Friday, 2 March 2007

Pentecostalism and the Orthodox Tradition of the Philokalia

We really are out of our depth. We really know nothing about Pentecostalism and it would require a degree in religious doctrine and sociology to sort out the different currents in Pentecostalism, especially American Pentecostalism. All the currents have their own doctrines. All the currents have their own opponents. And the opponents are often just as off the wall as the currents they are opposing.

We do know that none of the Elders of the Orthodox Church has ever endorsed Pentecostalism. That is important for there are clearly charismatic elements in the Orthodox tradition of the Philokalia: an Orthodox Elder is normally revealed to the body of the Church through his gifts of clairvoyance.

In our post Plani, we presented and discussed a comment by one of our anonymous readers, a reader who compared the experience of Elder Porphyrios in receiving the Holy Spirit on Mt Athos at the age of 16 both to a ‘Glory Fit’ in the Salvation Army (about which we ourselves know absolutely nothing, never even having heard of such a thing) and to the ‘Toronto Blessing’. From our commenter’s point of view, these are all the same experience of one and same Holy Spirit.

In the case of the ‘Toronto Blessing’, we quoted extracts from an article by someone who thinks (from a educated Scots Baptist point of view) that the ‘Toronto Blessing’ is in error; and, certainly, if what the fellow is saying is not made-up hog-wash, the spirit of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ is a spirit of deception.

We have also been discussing the case of Rev Ted Haggard, where his own Church, the New Life Church, appears to be part of an informal grouping of Evangelical Churches which although not explicitly Pentecostalist are heavily influenced by Pentecostalism.

So are all those people flocking to Colorado Springs, the home of the New Life Church and allied groups, wrong? Why is the Orthodox Church—just getting by in numbers, thank you—right?

Let’s start with Rev Ted Haggard’s own New Life Church:

The band stood. A … man with a big, tenor voice … directed the musicians and the crowd, leading us and them and the choir as the guitarists kicked on the fuzz and the drummer pounded the music toward arena-rock frenzy. Two fog machines on each side of the stage filled the sanctuary with white clouds. Pod-shaped projectors cast a light show across the ceiling, giant spinning white snowflakes and cartwheeling yellow flowers and a shimmering blue water-effect. “Prepare the way!” shouted Worship Pastor Ross [Parsley]. “Prepare the way! The King is coming!” Across the stage teens began leaping straight up, a dance that swept across the arena: kids hopped, old men hopped, middle-aged women hopped. Spinners wheeled out from the ranks and danced like dervishes around the stage. The light pods dilated and blasted the sanctuary with red. Worship Pastor Ross roared: “Let the King of Glory enter in!” Ushers rushed through the crowds throwing out rainbow glow strings.[1]

No, this is not the dance scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II. No, this is not a Sixties be-in or acid test. This is Christian worship at the New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado, circa 2005.

So what’s wrong with that? People are enjoying themselves; they are off the streets; they believe in Jesus. What more do you want?

We would like to pose a question to sociologists of American religion: Is the New Life Church the flip side of the Woodstock Generation? Are the people flocking to the New Life Church in 2005 the same people who flocked to Woodstock in 1969, or perhaps their children? —As Eliot put it, ‘distracted from distraction to distraction’? Is the Religious New Right in the American polity just another fad in a polity periodically consumed by fads?

Lest anyone think that the worship described above was an isolated event, Worship Pastor Ross Parsley is now the Acting Senior Pastor of New Life Church, replacing under the watchful eye of the Overseers the fallen Senior Pastor, Ted Haggard, until a new Senior Pastor is found.

Anyone who has spent any time in an Orthodox church knows that the Orthodox Church has a passion for liturgy. But the Orthodox Church is so old-fashioned. There’s the deacon who’s been around for 2000 years intoning in one of the Eight Tones: ‘Let us pray to the Lord … For the peace from on High, for the salvation of our souls and for the well-being of the Churches of God…’ There’s the perpetual young mother with her perpetual babe in arms handing the babe over to her own mother so that she can light the perpetual votive candle. There’s the choir singing ‘Lord have mercy’ in response to the petitions of the deacon. There’s all that incense. It’s all so boring.

And all those middle-aged men standing round and looking so serious; all those people who don’t do anything. It’s all so stuffy! Whereas we could all be whirling dervishes if we could get rid of all that stuffiness!

And then the Orthodox monk gets hold of you and starts telling you about the Jesus Prayer. You’re supposed to sit still for hours every day with your head on your chest like this saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.’ And then maybe after fifty years you’ll see the Uncreated Light—whatever that is. Not even the Orthodox monk really knows what it is.

In the meantime, just down the street at the Pentecostal Church people are being slain in the Spirit. They are roaring like lions. Barking like dogs. They’re really happy! They’re experiencing God! They’re dancing in the Spirit! The music is fantastic! They’re having the time of their lives! And wow! that guitarist is really handsome too, isn’t he!

‘And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.’ (John 17, 3.)

The key selling point of the Pentecostalist experience is that it is a replay of the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Just as God poured out his Spirit on the Apostles on that day, 10 days after Christ’s Ascension, so God is pouring out his Spirit on the willing today, right now. You too can hook into it. It requires no more than that you ask for an impartation, as our anonymous commenter wrote. Nothing is said about the purification that the Apostles experienced in their three years with Jesus (cf. John 13, 10), and nothing is said about the spiritual purification necessary in our own time—except for the necessary faith in the person imparting.

Here’s the rub. The Orthodox Church teaches us that we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism, that we do not lose it except in cases of denial of Christ—for example by joining a non-Orthodox religious group. However, in us, the spark of the Holy Spirit that we received in Baptism is covered over by our passions and sins. To re-encounter consciously the Holy Spirit we have to make a long-term personal effort at our own personal spiritual purification, starting with a good confession. Alas, this is not the way of the American. The American wants the quick fix, the fast payoff, the easy buck.

While it is true that David danced before the Ark, there is no such tradition in Christianity whatsoever. There is nothing of the sort in the Biblical accounts in Acts of the descent of the Holy Spirit, not only on the day of Pentecost but even on the other occasions that St Luke recounts in Acts. No tap-dancing on the day of Pentecost. No Apostles hopping up and down like grasshoppers. No Apostles roaring like bulls. The Apostles spoke the praises of God and their hearers—Jews from all nations under Heaven—heard them each one in his own language. No one was howling like a wolf—neither an Apostle nor a hearer of an Apostle.

St Paul makes no reference at all to dancing in the Spirit when he is writing to the Corinthians about order in the Church, although he does address questions of order in the Church in relation to the lesser matter of speaking in tongues in the Church.

In the Third Book of Kings, after he has slain the priests of Baal and Jezebel hears about it and swears to kill him, the Prophet Elias (Elijah) goes to Mt Horeb. There he sits in a cave. God speaks to him and Elias replies:

And Elias said: ‘Being jealous, I was jealous for the Lord, the Ruler of All Things, for the sons of Israel have abandoned you. They have burned your altars and your prophets they have killed with the sword; and I am left all alone and they seek my life to take it.’ And he [the Lord] said: ‘You will go out tomorrow and stand before the Lord on the mountain. Behold! the Lord will pass.’ And behold! before the Lord a mighty and strong wind breaking mountains and crushing stones, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the voice of a fine breeze and the Lord was there. (3 Kings 19, 10 – 12.)

This is what Christian asceticism is all about. We come off the street in Denver, say, and we want to meet God. What the Orthodox Church is saying is that we have to go to the inner mountain: we have to ascend to the summit of our inner Sinai, like Moses; our inner Horeb, like Elias. This is an inner journey. It doesn’t matter if we run to Pike’s Peak, the Woodstock of the Evangelical-Pentecostalist movement. It doesn’t even matter if we run to Mt Athos, although there are certainly teachers there that teach this inner ascent. What matters is that we must above all turn inward. With the grace of God given in the Orthodox mysteries (sacraments). With the guidance of an Orthodox Elder who has made the journey. The ascent of Mount Sinai, the ascent of Mount Horeb, is an inner journey. ‘You then, when you pray, enter into your treasury and closing your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will recompense you.’ (Matt. 6, 6.)

In the silence of a heart made pure, of a heart filled with the love of the Saviour, our mind—our nous—encounters the still small voice of God.

We must turn inward so that our mind—our centre of consciousness, our inward being, our inmost person—can enter into the cave of our heart and pray. This is the cave on Mt Horeb we must each one of us find inside himself. And in this prayer in the silent cave of our heart we encounter the Father and him whom the Father has sent, Jesus Christ: in this cave of our own heart, in the still small voice, we encounter eternal life: in this cave of our own heart we encounter the still small voice of the Holy Spirit.

We have already discussed the three stages of this inner journey, of this inner ascent: the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive stages. And as we have pointed out, Evagrius Ponticus is the great theoretician of this inner journey.

From the point of view of the Orthodox monastic tradition, worship at the New Life Church, a description of which we have quoted above, is the frenzy of lost souls far from a knowledge of the Father and of him whom the Father has sent, Jesus Christ; of souls far from eternal life. Moreover, the heavy rock music, the artificial fog, the psychedelic light show, the frenzied dancing, the manic leaping into the air, the spinning dancers—for an Orthodox Elder, these would be prima facie evidence of demonic possession in the worship of the New Life Church, not of the presence there of the Holy Spirit.

But the Orthodox way is hard work. As Eliot put it: ‘Teach us to sit still.’

In our next post we will resume our discussion of Evagrius’ ascetical doctrine in the series ‘Orthodox Monasticism’ that we have left in order to discuss, as it has turned out, Pentecostalist alternatives to Orthodoxy.

[1] ’Soldiers of Christ’ by Jeff Sharlet. Harper’s Magazine, May 2005.


  1. I tried to comment on this yesterday, but Blogger would not let me, and kept timing out, so I wrote some comments in my own blog at Notes from underground: Orthodoxy as Boutique Religion?

  2. Thankyou for this post. As someone who would consider themselves pentecostal/charismatic you have presented some challenging thoughts. I have to confess that some of the ascetic practices you mentioned are very confronting but, as I process this post, I want to consider how much of this is my innate desire to "quick fix" religious experiences. I appreciate your honest in grappling with these issues.

  3. We have responded to these two comments in our post 'Wherein We Respond to Two Comments'

    Orthodox Monk

  4. Growing up in a pentecostal church I have sat through similar experiences as described. Something in my spirit just didn't feel right about it-I felt anxious, uncomfortable. For the most part though the church was very good. They were very much biblically centered and taught the whole bible, not simply the new testament. Something you wrote bothered me a little though. You say that the holy spirit stays with us unless we deny Christ. I agree with that. But as an example you say "such as entering a non-orthodox faith." Are you saying that only Orthodox Christians are saved and will go to heaven? I agree there are some confused churches out there, but they still believe Jesus is the son of God who died to save them, isn't that what's most important?

  5. We have responded to Robert's comment in our post 'Robert'.

    Orthodox Monk