Sola Scriptura And Philosophical Christianity - Part 22

October 23, 2008 Length: 14:42

Matthew examines the Western Charismatic movement.





I spent many years in the Charismatic movement. I understand why people turn to it. To me, it seems that serious Charismatics are the one group within the Western tradition that has come to grips with the spiritual ineffectiveness of that heritage. Charismatics know that God wants us to encounter Hm in a way that, as St. Paul says, “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

For them, the rational contemplation and application of scriptural principles is not enough. Nor are they satisfied with imagining God. They are rightly convicted that the Spirit needs neither our reasoning, nor our imagination, as a go-between for our experience of His living presence within us.  So they ground their experience of God in direct displays of the Spirit’s power—speaking in tongues, the utterance of prophecies, words of knowledge, healings, and the like. To them, these are clearly identifiable as the work of the Spirit alone. Our part in them is simply to respond to the Spirit’s moving.

In this, Charismatics demonstrate that they understand the essential nature of the experience God wants us to have with Him. But do they truly enter into the experience? It seems that even for these believers, the essential self-focus that permeates all of Western Christianity, gets in the way of what they are seeking.

I do not wish to engage here, the issue of the validity of charismatic gifts. Even when I was a Charismatic, I sometimes questioned the legitimacy of these gifts. At times I was not comfortable even in my own practice of them. But on the other hand, there were things that occurred in Charismatic meetings in which I participated, that I am still convinced were the work of the Holy Spirit.

Let us lay that matter aside for now. For it is really secondary to a more pressing question—the same one that I raised regarding the rational investigation of the scriptures, and the spiritual application of imagination. In general, is the Western practice of charismatic gifts self-denying, or self-focused? Again, when I say self-focused, I do not mean egotistical. I mean that the focus of the activity is on something that happens within the practitioner. 

Sadly, what I have observed in my own life, as well as in the lives of other Charismatics with whom I fellowshipped, is that the common charismatic experience does not seem to qualify as self-denying. To be self-denying, an activity must center in the life of another. It must be done for the sake of that other. I cannot participate in it for the sake of generating some feeling in me. That includes even good things—like conviction, assurance, faith, joy, etc.

In short, if I find myself evaluating the activity by the impact it has on me, then I am being self-focused. There is only one way to measure whether or not I have been self-denying in an encounter with another. I must be able to identify what selfish desires I had to struggle with and give up in order to become humble and obedient to the other.

The problem with typical charismatic experience is that it lacks this self-denying element. Instead, it is about self-fulfillment. It is about self-empowerment. A dear friend of mine who was a Charismatic pastor for many years made this point to me the other day at coffee. Though he is not Orthodox, he, like me, left the Charismatic movement years ago. As he put it to me, “I finally saw through the illusion that our attempts to envigorate and enliven our souls with the gifts, amounted to genuine worship of God.

Charismatics are sincerely hungering for the right sort of living interaction with God. But the bottom line in their practice of charismatic gifts comes down to what it does for them—how it makes them feel. That is how they evaluate the meaning of their experience. They do not measure it on the basis of how quiet, selfless and obedient it makes them.

When I reflect on my own charismatic experience, and listen to what others tell me about theirs, it seems to me that the underlying purpose of charismatic practice is the shoring up of one’s belief that God is real, through the manifestation of the more miraculous spiritual gifts. But thinking about this in the light of our ongoing discussion here, we can recognize this as yet another symptom of the God-across-the-gulf-of-being syndrome. Even though they seek to supersede it, the faith of Charismatics is still grounded in a Western legacy that knows God from a distance. Just like those believers who seek Him through rationale contemplation of the scriptures, or through the application of imagination, Charismatics, by right of their Western theological heritage, do not know how to find a peaceful and quiet consciousness of God’s divine life deep within their own. 

That, after all, is the experience we are meant to have with God. The silent awareness of another’s interpenetrating presence within us, is the hallmark of true love. It is what allows me, for instance, to look into my wife’s eyes, and without thinking, speaking, or doing anything, be brought to tears by a spiritual sense of her presence in my heart. That is, I feel her love for me, from within me. And with God, that awareness can be even more profound, for unlike my wife, He, in fact, isin my heart.

Without the resources that the ancient apostolic Church provides for encountering God in this way, Charismatics must seek an alternative route. To sense God, they require some dramatic outward sign of divine power, some exhilarating manifestation that overwhelms them, in order to touch the living God.

That is why, when Charismatics talk with each other about the miraculous gifts, it is usually to discuss how to experience them more often and more intensely. When they talk about their failings in the spiritual life, it is usually to lament their inability to access the power that they believe resides in charismatic practices. The object of the gifts seems to be personal empowerment—not the attaining of meekness, humility and obedience. Achieving broken-hearted repentance and freedom from sinful passions, do not appear to be primary goals. And yet, that is what must happen in us if we are to develop a genuine awareness of God living within us. To participate in His life, and to sense ourselves participating in that life, we must become like Him—humble, meek, obedient, dispassionate—that is who God is. It is who we must be.

That is why there is nothing flashy about the relationship that those who are most spiritually advanced in the ancient Eastern path enjoy with God. Many of them possess spiritual gifts that the typical Charismatic cannot even begin to imagine. But they do not speak of them. They do not parade them. On the rare occasions when they speak about themselves, they give no hint of them. Their demeanor is consistently the peaceful one, of broken and repentant sinners, whose confidence is not in the power of their belief, or in the self-fulfilling nature of their religious experiences, or in the miraculous gifts that they possess, but in their intimate awareness of God’s loving presence within them.

Rather than measure the intensity of the Spirit’s presence in brokenness, repentance and self-forgetting, Charismatics gauge it alternately by the excitement it produces, or the sense of bliss that sweeps over them. If these occur in their charismatic meetings, then the Spirit is there. If they do not, then He is not, and those involved need to figure out why.

But none of this, of course, can be characterized as self-denial. It is, again, self-focus at work. But do not misunderstand me. I personally know Charismatics who are very humble and repentant people. It is just that they did not get that way by chasing ecstasy, excitement and bliss.

This was illustrated to me a while back when I was talking to a number of former Charismatics who are now Orthodox Christians. Interestingly, we all agreed that the moments in which we sensed the presence of God most strongly back in our charismatic days, occurred outside of our experience and practice of charismatic phenomena. Instead, it was in moments when we felt lost and unworthy and broken because of our sin, that we most vividly were aware of God. And that makes sense. For in those particular times, the awareness of our sin ran deeper than just a rational recognition that we had done something which violated a divine principle we acknowledged, requiring us to admit our error to God. What we felt was more than a feeling of guilt. We felt the wound of our sin in the center of our souls.

It takes more than theologic principles, more than telling ourselves we are forgiven, more than imagining the mercy of Christ, and more than charismatic excitement, to heal those kinds of hurts. Of course, the reason we were feeling that way, was that somehow, in some way, that we could not ourselves perceive at the time, we were responding to the wooing of Christ. When our circumstances somehow pushed the recognition of our sin down into the center of our hearts, the Lord Jesus Christ made His presence known in that same deep place. There is where He dwells. There, in that inner realm of the heart, is where He wants to meet us. There was one thing all of us former Charismatics agreed on that day. These experiences happened to us in spite of our theological views and our worship practices—not because of them.

And here may be a good place to sum of this whole discussion of Western approaches to the experience of God. The Lord Jesus Christ does not intend to make Himself known to us by inspiring our interpretations of scripture from His far place in heaven, nor does He desire to bless our imagination with a glimpse of Him standing on that far shore of the great gulf of being. He does not even want to establish our faith in His reality through miraculous charismata. No, Christ wants us to know Him as the God whose love interpenetrates our being.

We can touch that Christ only as we deny ourselves. This self-denial includes the abandoning of our own desires and needs. It requires that we cease to care about everything in this world that we find self-fulfilling. Knowing Christ in this way demands that we give up our own thoughts about Him, our philosophizing, and our personal theologizing over scripture. We must set aside even our holiest attempts at imagining Him. Any quest for His powers must be forsaken in the quest for Him.

Instead, we must embrace Christ as the indwelling person He is. We must center our faith life on the practice of those holy activities by which Christ has made Himself known in the hearts of Orthodox believers since the days of the apostles, and the way to that direct, immediate encounter with the indwelling person of Jesus Christ, is the two-fold path of asceticism, and sacrament. We will speak of those, the next time we meet.