Why am I . . . epistemological and existential questions that haunt me in the night

Recently, I participated in an academic meeting for pentecostal scholars (note: while using pentecostal with the word “scholar” may appear to be an oxymoron, I assure you, it is not).

It is here that new ideas and new ways of thinking about pentecostalism and pentecostal theology are discussed. Members of the group come from a wide range of denominations and from diverse countries along with various ethnic groups. The group seems to live out the age-old adage, “The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know” as it is unafraid to examine and question traditional pentecostal theologies and praxes. To be sure, the group takes quite seriously loving the Lord our God with our whole being, including the mind and the heart. The group in my experience seems to implicitly uphold mystery, uncertainty, and finitude as we seek to discover new ways of apprehending God, the world, and humanity. It was in this setting that I had the briefest of conversations with another scholar . . . maybe it would be better described as a passing comment . . . as he stated how a particular book by Charismatic philosopher James K. A. Smith caused him to decide to remain a pentecostal.

I won’t deny that this is a question with which I wrestle regularly: Why am I a pentecostal?

After all, I frequently find myself internally contending with pentecostalism’s resistance to intellectual stimulation, fear of other denominations, or their emphasis on concrete cognition. Where is embracing the mystery? The uncertainty? Our own vulnerability? Our own humanity? For instance, what if we conversed about the reality that while I pray regularly, I regularly experience my prayers being unanswered? I know some individuals cannot go there, and I strive to respect that. Yet, I long for stimulating conversations in which these topics are discussed. For me, to not do so is analogous to sticking my fingers in my ears and repeating “la-la-la-la-la-la,” and that, to be quite frank, fails to work for me.

So you may wonder. “Why are you a pentecostal?”

Admittedly, I am a questioner. My husband has more than once inquired if my mind has an off-switch, particularly when he is lying in bed and attempting to sleep. However, neither of us have been successful in finding it. Since I am a questioner, today I write this blog for other questioners . . . and you know who you are. You may be reluctant to raise the questions and wrestle openly lest you are shunned or even thrown out of your pentecostal or evangelical group. As questioners, we are aware of uncertainty. Maybe we have a love-hate relationship with it, but we know it is there as we have experienced the failure of formulas. So, maybe this post is for you in that I want you to know that you are not alone.

Some of us have been questioners for a long time by not sticking to the publicized, prescribed script, be it openly or secretly.

I remember one incident that was more than twenty years ago in which my husband and I were scheduled to speak in a pentecostal church service in another state. That morning, we attended the adult educational class prior to the church service. The leader opened the class with a question: “How many of you believe that you will not be deceived?” Everyone in the room raised their hands except . . . yes, you guessed it  . . . the two visiting ministers. I watched as the leader attempted to continue with the class, but it was too much for him to ignore the fact that two ministers, that morning’s speakers, indicated they could be deceived. He had to find out the reason we did not raise our hands with the rest of the group. It was simple really: the moment we believe we cannot be deceived is the moment we are already deceived.

For me, no cognitive formulaic maxim is a safeguard against deception. Such an epistemology is flawed for me. I am fallible. I am not omniscient. I live in uncertainty. I am vulnerable. To deny my vulnerability increases my susceptibility. Don’t get me wrong: embracing my vulnerability does not provide a safeguard against uncertainty. You see, the very nature of vulnerability is living into uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. This does not mean that simply acknowledging it makes me invulnerable, otherwise I am not really embracing vulnerability but rather I am trading one formulaic manner of thinking for another. Yet, I do believe that it is more likely that through my vulnerability I may be victorious as this was the case with Jesus Christ.

This means, then, that for me adhering to cognitive maxims, such as stated in that class twenty years ago, “I will not be deceived as long as I stay close to the scriptures,” fails to connect for me. It does not work. For me, it is like attempting to communicate with a non-English speaker by speaking in English more loudly. In the same way ignoring the reality of the inability of a non-English speaker to understand fails to bring understanding, denying my lack of omniscience and vulnerability fails to keep me safe from deception, no matter my degree of sincerity. Granted, some pentecostals may state it is the devil that is tempting me to be a questioner (and that is one way to look at it). But what if it is possibly my awareness that I am not omniscient that engenders my questioning, and it is this awareness that prevents me from embracing an epistemology of cognitive certainty? For me, doubt floats in the air that I breath. I have doubts regularly, and if I didn’t, I would not have faith but certainty. Faith exists amidst doubt.

As I have continued to study, I have learned that pentecostals stressing cognitive claims point to the influence of fundamentalists, something that original pentecostals were not.

Our historical roots demonstrate we did not adhere simply to an epistemology of cognition but an epistemology of stories, experience, and embodiment.[1] However, we eventually identified with the epistemology of the evangelicals and fundamentalists when we desperately wanted to belong to the evangelical association. For some scholars, such as Edith Blumhofer, Cecil Robeck, and Joy Qualls, this union resulted in evangelicalism influencing pentecostal denominations more than pentecostals influencing evangelicalism (actually this topic about the distinction between evangelicals and pentecostals is debated by pentecostal scholars, but maybe that was more than what you wanted to know). Qualls mentions that as a result of the pentecostal denomination of the Assemblies of God joining the evangelicals, there was the surrendering of their pentecostal stance on pacifism and women in leadership as well as a change doctrinally and politically by becoming more conservative (e.g., a shifting towards “scriptural ‘inerrancy’ and suspicion of other ecumenical organizations”).[2]

Maybe this is why I am so drawn to John’s Gospel.

John repeatedly uses the word “believe” in his Gospel, but it has a different meaning than simply cognitively adhering  to a set of tenets. Instead, it includes an epistemology of action and, I would argue, an ontology of action, as God acts through God’s being. That is to say, God did not present the gospel as a list of cognitive fundamentals. No, the gospel is embodied. It is declared in the words “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son,” and that declaration is lived out in the being of God. The gospel, then, is found in an ontology of action—that is, the action is in the being (person) of Jesus Christ. This means that believing for John is not simply a cognitive assent to a list of tenets, but it is seen in action, the being of Jesus Christ. This makes epistemology relational, or maybe it is better to say that the way of knowing is through ontology. John’s Gospel is all about relationships: Relationship between God and the world; the relationships among the triune Godhead; relationship between the divine and humanity within the person of Jesus (hypostatic union); relationship between God and the church; relationship between Christ-followers; and relationship between the church and the world. The gospel is relational, then, so that I know through relationship . . . maybe this is why Jesus had some harsh words to say in John about those who did not believe because there was God there, embodied in their midst to experience and to see, but they did not.

For me, as a pentecostal, faith is experiential, relational, and embodied. Similarly to God acting through God’s being (the person of Jesus), pentecostals center on a way of knowing/believing with their whole person, their heart, soul, mind, strength—reflected in their actions. Pentecostalism emphasizes experiencing God, relationally, affectively, and cognitively. In the same way people experienced Jesus relationally, affectively, and cognitively (with their beings so it was a human being experiencing the divine being) as he walked the earth, contemporary human beings are invited to experience God with our whole being—divine being to human being.

This is why I remain a pentecostal.

While there are those who lean heavily toward a cognitive understanding of faith, including to the holding of formulas, pentecostalism historically is about experience, relationship, and embodiment. This emphasis on experience, relationship, and embodiment participates in God’s ministry of God embodying a relationship with humanity in the person of Jesus (who is both human and divine), allowing humans to experience and relate to God. This means that God’s permanent relationship with humanity is embodied in that it is in the very being of Jesus Christ that divinity relates to humanity within the hypostatic union, and pentecostals emphasize embodying their own relationship with Jesus through their actions. Pentecostalism’s way of knowing, then, is less about holding to certain tenets and more about having a relationship with the one who stated, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This relationship is experienced and embodied—it is lived out. And this is the way of pentecostalism—the experience, the relationship, and the embodiment of their epistemology.

That is why I am a pentecostal.

 

 

[1] See James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), ch 3.

[2] Joy E. A. Qualls, God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle edition, loc. 3409–3416.

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