Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Wherein We Respond to Two Comments

In our recent post Pentecostalism and the Orthodox Tradition of the Philokalia’, we discussed certain aspects of Pentecostalism in relation to Orthodox worship and, especially, Orthodox spirituality. In what for our blog is a raging controversy we received two comments. They were closely linked in time, the one from Australia and the other from South Africa. The one comment, from Les Chatwin, says this:

Thank you 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.

The other comment, from Steve Hayes, says this:

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?

We went to the post mentioned by Mr Hayes’ in his comment and read some of it, downloading it, we thought, for later, more mature, consideration off-line. But we made a mistake and didn’t have the text in front of us when we prepared the basic draft of this post, although we did have some of the posts by other bloggers on which Mr Hayes commented in his own post. We did reread Mr Hayes’ post before we made this post.

We rather prefer Mr Chatwin’s comment. Indeed, we went to his blog and looked at some of it. We were rather interested in Mr Chatwin’s discussion of ‘Altered States of Consciousness’, because, we think, the issue of valid and invalid Altered States of Consciousness is at the heart of an Orthodox discernment of the pentecostal/charismatic experience, as Mr Chatwin puts it.

When we looked at Mr Hayes’ post, insofar as it concerned us, we were struck by two things: First, Mr Hayes is an Orthodox with a background in Anglican/African Pentecostalism/charismaticism; and, second, he once got into trouble putting on a church service similar to the one at the New Life Church that we took such a dim view of. But when we reviewed Mr Hayes’ comments in his post as they refer to us, having reread our own post on which he is commenting, we wondered whether Mr Hayes had really read our post. Moreover, when we went to the other blogs that Mr Hayes was commenting on, especially concerning Orthodoxy the boutique religion, we were left rather cold: nothing spoke to us in the heart.

Let us begin with the comment we prefer, Mr Chatwin’s comment.

First of all, we got into this Pentecostalist thing by accident: we thought that things were getting rather tedious in our endless discussion of the history of Orthodox monasticism and wanted a change of pace. So we chose Ted Haggard—the day before he came out of his three-week intensive. Then, completely independently, someone commented on our post ‘Orthodox Monasticism 14 — The Charism of Discernment’, establishing to his own satisfaction a parallel between the religious experience of a great Orthodox Elder—considered by many a saint just 16 years after his death—and both a ‘Glory Fit’ in the Salvation Army and the ‘Toronto Blessing’. The fellow even gave us an address in Redding, California where we could all go to partake of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ in its newest form. Then we found out that the New Life Church, founded by Ted Haggard, had connections to ‘Third Wave’ Pentecostalism. So here we are talking about Pentecostalism and Orthodoxy without being an expert in the sociology of American religion.

Let us look at some of the issues raised by Mr Chatwin’s comment. He mentions our ‘challenging thoughts’. The way the thing evolved, we would treat as a unity our nine posts from ‘Coercive Christianity’ through ‘Pentecostalism and the Orthodox Tradition of the Philokalia’ to this post. If Mr Chatwin, or any other interested reader, has not read all those posts, then we would ask him to do so.

The next thing that Mr Chatwin says is this: ‘I have to confess that some of the ascetic practices you mentioned are very confronting…’ We are not at all sure what Mr Chatwin means. Let us look at the word ‘confronting’. When we ourselves speak in a general way of ‘coercive Christianity’, what we have in mind is the social organization of a church that is very authoritarian—described in detail, in the case of the New Life Church, in the Harper’s Magazine article we referenced in the post that Mr Chatwin is commenting on, and manifested in practice, we think, in the Overseers’ handling of Ted Haggard. This seems to be hinted at also in Mr Hayes’ own references to the discernment that was going on in the particular African charismatic churches that he discusses in his own post:

At Iviyo conferences, on the other hand, while there may have been 2000 people yelling and jumping and praying in tongues, there would be, out of sight, in the crypt of the church, or a school classroom, a group of about 20, mostly priests and nuns, praying all the time. If anyone claimed to have a revelation from God to give to the main meeting, they had first to take it to those who were praying, who might say that no, that was not a revelation from God, but a spiritual delusion (for which Orthodox Christians have a technical term, plani or prelest).

Some American charismatic leaders were aware of the dangers of this lack of discipline, and to counteract it, people like Derek Prince and others started the "shepherding movement" but this in turn led to excesses in the opposite direction.

In the context of such an authoritarian church social structure, there are confrontations between prophets or pastors, and sinners. These are personal. These can be very damaging to the sinner. These confrontations are essentially fascist, in precisely the sense that they do not respect the personal spiritual freedom of the sinner. These confrontations are coercive: they force the sinner to behave and act in certain ways, not through an organic evolution of his personality but through a rigid psychological superstructure of authoritarian belief imposed on a seething unconscious. We discussed this in the post ‘Coercive Christianity’. We attempted there to delve into the social psychology of this coercion.

Now the only ascetical practice that we as an Orthodox monk can conceive of that might be similarly coercive, or ‘confronting’, is obedience. After all, the Abbot has authority; his monks are under a vow of obedience. However, except in cases of extreme disorder, an Orthodox monastery does not function either like an army or like the Hitler Youth. It’s just not there. The reason is ecclesiological. The Orthodox Church is formed not by charismatics who think, rightly or wrongly, that they have the Holy Spirit and the Truth, nor by charismatic leaders in the sociological sense, where the leader may be an out-and-out charlatan—but by the mysteries of the Orthodox Church, what Westerners call the sacraments. This is important. (It is also a dimension that is completely lacking in the discussions of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity by Arturo Vasquez and his friends that Mr Hayes commented on.)

Now it is possible for a monk or a novice to land in a monastery where the Abbot is mixed-up and thinks that he is Napoleon or whoever. This is in fact written about by St John of the Ladder, who tells the story of a monk, Akakios, who was without reason routinely dealt physical blows by his Abba (Abbot). However, Akakios did go to an Elder with the charism of discernment and the Elder discerned that that was Akakios’ road. Indeed St John of the Ladder explicitly states that the Elder discerned that this way of life was for Akakios not in vain. Such a way of life is considered to be an imitation of Christ who was crucified. In this sense, since we are all called to the cross of Christ, we are all called to this sort of confrontation with our old man. Of course, in the case of Akakios, who is a recognized saint of the Orthodox Church, this was physical martyrdom.

In the case of other ascetical practices, where the ascetical practices are individual (for example, fasting), the monk is confronting himself in a spirit of obedience to his Abbot.

In the case of ascetical practices that are more socially oriented, for example enduring scorn at the hands of others, these are considered to purify the soul.

But to find instances in Orthodox monasticism of outright coercion of the conscience of the other in a rejection of his fundamental freedom as a human being who is an image of God—this is the sort of thing that causes the Church to intervene.

Moreover, if we may be so bold, Mr Chatwin, who has a deep spirituality, has an asceticism that would make most of us quake to consider: he suffers from depression. We would not suggest that Mr Chatwin avoid his medication or his doctors, quite the contrary: he is learning a very deep humility in confronting his illness medically with the help of Christ. And St John of the Ladder remarks that if you see someone reaching dispassion (the goal of the spiritual journey) in a very short time you can be sure that he went by the road of humility. All asceticism is really the carrying of the cross of Christ, Mr Chatwin.

In the particular case of Orthodox monastic asceticism, serious mental illness is considered to prevent the practice of all forms of monastic asceticism. And the reason should be clear.

To speak generally, obedience in the context of the mysteries of the Orthodox Church is not the same as an authoritarian, confrontational social organization.

Orthodox monastic obedience in particular is sweetened and tempered by the presence of the Holy Spirit in both the disciple and the master. And this presence of the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to the monastic calling: Orthodox monasticism was instituted not by man but by the Holy Spirit: St Theodore Studite treats the monastic tonsure as one of the mysteries (sacraments) of the Church.

In the broader sense of general Orthodox ecclesiastical obedience (of the priest to his bishop; of the layman to his parish priest or bishop; even of the wife to her husband), this obedience is tempered not only by a cultural tradition which is not authoritarian in the sense we are discussing but also by the very presence of the Holy Spirit in each of the members of the pair (priest and bishop; layman and priest; layman and bishop; wife and husband), the Holy Spirit entering into the relationship in the mystery (sacrament) establishing the relationship ecclesially (baptism, chrismation, ordination, marriage).

It is here that we wonder about the Pentecostalist spirit: the ecclesiology is prima facie disturbed, as is evident even from Mr Hayes' own defence of Pentecostalism.

Now we would like to turn to the issue that Mr Chatwin raises elsewhere in his blog, that of Altered States of Consciousness.

The problem is this. On Mr Chatwin’s blog there is a quotation from a fellow—evidently an anthropologist—who is observing Guatemalan charismatics who enter into trance states. The anthropologist thinks that the charismatics are encountering God: ‘Only here you can reach out and touch the face of the divine.’ The Orthodox would be a little more cautious.

This is a very complicated issue to deal with in a few words. Part of the problem is the dominant paradigm in American studies of religious experience, the so-called ‘Chicago School’. The Chicago School teaches that all religions are basically the same, merely different means to enter into states wherein we can all ‘reach out and touch the face of the divine’. What must be emphatically understood is that from an Orthodox point of view not all religious experiences are the same or even equivalent. This is not the sort of understanding that the Chicago School instils in its students.

Moreover, the Orthodox do not consider that the only interpretative options are ‘the emotional, the psychotic and the spiritual’. An Orthodox Elder would have no problem saying to someone:

1. That experience is emotional.

2. That experience is psychological.

3. That experience is psychotic.

4. The experience is from the Holy Spirit of the Living God.

5. That experience is neither emotional nor psychological nor psychotic; nor is it from the Holy Spirit of the Living God: that experience is demonic.

Although there are rough-and-ready external criteria in the Orthodox Church for discerning a spiritual experience (e.g. no one in the Holy Spirit curses Jesus Christ), in the Orthodox Church the criteria of discernment are not in the nature of things external. An Orthodox Elder does not have a handbook; he has the Holy Spirit. When an Orthodox monk discusses a spiritual experience with an Orthodox Elder it is not a matter of what the Elder’s teacher told him—although that sometimes plays a role—but of the Elder’s being himself able spiritually to ‘sniff out’ the spirit behind the monk’s experience.

A demonic experience is not necessarily unpleasant (at least in the beginning—the end is a different matter). ‘For even Satan is transformed into an angel of light.’ Hence, saying that an experience was demonic is not necessarily to say that it was subjectively unpleasant. It is to say that what happened—whatever the external manifestations might have been—was not an act of the Holy Spirit but of a fallen angel.

Moreover, it is not even out of the question that an experience with a demon would not only be pleasant but make the person who experienced it zealous for the practice of his religion, even Protestant or other Christian, as the person understood his religion after that demonic experience.

Of course that is what is in issue in the ‘Toronto Blessing’. No one doubts that the fellow who commented on our post ‘Orthodox Monasticism 14 — The Charism of Discernment’ experienced something pleasant and supernatural via the ‘Toronto Blessing’. No one believes that he was merely manipulated emotionally by a nasty fellow out to take his goods into thinking he experienced something supernatural when he didn’t. But was it the Holy Spirit of the Living God that the fellow experienced? Just the same as Elder Porphyrios? We think that it is highly likely that the man was deceived.

It is in this context that the Guatemalan charismatic trance experiences have to be considered. In the study of religion (particularly shamanism) ‘trance’ is actually a technical term with a specific content. One of the rough-and-ready Orthodox rules of discernment is that trance states are demonic. Orthodox spiritual experiences called ‘ecstatic’ in the precise sense of the Philokalia have a completely different character.

The problem of demonic deception is what is also in issue in Mr Hayes’ discussion of the African Pentecostalist/charismatic movements. He especially remarks: ‘The founders of the Iviyo movement, Bishop Alpheus Zulu and Canon Philip Mbatha, were not, as "Orthodox Monk" implies, demonised’—i.e. possessed by demons. How would we know, Mr Hayes?

Particularly interesting to us in this phenomenon is the interplay between the ‘anything goes’ worship for—excuse us, Mr Hayes—the masses, and the disciplined elite discernment team engaged in non-stop prayer and, it seems, authoritarian control of the ‘ecstatic’ masses. We find the interplay between the ‘ecstatic’ (in the sociological sense) Pentecostalist worship and the authoritarian church organization to be both very, very interesting and very, very revealing.

It should be understood that ‘ecstatic’ in the sense of the Philokalia has a completely different meaning from ‘ecstatic’ in the sociological sense. In the precise sense of the Philokalia, ‘ecstatic’ refers to the condition of the mind in certain cases that the Holy Spirit descends on the person and his mind temporarily loses certain functions in the act of being united to the Holy Spirit. In the case of the sociological meaning of ‘ecstatic’, it means ‘out of one’s mind, in an abnormal state of consciousness, freed from the usual norms of internalized social control’.

And here is where we wonder whether Mr Hayes understood our post. For what we contrasted to the dynamic tension between ‘ecstatic’ Pentecostalist worship and authoritarian church social structure was the inward ascent of the personal Sinai, the personal Horeb, in order to meet God in the gentle breeze of the Prophet Elias—and that in the context of the mysteries of the Orthodox Church. It is in the gentle breeze that the Holy Spirit descends upon the mind, perhaps causing the mind to enter into ‘ecstasy’ in the sense of the Philokalia.

In the case of ‘ecstatic’ Pentecostalist worship and authoritarian social control, recall that at the heart of the authoritarian social control is the imposition of a rigid psychological belief superstructure on a seething unconscious. But the ‘ecstatic’ Pentecostalist worship frees the seething unconscious from that rigid superstructure, at least for a time, so that the unconscious content can be acted out. Hence the dynamic interplay between the ‘ecstatic’ Pentecostalist worship of the masses and the disciplined and authoritarian control by the shepherding group. Moreover, members of the one group can oscillate in and out of the other. That is, in common worship a shepherd may enter into ‘ecstatic’ states where he loses for a time his disciplined discernment.

In the case of the ascent of the personal Horeb, what is involved is a calming of the person and the slow removal of the superstructure so that the unconscious can be encountered consciously, thus to be purified and emptied completely. The purification and emptying of the unconscious is considered in the Philokalia to be the presupposition of an authentic encounter with God in the gentle breeze. Hence, an ‘ecstatic’ experience in the sense of the Philokalia presupposes a complete purification and emptying of the unconscious whereas in the case of Pentecostalism it really means a freeing of the unconscious to do as it will.

Is it all the same, Mr Hayes? Does someone get there with Pentecostalist rock worship just the same as he gets there with the Jesus Prayer under the guidance of an Orthodox Elder? What weight do you assign to the witness of the Orthodox tradition?

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