Some Personal Reflections On Pentecostalism

Some Personal Reflections On Pentecostalism

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Some Personal Reflections

on Pentecostalism

Harvey

G.

Cox,

Jr.*

When I attended the annual

meeting

of the

Society

for Pentecostal Studies

(SPS),

held last fall in Springfield,

Missouri,

I was welcomed at least as

warmly

as the

younger

son in the

parable

who had decided to forsake the husks for the more

satisfying

fare of his father’s table. I felt genuinely

included.

Still,

I could also see that some of the members had a little

difficulty hiding

their astonishment that the author of The Secular

City,

and a

long

time member of the

faculty

of Harvard Divinity School,

should

appear

at an SPS

gathering,

and one held at the main

seminary

of the Assemblies of God at that. But when I explained–quite truthfully–that

I had not come to

give

a

paper

but to listen and

learn,

no one seemed

surprised.

Pentecostals

recognize

that there is something

fascinating,

to insiders and outsiders

alike,

about their

burgeoning global

movement.

They know it has an

engrossing history

and a

complex

and

intriguing theology,

and

they

know that the role it has

recently begun

to

play

on the

global religious

scene makes it

impossible

to

ignore. Further,

I sensed that

they

know their movement is now

finding

its way through a wrenching

transition and that candid conversation between reflective insiders and

sympathetic

outsiders is now more

important

than ever. Still,

I can understand

why

some Pentecostals

might

be

puzzled by my interest. Allow me to

explain.

I have now

spent

almost

thirty years teaching

at Harvard

University, in both the

Divinity

School and in the

Religious

Studies

Program

of the Faculty

of Arts and Sciences. I have also

taught

in the Moral

Reasoning division of the Harvard

undergraduate

core curriculum where I offered a course for several

years

on Jesus that attracted enormous enrollments,

often six or seven hundred students.

During

these

very rewarding years, however,

I have come to realize what

might

seem quite obvious,

that when

you

teach

theology

and

religion nowadays

in most universities

you study mainly

other

people’s

ideas and experiences.

You

investigate

the

history

of

religions, comparative religion,

the

scriptures

of the world,

maybe

the

psychology

of

religion. This is

perhaps

as it should be. Few universities are

equipped

to

help students enter into a mystical

quest

for their own

spiritual

center.

Also, in order to avoid

myopia

and

provincialism, any truly

educated

person must be familiar with what has been

taught

and

experienced

in

past ages

and

by

other

peoples,

both in one’s own

spiritual

tradition and in the others.

Harvard *Harvey

G.

Cox, Jr.,

is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity at the

Divinity School, Cambridge,

Massachusetts.

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30

But there is a downside to this second-hand

consumption

of

religion. As

Ralph

Waldo Emerson

eloquently

warned a

gathering

at Harvard Divinity

School in

1838,

the

danger

of a steady diet of other

people’s s religion

is that it can often

dry up

one’s own resources.

Ideas,

which can be

very secondary,

can take the

place

of experience, which must in some

way

be

personal.

I have sensed this

danger acutely during my years

as a teacher

and–perhaps

also as the result of an inclination that started in

my boyhood–have

felt

personally

drawn to those

religions which

major

in the “affections” rather than in doctrines. I am sure this experiential

orientation is one of the

things

that has

sparked my

recent interest in Pentecostalism.

My lifelong propensity

for the kinetic does not mean that I have no appetite

for the

philosophies

and doctrines of religion. On the

contrary, my hunger

is so voracious I can never devour

enough

of them. But this is just the

point.

It is

precisely my daily

immersion in the

fascinating formulations that make

up

the world of

theological

studies which causes

my personal religious

inclinations to wander

elsewhere,

and to ask time and time

again,

what

experience,

what encounter with the numinous,

lies behind and beneath this or that

theology?

This

experiential disposition

no doubt also traces back to

my

earliest encounter with the transcendent

which, though clearly

called forth

by the narratives and

images

of

my

own

evangelical Baptist church,

was never contained or exhausted

by them.

I could sense the

presence

of the great mystery

not

only

in

my

own

church,

but also in the Nazarene church at the

edge

of

town,

in St. Patrick’s down the

block,

and in the local African Methodist

Episcopal congregation.

The result is that during my

lifetime I have encountered the transcendent in many guises, in a variety of

holy places,

and

through

a number of different modes of worship.

I have sat in meditation for

back-breaking

hours with Zen monks, prayed

with

my

face toward Mecca with

Muslims, puffed

on a feathered

peacepipe

with Sioux

holy men,

and felt the

warming

fire in Hindu

temples.

I have

always gravitated

toward

experiential religion, but I have never

forgotten

that it was

through

a personal experience of Christ that I first came into the

presence

of the Divine

Spirit.

Given this pattern

of life

trajectories,

it was

probably

inevitable that one

day

I would

develop

a

strong

interest in

Pentecostalism,

the

experiential branch of

Christianity par

excellence.

Still,

however natural

my

interest in Pentecostalism seems to

me,

I can see

why

for some

people

there

might appear

to be innumerable counter-indications. Was I at the SPS as the

prodigal

son or as a wolf in

sheep’s clothing?

After

all,

I am the

theologian

who once wrote somewhat

favorably

about the

positive

side of

secularization,

even claiming

that it was in some measure a product of the

impact

of biblical religion

on

society. Although

I was never one of the “death of God” theologians–a

media-created

blip

I

stoutly opposed during

its

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short-lived

heydey

in the 1960s–I

felt,

and still

feel,

that it did make a contribution to

Christianity by demolishing

some outmoded and oppressive images

of God. It was useful iconoclasm. In more recent years

I have been

rightly

identified as

part

of the liberation

theology movement which

supports vigorous

Christian

participation

in social change.

At first

sight,

none of these

previous,

and

ongoing, phases

in

my work seem

compatible

with what most

people

think Pentecostalism is about. Is Pentecostalism not a movement which

rejects

the modem secular world as a realm of irredeemable evil from which all true Christian should

separate

themselves? Would not most Pentecostals view

any

talk about the death of God as the worst sort of

blasphemy? And,

when

they

do risk

any

involvement in the

political order,

do not Pentecostals

usually

end

up supporting

the most

reactionary positions?

My

recent

reading

and more intimate involvement with Pentecostalism has

persuaded

me that the answers to these

questions are not as obvious as some

people

think

they

are. In

fact,

I am

prepared to

argue

that it is

precisely

a certain Christian down-to-earth “this-worldliness”–Christian

secularity,

if

you

will–that makes Pentecostalism so attractive to so

many

millions of people today. I also believe that some of the ideas of the “death-of-God”

theologians,

such as their

emphasis

on the

experience

of radical

immanence,

the

rejection of traditional

ecclesially

mediated

images

of

God,

and their sense that we stand at the threshold of a new

spiritual era–although they

often expressed

them in

hyperbolic language–are

also articulated in a

quite different idiom in Pentecostalism.

Finally,

I believe that

Pentecostalism, and the

global upsurge

of

spirituality

it represents, may in the

long

run have a

considerably

more

radical,

even

revolutionary, impact

than liberation

theology

can. At its

best,

Pentecostalism attacks not

only

the demonic

political

and economic

systems

that

keep

God’s children in cruel

bondage,

but the core of distorted values and

misshapen worldviews that sustains these

oppressive

structures.

For a number of

years

now I have been

catching up

on Pentecostal history, reading

the

theology

and

visiting

Pentecostal churches whenever I can. As I have

worshipped

in these churches I have found that while some Pentecostals do indeed

personify

the narrow zeal popular judgment

attributes to

them,

most do not. But I also believe there is

something

far more

important

to be said about them. On a global basis,

Pentecostals

incorporate

into their

worship patterns

the insights

and

practices

of other faiths–shamanic

trance, healing,

ancestor veneration–more than

any

other Christian movement I know

of,

albeit frequently

without

realizing

it.

Pentecostalism,

I have come to

believe, is “catholic” and universal in a way most Pentecostals do not

recognize and

many might

even

deny.

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personally. Intellectually,

because diverse and

competing religions, smashing

other

people’s temples,

For me this

discovery

was an

important

one both

intellectually

and

I believe that in a shrunken world of

where fanatics take

delight

in we

desperately

need

spiritual

I am afraid that due

movements that include instead of

excluding.

But

to both the historical constraints

they

have inherited and the

contempt with which

they

have often been

viewed,

Pentecostals could

easily forfeit this

unifying spiritual gift they

could

bring

to a fractious and hateful world. This would be a serious loss for

everyone.

The immediate occasion for

my presence

at the SPS was a program of

teaching

and research that Professor Eldin Villafane of Gordon-Conwell

Theological Seminary

and I have undertaken in the Boston area. Professor

Villafane,

the author of The Liberating Spirit, is also the founder

and,

until

recently,

the director of the Center for Urban

A native of Puerto

Rico,

and an ordained minister in the Assemblies of

God,

Dr. Villafane has become one of the

principal

voices in the field of urban

ministry.

We had offered courses in that field

together before,

but last

year

we ventured

and

taught

Ministerial Education in Boston.

into somewhat new

territory “Pentecostalism and Liberation.” not learned in

many years Springfield

course

discussion,

a seminar It was to

compensate

together

on for what I had

social

theology.

We

agreed

about Pentecostalism that I came to

for what I

hoped

would

be,

and

was,

a crash

make-up

on the

subject.

The seminar Villafane and I offered was

jointly

listed

by Harvard, Gordon-Conwell and the Center for Urban Ministerial Education. It seemed natural for us to work on it

together

since I

regularly

offer courses on the liberation

theologies

at

Harvard,

and Villafane’s book makes an

eloquent

case for a Pentecostal

that we would

cooperate

in

choosing

the books and articles for

would share

equally

in the

lectures,

and would

respond

to each other

candidly,

thus

creating

an

open exchange

that would also help

the students to break

through

the

stereotypes

and formulas that have sometimes

kept

Pentecostals and advocates of liberation

theology at odds. We built in a field

component consisting

of three well

prepared site visits to Pentecostal churches in the Boston

area,

one each from the

Latino, Anglo

and African-American would admit fifteen students

tradition. We also

agreed

that we

through

the GCTS/CUME route and another fifteen from the

Divinity

School and the other divisions of Harvard in order to assure a proper mix.

Interest in the course was

high.

More than twice as

many

students than the

thirty

we

planned

for tried to enroll. With considerable

regret we turned them

away

because we knew that brisk discussion and useful site visits

required

a smaller

group.

We had

expected,

of

course,

that most of the Pentecostals in the class would come

through

the GCTS/CLTME

route,

but to our

surprise,

when the course

appeared

in

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33

the Harvard

catalog,

several Pentecostal students from both the Divinity

School and other

parts

of the

university

asked to take it. It was the

recognition

facilitated

by

this inclusion in the

catalog,

one of the students told

me,

that had

inspired

him to “come out of the closet.” This caused me to

recognize

not

only

the

uncanny power

of the curriculum to define what is real and

important,

but that the

suspicion and

disapprobation

that have

dogged

Pentecostals

throughout

their history

are still

present

in academic circles. As far as I can

tell,

this was the first course ever

given

on Pentecostalism in the entire

history

of Harvard

Divinity

School.

The course was a

roaring success,

one of the liveliest and most productive

I have ever

participated

in. Men and women students from several different Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal

churches;

from Afiica, Asia,

Latin America and the

US;

and

representing black, hispanic

and asian and white cultures took

part.

It was

probably

the most

cosmopolitan

class

meeting anywhere

at Harvard that term. We did not

try

to avoid controversial

questions,

but

plunged

into issues of eschatology,

ecstatic

worship, healing, gender

and

race,

biblical interpretation

and

public policy.

We benefited from

superb guest presentations by

David

Daniels,

Pablo Politchuk and Edith Blumhofer. We sorted out our observations at the site visits. We read some books and articles

by

liberation

theologians

and

analyzed

material both

by Pentecostal scholars and

by

critical historians and social scientists. Throughout

the course Villafane and I

engaged

each other in intense but

friendly dialogue

and

provided opportunities

for the students to do the same. We ended the semester with a festive Christmas

dinner,

music led

by guitar, keyboard

and vocals

supplied by

one of the Pentecostals whose minister was enrolled. The students wrote final

papers

on their own construction of how Pentecostalism and liberation should enrich and

challenge

each other.

It is hard to characterize the consensus that seemed to

emerge

at the end,

but there

definitely

was one. We

agreed

that whereas Pentecostalism needed to

develop

a more

penetrating approach

to systemic evil,

liberationist need to nurture the sense of

personal empowerment

Pentecostals

bring

to

hopeless

and destitute

peoples.

We agreed

that

despite

some of its initial

prophetic power,

American Pentecostalism had lost some of its critical

cutting edge

on issues of corporate evil, war,

racial

justice

and

gender

inclusiveness. We

agreed that,

in different

ways,

both Pentecostalism and liberation

theologies had demonstrated a

“preferential option

for the

poor”

but we did not always agree

on what

strategy

that

option requires.

Dr. Villafane and I will offer another course next

year together

on Pentecostalism. I look forward to

continuing

the conversation and I am grateful

for the

opportunity

since so few of

my scholarly colleagues

are interested in the

subject,

and I had met so few Pentecostals–until I

5

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attended the SPS–who were interested in

dialogue. Still,

it is

surely true that

vigorous dialogue

can

only help

Pentecostals to reclaim their essential

identity.

As a

sympathetic

fellow

traveler,

I

hope they

do. In these recent

years

I have

developed

a

genuine

fondness for the movement,

and I know how much the world needs its

message

and its spirit.

But there is cause for

genuine

concern. In

America,

most white Pentecostals have become

terribly

comfortable with “this world.”

They started out as a faith that

brought hope

to the

rejects

and the losers. Today

some of their most visible

representative

have become ostentatiously

rich.

They

started out as a rebellion

against

creeds.

Today many

of their

preachers cling doggedly

to such

recently

invented dogmas

as the verbal

inerrancy

of the Bible.

They

started out

teaching that the

signs

and wonders that took

place

in their

congregations

were not some kind of

spectral

fireworks but

harbingers

of God’s new

day. Today

some Pentecostals have become so obsessed with the

techniques of

rapture

that

they

have

forgotten

the

original message. They

started out as radical

antagonists

of the

status-quo, refusing

to

fight

the

bloody wars of this fallen

age. Many

have now turned into

flag-waving super-patriots, easy

marks for the

demagogues

of the new

religious right. They

started out as a

radically

inclusive

spiritual fellowship

in which race and

gender

discrimination

virtually disappeared.

That is hardly

the

case,

at least in most white Pentecostal churches

today.

But I have not

given up hope.

In fact what

impressed

me most about the

people

I met at the SPS was not just their

openness

to

dialogue

but also their commitment to rescue their own movement from the distortions it has

suffered, especially

in recent

years.

What I found there was an

expanding company

of

young

Pentecostal leaders who are determined not to barter the

power

of their remarkable movement for a questionable

batch of

currently popular religious

and

political slogans. They

are determined not to lose touch with the

poor

and disinherited with whom

they

started out. And

they

are determined that the

Holy City,

seen of John, which has been so central to their vision for so

long, will not remain forever a dream.

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