Archive for October, 2012

Letter to the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS)

Thursday, October 18th, 2012 by Wolfgang Vondey

Dear Society for Pentecostal Studies,

For some time now, I have been pondering the history and nature of Pentecostal scholarship. My peers struggle with the idea that Pentecostals engaged in theological scholarship may perhaps not be contradictory, but that it is not taken seriously. Among my friends, Pentecostal scholarship just does not seem to be advertised sufficiently. Although much of the creative theological thinking that today is taking place among Pentecostals has emerged from the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS), almost none of my non-Pentecostal friends has even heard of your organization. Even among my Pentecostal friends, there are many who are uncertain about the intentions of the Society and whether the SPS has a future. What I would like to know is, what role exactly does the SPS serve in the development of Pentecostal scholarship?  What is the vision of the Society? What role will it play in the future of Pentecostal thought in and beyond North America? In order to explain my dilemma, I would like to revisit what I understand to be a long-standing problem–a problem that has resurfaced in recent debates about requiring a faith commitment from members of the Society. Of course, I cannot give an an answer to this debate, but I suggest that in order to resolve what I sense to be very serious disagreements among the membership, the Society should first direct its attention to its own self-understanding. Read the rest of this entry »

Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar VI: Pentecostals and the Sciences

Saturday, October 6th, 2012 by Wolfgang Vondey

Dear Prudence,

I can now conclude my overview of the history of Pentecostal scholarship. I know you have urged me to come to more pressing things, but these last few letters have been an important preparation for what is yet to come. Trying to summarize the developments for you has helped me reflect on what is not easily cast into a typology. But since I begun this way, I might as well stick to it and see what I need to change in light of your comments. So far, I have outlined four phases of Pentecostal scholarship. The fifth and most current wave of Pentecostal scholarship consists of an expansion into the human and natural sciences. I will try to describe the development first and then evaluate the current climate.

The most recent generation of Pentecostal scholars marks the advent of a new rationale for the vitality and future of scholarship in the Pentecostal community, one that seeks to overcome the juxtaposing of spirituality and science and to encourage Pentecostals to enter scientific careers explicitly as Pentecostals. Gradually, since the 1980s, Pentecostal scholars have moved into questions of scientific knowledge and methodology, sociology and the human sciences first, then the natural sciences, medicine, and technology. In turn, interdisciplinary perspectives, particularly in the social sciences, humanities, and theology, have engaged Pentecostals in the broader scholarly conversations. It is only now, however, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that this final phase of Pentecostal scholarship has become more fully visible and consequently has become subject to internal and external critique. For some, the coming of age of Pentecostal scholarship necessitates that Pentecostals ultimately engage in all scientific disciplines. Pentecostal scholars simply cannot afford to ignore the sciences or to leave scientific work to others. Pentecostal parents cannot leave scientific education of their children to non-Pentecostals as if such matters either do not concern the Pentecostal faith or can be ignored–or, worse, should be ignored, because they seem unrelated to the more pressing concerns of faith. For others, the increasing exposure of the scientific world to the phenomenon of Pentecostalism has only just initiated that journey. Pentecostals, in a manner of speaking, have not even taken the first step to engage the sciences, and whatever the future holds for Pentecostals, the engagement with the sciences will need much more serious participation. What is needed are not only Pentecostal scholars who are willing to dialogue with the sciences but Pentecostal scientists who engage the sciences without leaving their faith at the threshold to the laboratory.

I know you are aware of my limited venture into the natural sciences, particularly Newtonian physics and the impact of the theory of relativity on contemporary pneumatology (see my contributions to the excellent text book, Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences, edited by James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong). I am part of but a small group of scholars who represent this newest phase of Pentecostal forays into the scientific world. A few research initiatives exist that connect theologians, biblical scholars, historians, and scientists in a shared attempt to sustain the dialogue between contemporary science and Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity. But work is difficult. The time, I believe, has not yet arrived for Pentecostals to engage the natural sciences more fully. There are a number of significant obstacles:

1) Many (if not most) Pentecostals are at least ambivalent, if not hostile, toward the natural sciences. Dominant scientific theories, such as evolution, are rejected without seriously engaging the matters from the perspective of Pentecostal beliefs and practices.

2) Few Pentecostals understand scientific theories, have no scientific training, and possess only superficial knowledge of what specific theories actually propose.

3) Significant stereotypes exist among both Pentecostals and scientists that exclude the other from the possibility of mutual dialogue. Many of these stereotypes are fed by ambivalence, uninformed hostility, lack of education in the sciences, unbridled biblicism, and hearsay.

4) Pentecostals do not possess the necessary institutions and empirical machinery to sustain engagement with the natural sciences. Despite the advances in Pentecostal education, many Pentecostal schools still do not have a natural science department.

5) The number of Pentecostal scientists (at least in the natural sciences) is virtually unknown. It is likely that those who follow a scientific profession choose not to make public their Pentecostal faith (or that they have found their profession and religious confession to be irreconcilable).

6) Funding for Pentecostal scholars remains a low priority, and participation in the natural sciences is expensive. Although funds are available, few Pentecostals take advantage in the competitive world of scientific empirical research.

Do you share my assessment? Am I realistic or too pessimistic? At least in my experience, the climate for those wishing to engage the natural sciences as Pentecostals is often discouraging. Especially Pentecostal scholars who answer to denominational schools have found it difficult to enter into some conversations. Others have been told to abstain from particular conversation partners altogether. This is a new frontier for Pentecostals. Here they have to face most significantly questions about their own identity: Do Pentecostals have anything to say to the natural sciences? What does it mean for a Pentecostal to engage the sciences? What can Pentecostal learn from the sciences? Why should Pentecostals enter into conversation with scientists?