Posts Tagged ‘Theology’
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?
I appreciate your passionate interest in the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It is only natural for you to ask if you have a place there as a new and emerging Pentecostal scholar. I will think about how to best approach the topic. But before I can do so, there is need of some more explanation about the development of Pentecostal scholarship that impacts the shape of the Society. In my last letter, I talked about the emergence of biblical scholarship among Pentecostals. I distinguished this group from the historical scholarship that developed earlier. Today, I want to spend some time on the questions: does Pentecostalism have a theological scholarship?
In a well-known verse from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples with the following: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Sadly, few theologians have followed the Lord’s advice; and theology has grown old, taking the visage of stodgy, European men—dominated by reason and Western ideology—rather than the joyful play of children. This has brought global Christianity to a state of crisis, for Christianity has rapidly expanded around the world, while theology has remained static, dominated by Western orthodoxy, ethnocentrism, and reason.
In response to this crisis, Vondey suggests that theology must return to the playground so that it may be renewed and flourish in its current global space. Inspired largely by Gadamer and Suurmond, he applies the metaphor of “play” to the theological crisis, painting a unique way forward for theology, in which the stodgy ways of performance are traded for childlike play. Thus, theology becomes an “activity done for the joy of doing it and not for any performative, competitive, functionalistic, rationalistic, or utilitarian reasons. Theologically speaking, play is the joy of God in which we participate” (13).
Particularly essential to Vondey’s quest is introducing classical Pentecostalism into global theological play. He recognizes Pentecostalism as a particular manifestation of the contemporary crisis, because its transitional nature challenges established social, cultural, and religious forms of thought and praxis. Consequently, each chapter consists of three parts: the examination of a specific aspect of the crisis, an analysis of classical Pentecostalism as a manifestation of the particular attribute, and a proposal for global Christianity, offering resources from the Pentecostal tradition to overcome the particular element of the crisis.
This is far from a mere call for a Pentecostal revival though. Vondey’s vision is much grander. In fact, he notes that play “seeks to transform everything that existed before and apart from play into something that now exists due to its absorption into the reality of play” (76). Thus, by bringing Pentecostal tradition into play with global Christianity, Pentecostalism is transformed and absorbed. Hence, Beyond Pentecostalism suggests “both that Pentecostal faith and praxis are significant beyond Pentecostal circles and that Pentecostalism, as it engages the global Christian agenda, is in the process of going beyond its own historical, theological, sociocultural, and institutional boundaries” (7).
This is precisely what makes Vondey’s proposal refreshing. The performance-oriented methods of theologians such as Vanhoozer fail to liberate theology from the cognitive-linguistic level of Scripture. This focus continues to favor competition for “right” interpretation and performance, perpetuating the battle among Christian communities for the singular title of “church.” In contrast, Vondey calls for a shift from cognitive performance to imaginative play, allowing orthodoxy and orthopraxy to integrate with orthopathy. Subsequently, theology transcends orthodox structures dominated by reason, challenging them to change, expand, and grow. Therefore, revelation expands beyond the textuality and performance of written text, doctrine beyond the creed as a rule of faith, liturgy beyond its identity as a product of the church, ecclesiality beyond the structures of Western culture, and classical Pentecostalism beyond its own self-identity. Hence, rather than a Pentecostal revival—which often contains separatist tendencies and an interest in self-growth—Vondey desires for a change in agenda to that of renewal—a globally focused agenda emphasizing “changes in religious life, institutions, structures, liturgy, catechesis, worship, preaching, ecumenical relations, and theological parlance” (193).
While Vondey’s proposal for an imaginatively playful theology of the heart maps a joyful and restored Christian theology for the global sphere, his offering does raise a few questions as well. These primarily center on the nature of play and the exclusivity of the Christian message. For instance, he recommends that there be play between culture and the church, wherein spiritual discernment comes from both sides. However, one wonders how global Christianity protects itself against syncretism and a loss of its exclusivity? Moreover, one wonders if play is a sufficient metaphor to deal with more serious issues such as sin and judgment. While play invites areas of nonplay into play, what is to be done with those areas which refuse to play? In the same vein, is it possible that combining elements of performance and play will address these concerns?