of operating’ of God.   He is not a set of gifts, or a power we call down, or an extra-sensory spiritual encounter.   Neither is he here to perform ‘magic tricks’ to order, to endorse or validate our ministries.

We shall also need to unpick the threads of the gnostic and dualistic characteristics that are so deeply woven into the fabric of much Christian understanding of charismatic ‘spirituality’.

* Against the backdrop of a religious paradigm in which monotheism was the overarching and 'non-negotiable' tenet, a Trinitarian conclusion was remarkable, and speaks to the deep authenticity of those Spirit-experiences.