Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition
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Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition

Daniel Castelo, Elaine Heath

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Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition

Daniel Castelo, Elaine Heath

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Informed reassessment of Pentecostalism as a mystical tradition of the church universal Pentecostalism, says Daniel Castelo, is commonly framed as "evangelicalism with tongues" or dismissed as simply a revivalist movement. In this book Castelo argues that Pentecostalism is actually best understood as a Christian mystical tradition. Taking a theological approach to Pentecostalism, Castelo looks particularly at the movement's methodology and epistemology as he carefully distinguishes it from American evangelicalism. Castelo displays the continuity between Pentecostalism and ancient church tradition, creating a unified narrative of Pentecostalism and the mystical tradition of Christianity throughout history and today. Finally, he uses a test case to press the question of what the interactions between mystical theology and dogmatics could look like.

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The Challenge of Method
This work necessarily operates within the domains of theological method and epistemology. Several proposals on this front exist in Pentecostal theology, as a recent comparative study has shown.1 For the purposes of this book, however, I will highlight the approach that views Pentecostalism as a spirituality, since this orientation addresses features of Pentecostal life not available otherwise in theological speech. These features are partly captured in the following comments by Walter Hollenweger, who notes that the strength of Pentecostals “does not lie in what they conceptualize but in what happens to the participants in their liturgies. Their contribution is strongest on the level of spirituality and lived liturgy and not on the level of interpreting spirituality, liturgy, and theology.”2 Pentecostals have been prone to prioritize the enactment and dynamics of faith over paying attention to its conceptualization or rationalization (although they do this kind of work as well, a reality not always known or acknowledged by observers). This kind of privileging could very well set up the theological task in a distinct way. Should theological methodology be affected as a result of this prioritization? And if so, how? This chapter engages these crucial questions.
We begin by considering the pioneering work that granted spirituality a central role in Pentecostal theologizing, and we also consider challenges that continue to be at the forefront of such an approach. Despite growing awareness of the need for somehow including spirituality in theological efforts, the matter continues to create confusion and maybe even frustration, for there is no consensus on precisely how to do so methodologically.
Daring to Conceive of Pentecostalism as a Spirituality within the Academy
In many ways, the publication of Steven J. Land’s Pentecostal Spirituality was a watershed moment for Pentecostal studies.3 The book was the inaugural volume of the series “Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement,” which originated with the beginning of the Journal of Pentecostal Theology. Both endeavors arose in the early 1990s out of conversations John Christopher Thomas and Rickie Moore were having with Sheffield Academic Press. Upon reflecting on the details of these developments, Thomas notes that the 1990 meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies was especially important, for at the time, it appeared that Pentecostal scholarship had reached a critical mass. When pinpointing how to move forward with the series in particular, Thomas and Moore were in agreement. Thomas later reflected about this moment, “We knew immediately what the first volume should be, Steve Land’s soon to be completed Emory University PhD dissertation on Pentecostal Spirituality, a work that in large part would chart the course for a variety of constructive engagements in the area of Pentecostal Theology.”4
This intuition of the importance of Land’s work was appropriate, for Land was calling for a revisioning of North American Pentecostalism, not so much from explicitly historical, sociological, psychological or other nontheological perspectives, but from the ethos of Pentecostals themselves as known through an inductive theological methodology. Land focused on the testimonies and practices of early American Pentecostals during the first decade of the movement, a time that in his mind (and following the lead of Walter Hollenweger) marks the heart of Pentecostalism.5 When Land read the testimonies and happenings of these early Pentecostals, he began to search for appropriate categories to describe what he was finding, ones that could bear the constructive direction he was interested in pursuing. The master category that came to the fore for him was “spirituality.” According to Land, the term is useful because it can account for, among other things, Pentecostalism’s “height” (praise, worship, prayer to God) and its “depth” (convictions, passions, dispositions). Land’s reasoning was as follows: since the focus of Pentecostal life is communal worship, what Pentecostals believe can be properly considered only in conjunction with their practices and dispositions. Land’s approach is thus distinctive in that it emphasizes this multidimensional quality both analytically and constructively.
Talk of “spirituality” has garnered quite a bit of popularity as of late, both within and outside of Christian circles, but only relatively recently has it been deemed a serious theological category meriting scrutiny within formal academic settings.6 The long-standing divide between the church and academy, forged over centuries in western Europe, has continued to plague formal theological efforts, and within such a setting, “spirituality” cannot help but sound privatistic, pietistic, and excessively churchy. For some who assume these conclusions, serious theology needs to avoid the bias and lack of sophistication that can come with talk of people’s faith journeys, worship practices, and deep, life-orienting commitments. The way to preserve this division has often been through the demarcation of methodological and epistemological boundaries so that the subject matter of theology is determined at the outset in a way that makes it academically respectable. As a result, “spirituality” is often cast as something beyond the bounds of legitimate academic scrutiny.
To Land’s credit, he believed that approaching Pentecostalism through a theological lens required a methodological approach that was germane to, and reflective of, the Pentecostal ethos itself. Otherwise, to systematize Pentecostal faith along some conceptual and organizational apparatus could involve missing some of its most important distinctives, since such a process would necessarily involve abstracting and possibly even divorcing Pentecostal beliefs from the life-giving features native to their originating environments. Again, Hollenweger is helpful here in addressing the point directly: “It is, however, difficult to introduce this kind of spirituality into the ecumenical discussion because—if reduced to concepts and propositions—it loses its very essence.”7 Therefore, testimonies, sermons, altar activity, and similar happenings were deemed by Land as necessarily relevant on their own terms when he was accounting for the Pentecostal movement’s theological ethos.
As a result of noting Land’s methodological orientation, however, one senses a significant tension within the field of theology itself that can be highlighted by asking, Who establishes methodological privilege in the theological task? As an academic writing a book that had its origins as a PhD dissertation, Land might have been tempted to present his work more in line with a kind of methodological orientation that was “more suitable” to contemporary theology, particularly the kind that exhibits properties associated with the qualifier “systematic.” Despite such pressures, Land wrote his book with a different methodological self-understanding. As a Pentecostal formed by the academy, he pursued Pentecostal theology in a self-consciously Pentecostal way. Given his creativity (and fortitude!), Land is to be credited with a methodological breakthrough in Pentecostal theologizing.
Land could write as he did in part because of the influence of his Doktorvater, Don Saliers. During his long career, Saliers has shown the dynamics and possibilities of the intersection between theology and spirituality, a research program partly informed by his Wesleyan identity, as well as his formation as a musician.8 In Pentecostal Spirituality, Land draws from Saliers’s orienting concerns by quoting extensively Saliers’s treatment of Karl Barth’s reflections on prayer and its primacy for theological work.9 Among other things, this primacy is grounded in the “I-Thou” encounter between the pray-er and the One prayed to. Hollenweger describes the dynamic as follows: “It is impossible for Christians submerged in this spirituality (at any rate in the Third World) to speak about God without speaking to God, thus reintroducing or reinforcing a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox principle into the theological discourse.”10 Under such a depiction, theologizing is a provisional activity of accounting for the God of Christian confession that is ultimately rendered to God as an act of worship itself.11 As Pentecostal Spirituality details, Land found such a model especially appealing for rendering the theological form and increasing the productivity of Pentecostal theology. Rather than a bifurcation mandated by academic strictures, the spirituality-theology divide could be understood within this framework as a genuine interface in which there was mutual conditioning and influence.
Land’s approach, although helpful in conveying a number of dimensions inherent to the thinking and experience of early Pentecostals, nevertheless creates a number of challenges, ones that critics would no doubt be inclined to raise as challenges to its viability. For instance, Land wishes “to emphasize the importance of the Holy Spirit as a starting point for a distinctive Pentecostal approach to theology as spirituality,”12 yet pneumatology as a whole is a challenging field to secure epistemically. If the Holy Spirit is a “starting point,” how can such an origin be identified and communicated in a way that is useful for theological construction? Yes, a so-called theology of the Nicene Creed’s third article appears to be especially congenial to Pentecostal sensibilities,13 but there are perils to avoid from a number of sides with such a self-identified program, including those that would reflect significant privatization, interiority, and subjectivity. Additionally, the integrationist impulse that Land pursues between Pentecostal beliefs and practices is difficult to maintain, given that it operates out of the grounds of experience and specific events. How can such conditions and their associated practices be accounted for in theological efforts, given that the latter is typically done separately from the former?14 Finally, motivations, dispositions, and affections are internal features of individual selves that arise from some implicit psychology. With this last theme there are also anthropological and moral commitments to be considered.15 On all these scores, debates abound. Land’s approach is thus burdened with a number of challenges, and so it makes perfect sense why theology does not typically pursue its work within the domain associated with “spirituality” in general. Rather than principally being a discursive and analytic form of activity, Land’s approach welcomes pneumatological and praxis-oriented, this-worldly elements of life as central to the theological task, ones that systematic theology typically has difficulty accommodating, since the latter tends to abstraction and decontextualization. In the midst of these factors, one may be led to ask: How can one press forward in articulating a theology in terms of spirituality, given that the approach itself stands in tension with so many of the ways theology has often been pursued?
Before moving too quickly to answer this question generally, perhaps one strategy would be to keep our gaze at a local level, that is, to consider this challenge in terms of the particular case of Pentecostalism—how it has had difficulties accounting for itself theologically and how this situation is symptomatic of the long-standing divide between spirituality and theology. As will be shown below, Pentecostals have repeatedly tried to account for something that can be labeled “Pentecostal theology,” but they have struggled mightily before such a task largely because of the fragmented nature of the contemporary theological enterprise out of which they have pursued such work. Pentecostal scholars often have had some intuited sense of what Pentecostalism is generally and experientially, but they have been ill served by the academy in finding categories and methods that can help them account for and articulate what they know at a tacit and visceral level about their tradition.
The Scandal of Pentecostal Theology
One occasion that prompted methodological concerns of this kind to come to the fore was the engagement by certain Pentecostal scholars with Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). Noll’s volume spurred a number of discussions related to the intersection of faith and the academy. In short, Noll laments the way evangelicalism has emerged within the American scene as largely anti-intellectual and indifferent to the fostering of a Christian “life of the mind,” the latter being understood as “the effort to think like a Christian—to think within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modern learning.” In addition to citing the limits of the American university system that have contributed to this “scandal,” Noll writes a scathing critique of a number of religious movements that he categorizes under the rubric “fundamentalism.” According to Noll, fundamentalism contributed to the scandal through developments associated with Holiness, Pentecostal, and dispensationalist Christians. With regard to the first group, Noll mentions that the language Holiness adherents promoted was one that “bespoke a growing concern to experience the realities of Christian spirituality,”16 especially through terms associated with sanctification and pneumatology.17 As for Pentecostalism, he mentions that, whereas the fourfold gospel (depicting Jesus as Savior, Spirit-baptizer, Healer, and soon-coming King) was a key cluster of themes for Pentecostalism’s early forms, “its central feature remained the belief that the person of the Holy Spirit could be experienced—verbally, physically, spiritually—in this latter day.”18
Noll principally decries dispensationalism in terms of the attention he gives in his overall critique of fundamentalism; nevertheless, the lumping of Pentecostal and Holiness movements together with dispensationalism was lacking in nuance and even a bit unfair, a point he has since acknowledged to some degree.19 More to the point of this chapter, it is clear that part of what Noll finds “innovative” (which for him is not a compliment) about these movements is their particular emphasis on pneumatology, religious experience, and the like. Noll explicitly claims he does not oppose the merits of spirituality per se, but he is keen to emphasize how certain related ...