Thursday 23 February 2017

Evangelical Religion

I read an article recently which said that Christianity could be revived through the evangelical movement but I think that shows a misunderstanding. Something might be revived but whether you could call it Christianity proper is a different matter. I see evangelical or Pentecostal religion as in many respects more akin to certain forms of pre-Christian paganism, even shamanism, and the fact that Christ is the figurehead of this religious approach doesn't necessarily make it the truth that he taught.

Evangelical Christianity, as I understand it, is based on the authority and literal truth of the Bible and the doctrine of salvation through faith. That's the theoretical side. Simple but effective, you might say. Well, effective up to a point. It's also limiting in that it tends to enclose the mind in a very constrained intellectual box in which deeper insights about the nature of reality are excluded with corresponding spiritual development curtailed. An equal difficulty is that, in practice, evangelism often seems to be marked above all by an emotionalism which makes it the very antithesis of a true and deep spiritual Christianity. It seeks immediate experience and so is subjective, which is not necessarily wrong (though certainly has the potential to be), but the experience it seeks is almost exclusively of the excitable, psychic sort which is a descent into the subconscious, pre-rational state. Elation, loss of control, near-hysteria, these are the polar opposite to the proper Christian approach to God of stillness, reflection and contemplation, and the resulting emotional high may be called love or bliss but it's not deep spiritual love at all which always has the quality of peace. Evangelical experience has nothing of the beauty of holiness but is rather an over-stimulated form of excitement brought about by falling below the rational level of the conscious self not by rising above it and thereby including it in a transformed state of spiritual illumination. It reduces the selves of its participants to an amorphous pool instead of taking them up to the transcendent state of at-one-ment in which the self is raised up to God. The oneness evangelicals experience is that of early humanity which had not yet separated itself out individually. It is not dissimilar to the oneness of the football crowd. There is no wisdom, insight, clarity of vision or real love in this. To quote from the article, "Worship is characterised by rock music, swaying and arm waving, hugging – and, for “charismatic evangelicals”, speaking in tongues or possession by the Holy Spirit". The fact that the inspiration behind all this is more likely to be demonic than spiritual is completely ignored. The comment quoted shows no discernment between the different levels of the inner world, and no understanding of how these reveal themselves. To receive the Holy Spirit requires a high level of inner purity, and true spirituality manifests itself in peace and stillness not frenzy and excitement. See John Fitzgerald's piece here and his comments on a 15th century Russian icon The Descent of the Holy Spirit. The choice of words in this quote is also interesting for the Holy Spirit does not possess. It overshadows or inspires.

I expect it will be said that anything is better than nothing and that this religious approach suits many people so who am I to criticise? Maybe that is true (though I imagine this would not be said if human or even animal sacrifice were involved), but then we have to understand that this is a very limited form of spirituality because it is one in which, to use the language of esotericism, the astral body rather than the soul is involved. This means it is a spirituality of the emotions and depends for its success on constant emotional stimulation. And that is actually the reverse of what should happen in proper spiritual development where the higher feelings, those relating to love, truth, goodness and beauty in their spiritual forms, are invoked rather than those that relate to the ordinary emotional nature and what gives it pleasure or pain when considered as a fundamental centre of consciousness which, for the spiritual person, it is not and should not be.

I am talking about the so called charismatic aspects of evangelical or Pentecostal religion here, but these do seem to be what attracts people to it and what it puts forward as distinguishing itself from other forms of Christianity. They are at its core but it is not enough to call your religion Christian and have it centred on an idea of Jesus if you are not properly responding to the true image of Christ in the heart.

You might dismiss my comments as unreasonable or elitist and tell me that people worship in different ways and if they have Jesus at the centre of their religion that's all that matters. In this case here's what someone else said who presumably knew what he was talking about.

 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

It's not just that you believe our even what you believe.  It's also how or in what way you believe and how you work out that belief. Many evangelical Christians appear to seek an emotional high as their spiritual goal forgetting that true religion lies not in experience but in the development of wisdom, humility and holiness. They are not alone in this. It is a besetting sin of the New Age too whose enthusiasts also forget that peak experiences are a small thing compared to the cultivation of sanctity in the soul. If the over-excitement of charismatic religion leads some to a deeper exploration of spirituality then well and good, but I wonder how often it really does. At any rate I must say that this is not the path to any form of true spiritual awakening for the contemporary person in my view because it is too linked to the religious practices of early and pre-Christian humanity. It is not the way forward for modern man. For that we need something that has a deeper philosophical basis than evangelism can provide and which appeals to the imagination and intellect more than that does. I believe we need something like what Bruce Charlton has called Romantic Christianity, a Christianity in which transcendence and immanence are both given their proper due and men and women are seen as sons and daughters of the living God who can fully participate in His life and being but only when they have conformed their nature to His.

I should say that this article reflects my personal opinion, and although I have brought in my two co-contributors to this blog as witnesses for the prosecution they may not share my view as expressed here.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I expect what you say applies to some evangelical Christian churches - but while I would not say it is the answer for us here and now - there is a lot more to many of the churches that classify themselves as evangelical than you say here.

The church I support, and which I attend from time to time (and my children attend regularly) is self-described as a conservative evangelical Anglican church (the 'mother church' of this Reform group is All Souls, Langham Place, London - and they are affiliated with the international GAFCON organisation) - and on the whole I am very impressed with the work they do. They win converts, and they change lives for the better. They have young congregations with plenty of men, and families.

The statistics are that *conservative* evangelicals (i.e. those who advocate traditional practices including traditional sexual morality - and who have male pastors) are among the few mainstream Christian churches which have a lower divorce rate than the population average, and above-replacement size families - so they do make a measurable difference - it isn't *all* emotion!

I think the reason is that these churches have two levels. The public services are much as you say, and this is the superficial level - but the real work of these churches goes on among more advanced believers, in small Bible study and prayer groups meeting in private - and these are often theologically pretty sophisticated and in general 'tough minded'.

The Anglican conservative evangelical pastors are, for example, a very smart group of men - typically with elite university degrees, doctorates etc.

However, having said all this (and it is a significant achievement in the modern context) I think the scope for large scale expansion is limited, and there is a lack of focus on thesosis, an excessive fear of the spiritual, and a theology which at times attributes to God unloving attitudes.

So, I would give evangelicals more credit than you do, and am pleased to see them do what they do (which is overall much better than the existing alternatives) - while agreeing that it is incomplete and not 'the answer' for the future.

William Wildblood said...

Mine was probably a one sided assessment but I was really writing about the pentecostal aspects of the religion and the focus on ecstatic revival which I feel has the potential for a lot of what the Orthodox church calls prelest or spiritual deception. I think Father Seraphim Rose wrote about that in precisely this context.

But I thought you might not agree which is why I put my proviso at the end!

William Wildblood said...

On reflection maybe I should retitle this Pentecostal religion because that is really what I was talking about here.

David Stanley said...

These definitions are surprisingly important. I often have to correct my atheist or agnostic friends who confuse evangelicals and fundamentalists, Pentecostalists and house churches etc. Like Bruce I attend an Anglican evangelical church and his description is very accurate of what happens behind the scenes. We have several different congregations over three buildings in one town. We even have some young men!
We organise men's weekends,father and son activities ,walks and bike rides etc. A suprising amount of deep stuff can happen in these events.

William Wildblood said...

In the light of these two comments let me stress that I was talking about the charismatic aspects of evangelism or Pentecostal forms of Christianity. Perhaps I am not sufficiently aware of the difference. I was taking the description from the newspaper article I read. But I have to say that, in my opinion, any religious service in which reverence, piety and awe are replaced by excessive enthusiasm and the unrestrained happiness in the here and now of over-stimulated emotion, often expressed physically, is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. This results from the attitude that would bring God down to the level of man rather than taking man up to the level of God.