Transcendence & Spiritual Experiences, Part 3

THE NEW AGE OF SPIRITUALITY

worship_by_knilvrieWithin the confines of western Christianity, one of the fastest growing sects of Protestantism is the charismatic or Pentecostal movement. This movement is so influential, that just recently the Southern Baptist Association changed one of their rules and decided they will now support missionaries who speak in tongues. Charisma Magazine explained this as the Baptists attempting to keep up with the competition.

Charismatics and Pentecostals (I use the terms interchangeably) believe that a second anointing of the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the church of God and that it is a sign of the closing of this age.

I grew up in charismatic circles and am intimately familiar with beliefs and practices.  Most of what I’ll share here will be based on teachings and experiences I had growing up.

IS IT TRULY UNIQUE?

My focus in this blog will be to discuss some research that I have completed since leaving the charismatic movement and becoming Orthodox.  In particular, I want to shed light on a very uncomfortable fact: the things that happen in the charismatic movement are not necessarily unique to it or even Christianity.

For example, New Age spirituality and Pentecostalism offer spiritual experiences without asceticism.  In other words, they offer an experience of “higher power” without the necessity of sacrificing worldly and fleshly desires.

From what I have seen, in both movements a spiritual experience is not normally questioned. I was never taught to ask, “Was this of God or some evil source?” It is simply assumed that if one has a spiritual experience that makes them feel good, then it must be of God. How can the devil make someone feel good?

But as we read in the example in the prior blog, if we are not actively waging war against the passions while relying on spiritual guidance from the fathers, then we cannot readily discern whether or not we are in delusion.

While I think a majority of “experiences” in the Charismatic movement are based on psychological and emotional excitement, there certainly are a number that are legitimately spiritual.

“GIFTS” OF THE SPIRIT

WORDS OF KNOWLEDGE

Words of knowledge vary from “giving a word,” the latter of which honestly does not require any kind of “spirit” to inspire it because it is usually simply encouraging or flattering speech.

The former kind does not necessarily require any kind of spirit either.  There is something called “cold reading,” in which a speaker will subconsciously and intuitively be able to discern something about other people.  The skill is sharpened with practice.

For more information on cold reading, you can watch Orson Welles brief interview or a more detailed explanation of it by atheists Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins.

In summary, most of what I saw when someone had a “word of knowledge” was nothing more than well-practiced cold reading, though normally innocent in its intention.  I’ll write a more detailed post on this later.

TONGUES

A common spiritual “gift” in both Pentecostalism and Mediumism is glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” While this is mentioned in the Bible on several occasions, the way it manifests itself in today’s Charismatic movement has much more in common with pagan spiritualism1 than anything else. In fact, anthropologists and linguists have confirmed that the “gift of tongues” in modern day Christianity is surprisingly similar to what is and has been practiced in pagan religions.2

At the beginning of the charismatic movement, the teaching regarding tongues was closer to the biblical examples: that through the Holy Spirit, people are speaking in other languages.  However, that doctrine has been proven false by linguists, so now the teaching has evolved to say that people are speaking a heavenly language.  This is what I believed growing up.

But, a book by Dr. Felicitas Goodman, a linguistic expert who spent many months/years recording and analyzing charismatics, casts some doubt on such a lofty belief. She makes many excellent observations including the fact that they do not speak in other human languages, and when speaking in the “heavenly language,” charismatics do not use any sounds foreign to their particular native tongue. So that begs the question: how can it be a heavenly language if it is limited to one’s own native speech patterns?

I remember at times wanting so desperately to draw close to God in prayer, but simply not knowing how.  I would “pray in tongues” because I didn’t know what else to do.  Now, I have learned the Jesus Prayer and how to pray the Orthodox way, which is far deeper and better than speaking in tongues ever was.

FALSE PROPHETS AND ANGELS OF LIGHT

As a young Charismatic, I remember being perplexed about the account in Acts 16 between the young child who was a medium for demons and Paul:

Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling.  This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.”  And this she did for many days.

But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour.

Had this young girl been a member of any of my previous Charismatic congregations, she probably would have been praised as a prophetess. After all, her prophecies caused no “harm” and seemed to genuinely “help” people.  But the Apostle obviously cast a spirit out of her.

In 2nd Corinthians 11:14 , St. Paul warns us that the devil can appear as an angel of light. However, let us not limit ourselves to a literal interpretation of that only, but what it further implies: the devil will not only visibly transform himself, but can replicate “godly” feelings in us of peace, joy, excitement, and warmth. And that is certainly one of his tactics.

MY JOURNEY

I know when I was in the Charismatic movement I had many great experiences that left me with the warmest, loveliest feelings. But I was arrogant and cocky, thinking most other Christians inferior to myself. I had a boldness about me that I claimed was the Holy Spirit, but in retrospect, I believe it was a different spirit. While I was mostly a “nice guy,” my pride and ego left little room for authentic love. I was also completely enmeshed in my passions and felt as though I was a slave to them.

I supposedly had a great anointing of the Holy Spirit, but my secret, inner life was a mess. Something was wrong with that picture. As Kirk Franklin sang, “church taught me how to shout and speak in tongues, but preacher teach me how to live when the tongue is done.”

For these reasons, we Christians desperately need to dive into the ancient wisdom of the Church and we need experienced spiritual guides. We cannot simply trust our feelings. And no ordinary guide will do. It needs to be someone who is gaining victory over the passions (purification), is filled with the Holy Spirit (illumination), and is on the path of union with God (deification/theosis). The holy fathers of the Orthodox Church fit that description. And from the time I began looking to them for guidance, I began to learn what it means to truly experience God versus a feel-good emotional experience.

A FEW THOUGHTS FROM FATHER SERAPHIM

Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future Fr Seraphim RoseOne of the defining books in Orthodoxy on this topic is Fr. Seraphim Rose’s Orthodoxy and The Religion of the Future. In it, he confirms that God can and does reach people no matter where they are, but that is not an excuse to stay where we are if it is not the best God has for us. I will quote him at length:

You may well feel that your experience in the ‘charismatic’ movement has been largely something good (even though you may have reservations about some things you have seen or experienced in it); you may well be unable to believe that there is anything demonic in it. In suggesting that the ‘charismatic’ movement is mediumistic in inspiration, we do not mean to deny the whole of your experience while involved in it.

If you have been awakened to repentance for your sins, to the realization that the Lord Jesus Christ in the Savior of mankind, to sincere love for God and your neighbor – all this is indeed good and would not be lost by abandoning the ‘charismatic’ movement. But if you think that your experience of ‘speaking in tongues,’ or ‘prophesying,’ or whatever else of the ‘supernatural’ that you may have experienced, is from God – then this book is an invitation for you to find out that the realm of true Christian spiritual experience is much deeper than you have felt up to now, that the wiles of the devil are much more subtle than you may have imagined, that the willingness of our fallen human nature to mistake illusion for truth, emotional comfort for spiritual experience, is much greater than you think.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I didn’t write this with the desire to see people shut down spiritually. Rather, I want to see us dive deeper into the spiritual life, but to do so in truth and with wisdom and guidance. The fathers of the Church advise us to have a spiritual guide who is knowledgeable of common spiritual traps and can help us to discern whether our experiences are of God or deceptions of the devil. If we do not have that, we should at the very least rely heavily upon the writings of the fathers. God will save us and protect us if we are truly seeking Him in humility and not merely looking for experiences.

My fourth and final post will attempt to dive into warmth of heart and authentic spiritual experiences found in Orthodoxy.


END NOTES:

1 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossolalia Many Christians do not realize that the Mormons and pagans practiced speaking in tongues long before the Charismatic movement. This alone should cause Christians to stop and ask questions. If tongues has primarily come from demonic and pagan groups, shouldn’t we be a bit more hesitant to jump on board?
2 See Felicitas Goodman’s Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-cultural Study of Glossolalia and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossolalia
Main picture from: http://knilvrie.deviantart.com/art/Worship-87303818

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Jeremiah

Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

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