Faith and the Future 4 (RJS)

Today’s post wraps up our brief series on Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith. The last several chapters of the book, and in fact various passages throughout the book,  present some of Cox’s thoughts on the future of faith – and more specifically his hopes for the future of the Christian faith. Today I would like to focus our discussion on the future.

Cox notes – as have many others – that the future of the church is moving out of the western world, into Latin America, Africa, and the East.  While churches stand empty in Europe, the faith is flourishing and growing elsewhere. Notably charismatic forms of the faith are growing fastest.

The bottom line seems to be that faith is relevant for life in many parts of the world and that the Christian faith in particular meets a very real need.  Faith simply is not relevant in much of the secular west. But in the global South … liberation theology and the power of people in small house church groups play an enormous role.  Faith flourishes when it is not micromanaged from the top, but grows from the bottom through the power of the Spirit.

Lets look at a bit of what Cox has to say:

First, for centuries Christians have claimed that the Holy Spirit is just as divine as the other members of the Trinity. But in reality, the Spirit has most often been ignored or else feared as too unpredictable. It “blows where it will,” as the Gospel of John (3:8) says, and is therefore too mercurial to contain. But some of the liveliest Christian movements in the world today are precisely the ones that celebrate this volatile expression of the divine. … By far the fastest growth in Christianity, especially among the deprived and destitute, is occurring among people like the Pentecostals, who stress a direct experience of the Spirit. It is almost as though the Spirit, muted and muffled for centuries, is breaking its silence and staging a delayed “return of the repressed.” (p. 9-10)

Are we entering an Age of the Spirit? And if so, is this a good thing?

Cox is ambivalent about the growth of Christianity in the global South – even in the rapidly growing Pentecostal churches. Frankly, it is too conservative for his taste. For the most part Pentecostals actually insist on belief in God and in Scripture, and they don’t find all faiths valid. Some more of Cox’s observations and thoughts:

Fundamentalists are text-oriented literalists who insist that the inerrant Bible is the sole authority. Pentecostals, on the other hand, although they accept biblical authority, rely more on a direct experience of the Holy Spirit. Fundamentalists consider themselves sober and rational. Pentecostals welcome demonstrative worship and ecstatic praise, which they call “speaking in tongues” and which they regard as the Spirit praying within them. … Fundamentalists insist on a hard core of nonnegotiable doctrines one must hold to unquestioningly. Pentecostals generally dislike doctrinal tests and reject what they call “man-made creeds and lifeless rituals.” (p. 200-201)

Are Pentecostals contributing to the shift from belief to faith, or are they among those holding out for a belief-defined Christianity? Are they heralds of the Age of the Spirit? The answer is that there are, after all, 500 million of them, and they vary widely in their theologies and practices. Some Pentecostals, especially white North Americans, have been heavily influenced by fundamentalism. But in the global South, they are more informed by an ethic of following Jesus, and a vision of the Kingdom of God. They have recently become increasingly active in social ministries, but the hostility they sometimes show toward other faiths limits their ability to cooperate. (p. 202)

The Age of the Spirit – and the Spirit of God. If we are entering an Age of the Spirit, and  I rather hope that we are, it will be the work of The Spirit. It will not be a laissez faire, anything goes spirituality favored by western liberals.  It seems to me that while Cox recognizes shortcomings of a hierarchical authoritarian faith (the RC church) and the intellectual legalistic rationalism at work in conservative American Christianity, he can’t actually see past the secular materialism and humanist rationalism  at work in liberal western Christianity. Perhaps all three of these vest too much authority in the wrong thing – be it institution, text, or brain – and don’t trust enough in the Spirit. So lets ponder it a bit.

Do we take the Spirit seriously? The Spirit spoke to Peter and Paul – and guided their mission. Does the Spirit provide guidance today? If so, how?

Where do you see the future of the faith?

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  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, and there’s another thing. Those most inclined toward the Spirit are also very committed to the ancient articulation of the faith (regula fidei, Nicea, classic doctrines of atonement, high view of Scripture) and are therefore the ones away from whom Cox thinks things today are moving. As Jenkins pointed out so well, the rise of South American, African and Pentecostal Christianity is the rise of conservative Christianity.

  • Chuck

    I think balance is in order. For sure, orthodoxy that is purely intellectual is not a good thing, and much of the western evangelical church is seeing that now. On the other hand “movements of the Spirit” can be out of control and just as wrong, confusing, and counterproductive. Paul the Apostle addressed this problem on more than one occasion in the NT. Holding fast to the truth while giving the Holy Spirit great freedom to work in and through us seems to me to be the ideal that we should strive for.

  • patrick

    “Where do you see the future of the faith”? Fascinating question.
    Over church history it is a fact that Christianity has ‘migrated’ geographically. Few Christians remain in its ‘home’, Israel, Turkey, North Africa. Now we seem to be seeing another ‘migration’, this time Southwards, leaving ‘old europe’ behind? So yes, the future of the faith looks very definitely African, Asian and Latin American – and strongly conservative and Pentecostal.
    I’m sure this is a work of the Spirit as Jesus is preached and lives and even whole nations changed. But is it also a judgement of God? Is it a reminder that we are blind to the ways that our western Christianity has been rationalised and disempowered? In my experience it is the charismatic and pentecostal churches who have been most able get outside homogenous middle class evangelicalism to connect with the urban poor and marginalised. Praise God for them.
    But the global south is coming north too. One of the largest churches in the part of ‘old europe’ where I live is now a Nigerian Pentecostal denomination. A big challenge is how successfully can an African form of pentecostalism connect to western culture? I’m sure America has far more experience of this. From your experience, is the future ethnically / racially / nationally distinct churches doing their own thing, or is there hope of truly multi-ethnic globalised churches emerging? How can we work to overcome a segregation that denies the unity of the Spirit?

  • Jim

    I grew up in a church which,in some cases, equated the work of the Spirit with the work of the scripture and, in other cases, held tightly to the idea that the Spirit only works through the words of the Bible.
    As I grew older I realized that much of that theology grew out of a desire to control everything from individual emotions to communal expressions of faith. Ironically, this theology was associated with a “movement” that aimed to takes us back to the “simple plea of the New Testament.” I say “ironically” because there is something in the nature of movements that resists too much control. As a result, I would say that movement is not moving.
    Now, 37 years into ministry, I feel that I came along in a “movement” that sent me out into the field without sufficient preparation. How anyone expected us to encounter the kinds of situations and spiritual bondage we encounter without walking in the power of the Holy Spirit is beyond me. Had we gone into a world filled with Scottish Rationalists we would have been well-armed for the battle. But, in my experience and in far too many situations, I felt as if I had been sent out as a Christian Rationalist expecting Satan to be a perfect gentleman.
    Of course, all of that works just fine if you are leading a congregation full of good little ladies and gentlemen who are content to sing the Great Hymns of the Faith and peer out of the portholes of the battleship we call the USS Church.
    However, if you are being called out into the streets and alleys to engage the lost, the addicted, the disturbed, broken, beaten and those held fully in the sway of evil in high places, your top hat and tails will not serve you well.
    In the end, I think I’m making a too pragmatic argument. However, I cannot believe that God would send us out to meet some of what I have met over the years (and that in just my little corner of the world) without the power of God’s Spirit to lead, direct and empower. To do so, in my estimation, would be among the cruelest of jokes played by God.
    I am not “charismatic” or “Pentecostal” in the traditional sense but can tell you that, in my years, I have had encounters that led me to pray like one…you know, undignified prayers where I am so beyond my “well-trained capacities” that I lost all sense of proper decorum and begged God to show up and rescue us.
    I pray for the Age of the Spirit. I’m open. I’m ready. And God knows I’m in need!

  • T

    Well, no surprise: I love this post and the comments. And each of the above comments adds something really great. And, FWIW, I don’t think “Spirit” activity fueling church growth is any recent phenomenon.
    On this: “The Spirit spoke to Peter and Paul – and guided their mission. Does the Spirit provide guidance today? If so, how?” One of my favorite aspects of the good news that “the reign of God has come near” in Jesus (and even nearer post-pentecost) is God’s willingness, even intention, to lead, which is the express core of that announcement. Think Psalm 23 or even God’s story with Israel and their steady drift from his leadership before he just stopped speaking to them altogether for a spell. That we can, individually and corporately, experience the leadership of God (and actually receive it with a new nature that welcomes it) is central to the gospel of the New Testament.
    I know the “how” is the rub, but that’s precisely where the conservative literalism of Pentecostal/Charismatic types helps them. They read the stories of how God personally led so many, and see good no reason to expect otherwise today. I think N.T. Wright’s 5-act model is great, but the Spirit is the most critical component to playing that 5th act, at least if the transition from the gospels to Acts is any indication.

  • I actually think most evangelicals greatly lack a robust theology of, and reliance on, the Holy Spirit. For me, part of the postmodern turn involves embracing this more robust understanding, while simultaneously releasing back to God a fear of mystery and the unknown. Of course, in doing so I feel we must also release wooden understanding on many issues. There was a time when the Pentecostal spiritual experience made some sense to me; and parts of it still do. However, I now see the work of the Spirit as not merely reduced to charismatic experiences, but also to an overarching guidance of the direction of the church and the world. If one believes this, I mean *really* believes this, then one moves away from a Driscollian-like tendency to fight for control with guilt, shaming, and the drawing of ever-reducing borders.

  • T

    Also, RE: “are ‘we’ entering an age of the Spirit?” and “Do ‘we’ take the Spirit seriously?” It depends on the “we’s.” For much of the dwindling Church in the West, it’s going to be “no” and “no” regardless of what happens in western culture around them or in the global church. The transition from the western church’s current paradigm and practice to a paradigm and practice with a more robust “Spirit”-uality has an awful lot of theological, institutional and cultural inertia against it. The change that has happened has been good, but relatively slow.
    Also, however inartfully I may say this, possession of the things of this age (whether in the form of money or other forms of power or prestige) also seems to also play a role in who is willing to enter a more Spirit-governed Christianity. I mentioned above my belief that experiencing Spirit-led leadership by God is central to the good news of the “reign” of God coming near. It’s also fair to say that the reign of God is the dynamic of the age to come, usurping and judging the current age. By merely combining these observations, at least part of what seems to be going on is that those who have wealth in this age have a difficult time “entering” or “receiving” or even acknowledging the reign of God now, just as Jesus said, because both of those descriptions of the reign of God are threatening to those currently enjoying their standing in this age, which would be a mark of the West.

  • RJS,
    Thanks for this series. My story is similar to Jim’s (#4). I think Robert Webber made a good point that at the Reformation Christianity moved from a Person-centered faith to a book-centered faith. Christus Victor was bumped by “sola scriptura.” We moved from a whole person response to God to a cerebral response…right, precisely right doctrine elbowed out lively (dare I say unpredictable and uncontrollable) encounters with the untamed Holy Spirit. “Be filled with the Spirit” was replaced by “do everything decently and in order.” And decency and order became the “signs” of the Spirit. We moved into the Ice Age of the Spirit. I pray to God we are moving into the Volcanic Age of the Spirit.

  • Rick

    Not sure why Driscoll got brought into this. He is all for the recognition of the Holy Spirit. I have heard him say more than once (and I have not listened to him all that often) that he and his church are charismatics with seatbelts.

  • nafi shahid

    we must be true christian christ like to like peter and paul

  • RJS

    I don’t want to bring any names into this- but I think that there is a difference between charismatic and led by the Spirit. It has to do with authority for one not just worship style. What authority do we give to the leading of the Spirit?

  • I love this post and the comments, also, especially what Jim shared in #4. That was powerful, generous and on the mark.
    My primary interests have long been formative and contemplative spirituality, inter-religious dialogue and the interface of science and religion. My spiritual formation was primarily Roman Catholic in the Charismatic Renewal circa 1970 at Loyola in New Orleans. My outlook is both radically incarnational and radically pneumatological.
    While there is much in tradition to conserve, in my view, there has been a tendency in much of the North American pentecostal experience toward fundamentalism and, in the RC charismatic tradition, this has played out as a solum magisterium, curiously analogous to the sola scriptura of our Protestant fundamentalist counterparts. MANY RC charismatic youth of the 70’s, a very evident majority of my friends, traded-in their Catholicism for other Pentecostal groups. In some cases, maybe more so due to personality and temperament, they kept their authoritarian inclinations (trading institution for text, so to speak). In many cases, they remained good, independent critical thinkers and self-critical at that. I remain deeply sympathetic to their longing for a less muted, less muffled, more robustly experiential encounter of God in their lives and remain in great solidarity with them, cherishing our long-standing friendships and mutual love of God. The Spirit that holds us together is stronger than any of our hermeneutical differences.
    I see the Spirit everywhere, meeting each of us where we are and gently coaxing us to take the next good step. It’s almost scandalous where the Spirit seems willing to blow and on whom! I see the Spirit at work in creation and enabling and encouraging us as co-creators. I see the Spirit at work in all of the Great Traditions and in each of our denominations and in others who lack explicit faith (while, at the same time, suspecting that degrees of realization of our God-encounter vary widely and fare better in certain environs). I think the Spirit moves us toward a type of balance that transcends our own notions of moderation in that we are drawn by the Spirit more toward a reality of completeness than toward that of perfection (as classically-described). The Spirit in us makes up for what is lacking in others vis a vis its own indwelling and in others makes up for what is lacking in us.
    To avoid over-responding here, the above was excerpted from this blog post: Spirit Move When You Will, Where You Will, How You Will

  • RJS

    Leading of the Spirit is an interesting issue – the Holy Spirit coming to Cornelius and family even before baptism convinced Peter that God favored both Jews and Gentiles. Don’t call unclean what God has called clean.
    Could the Holy Spirit lead the church today – and what limits would we place on such authority?
    For example, there has been talk on this blog about women in ministry – could the Spirit be in the lead here, or must the written word always rule? Where would you draw limits and why?

  • RJS,
    I think women in ministry is a very good example. The Spirit seems to be drawing both the church, and the world, into that fuller understanding of human beings – both male and female – serving as ambassadors of Christ. Some got the message years ago, some are only now getting it. But there is a clear directionality at play.
    And, without mentioning names ;), this is exactly the kind of revelation that many conservative Christians would reject, because they draw hard lines around how we’re allowed to understand progressive revelation. Many would even see “progressive revelation” as oxymoronic. Of course, its fair to ask, who exactly is playing God in that scenario?

  • Jjoe

    Was not the Spirit behind the abolition of slavery even though the Bible takes it for granted?
    Having been under the authority of several women pastors, it’s clear to me that their ordainment is spirit-led and God works through them every bit as effectively and passionately as through men.
    The Holy Spirit created the Bible and the Holy Spirit uses the Bible as a tool. The Bible does not bind the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a part of God, and as such, trumps the written word.

  • RJS

    Darren (#14)
    I do think this is a particularly good issue to think about. I had hoped that this post would get some good conversation – but its been light and slow.
    The role of the Spirit is a serious question I’ve been pondering quite a bit lately. When Cox uses the term it is rather ironic, because I don’t think that he actually believes that the Spirit exists or that God involves himself in human affairs (if he even thinks that a personal God exists). But we’ve been reading Acts with Scot – and I’ve been reading Gaventa’s commentary (although I am behind the posts – only on Peter and Cornelius just now).
    What is crystal clear is that people did not build the church – God built the church and Peter, Paul and the rest followed (imperfectly) the leading of God and the Spirit. Acts is a fascinating book as it both lays out God’s mission and relates the progress on course.
    According to Gaventa “Peter calls for the baptism of Cornelius and others, but he does so only after the Holy Spirit has dramatically indicated that the decision has been made elsewhere.
    Does God still lead the Church through the power of His Spirit – and how do we discern real leading from wishful thinking and fallen human weakness?
    One of the comments on Scot’s Facebook page notes that “the Holy Spirit has been credited for a lot of strange teaching and “inspired” preachers that abuse the congregation … Unfortunately, a lot of what is preached as the Spirit is not the Spirit.” (After resisting for a long time I finally had to get on Facebook to see comments on my posts on Scot’s page…)
    This is a serious issue – but the answer is not to deny and avoid the leading of the Spirit – the Trinity is not God, Jesus, Bible.

  • RJS

    Nor is the Trinity, Reason, Jesus, Justice – which is where I think Cox heads…

  • Jim

    RJS @ 16… Great insights. I think your question: “and how do we discern real leading from wishful thinking and fallen human weakness?” is a critical one. Certainly one that has perplexed me as I have tried to move into a more deliberate “missional” way of being.
    i.e. “If we are to assume that God is on mission and already moving ahead of us, how do we discern that movement?” In some ways, the answers to that seem pretty clear. I assume that any act in our community that opens the door to feeding the least of these, etc. is move of God because that just seems like something God would be doing.
    However, I wonder how that works when God undertakes what to us is a “paradigm shift”, e.g. when the Spirit showed up in Samaria or told Philip to “go stand next to that chariot” on the Gaza road or even at the home of Cornelius. Ironically, for many of us, that a “stranger” (or one who is to us a ‘non-believer’ for all we know) would go to speaking in tongues would cause us great theological/doctrinal concern more than anything. Had I encountered such a thing 20 years ago, I would have immediately begun to argue with him as to why that is no longer appropriate “after the age of THE apostles.”
    I have long compared “the Jews” who looked for a sign and the “Gentiles” who looked for “wisdom” to baseball players. One stood in right field and one stood in left field. Each expected the ball to come to them where they were. However, God threw a watermelon from the stands.
    i.e. we have this problem that they had: the Spirit blows where it will but we will only receive the Spirit if he comes in the way that we expect…
    Maybe we just don’t like surprises as much as we might claim OR maybe we are so ill-prepared that what appear to us as ‘surprises’ are really embedded in the story that God is telling and we, like the disciples, are shaped so as to not see those embedded truths.

  • If Cox’s treatment is largely descriptive (and I’m not certain that I even employ his categories or definitions vis a vis Spirit), I would turn to Amos Yong for a normative treatment in response to what limits we would place on such authority per RJS’ question:
    Per Amos Yong, the coming Christendom will be radically pluralistic, centered not in Rome or Canterbury but variously in Seoul, Beijing, Singapore, Bombay, Lagos, Rio, Sao Paulo and Mexico City.
    The emphases in dialogue will be: 1) postmodern theology that hears the voices of the marginalized 2) postpatriarchal theology 3) postfoundationalist theology that values methodological pluralism 4) postcolonial theology that privileges local traditions, languages and practices 5) posthierarchical that embraces dialogical and democratic processes 6) post-Cartesian theology that gives recognition to the inductive, lived, existential and nondual character of reflection alongside deductive, propositional, more abstract and dualistic forms of theologizing 7) post-Western and post-European theology open to engaging the multiple religious, cultural and philosophical voices of Asian traditions and spiritualities
    A pneumatological approach to revelation will then be 1) transcendental – Spirit breaks thru human condition from beyond ourselves 2) historical 3) contextual, concerned w/real lives, real real histories, real societies 4) personal, both interpersonal and intersubjective 5) transformational 6) communal 7) a verb not just a noun 8) progressive & dynamics Spirit calls us to interpret, respond and act 9) marked by love, an unmistakable criterion for discernment 10) received by humble faith seeking understanding 11) propositional and resisting our fallen interpretations 12) eschatological
    I commend Amos’ The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh (2005 Baker Academic). Therein he employs the semiotic approach of Charles Sanders Peirce and discusses the work of Don Gelpi, SJ, breaking open new categories and eschewing the old (such as natural and supernatural). Amos is leading a new generation of pentecostal scholars into a credible dialogue with modern science, modern philosophy and modern theology.
    I bring this up in the context of suggesting that these approaches have profound implications for ecclesiology. What is emerging is nothing less than an ecumenical pneumatological ecclesiology. It criticizes our Western approach, which is largely discursive theology. It emphasizes that Life in the Spirit is also an experience.

  • Great post and comments.
    I’m a strong believer from what I’ve seen in the need we have to let the Spirit have its way among us. I view it from the perspective of “charismatic” believers who are in various “noncharismatic” churches, and who at one time were part of a fellowship in which openness to the Spirit and the Spirit’s moving were more or less emphasized. With wisdom and not with the old divisiveness the initial charismatic movement ironically brought among believers, such believers need to live out this new life in Jesus, quietly and without show and fanfare, and really in natural ways, “supernaturally natural” as John Wimber taught.
    And I think we have to be open to new ways not always spelled out in Scripture, but certainly in harmony with it, to how the Spirit may move. But just to think of our Christianity with this mindset, “How is the Spirit moving?” And, “Am I/Are we really open to the moving of the Spirit?” is where we must begin, and what I need to get back to. Everything needs to flow from that.
    A problem lies when we codify how the Spirit moves, or what the organization or experience of it is, so that we think the Spirit surely will do in exactly the same way what he did in earlier days. I think that was a problem with the Vineyard movement of which my wife and I were once a part. “I don’t know” is essential if we’re to really be led by the Spirit.
    I also want to affirm the Spirit’s moving in those believers who are not of this mindset to encourage them and myself in growing in dependence on the Spirit, together.
    I feel presumptuous with this comment, but thanks again for the good posts, and thoughts on this, RJS, and others.

  • Another thing we need to get away from is that the move of the Spirit is opposed to the intellect. If we mean that we’re not dependent on our intellect, but on the Spirit, I think that’s right. But if we think the outcome of this will be a disdain of the intellect and of intellectual pursuits and hard work in Christ’s Body, this is a grave error. Some are especially gifted this way, like you, RJS, and others here. And the rest of us have to see this as an important part of our full humanity and aspect of our Spirit-led witness of Christ and the truth as it is in Jesus, to the world.

  • Rodney

    To me this is one of the most important discussions we could have. Life in the Spirit is what defines the Body of Christ, it’s what separates us from all other communities, breaking down divisions maintained by the world. I’ve often thought, if we could see the Spirit like Paul did–he was convinced that the only way to explain the neither male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile communion was the work of the Spirit–then we would rediscover the “age of the Spirit.”
    Where do we find it? In the life of the mind, in the sacrifice of believers for others, at the table of our Lord, in our dreams and visions, in the communion of worship, in the imitation of Christ, in the pursuit of his kingdom.
    One more thing: the Spirit will work, whether we like it or not. He is irrepressible. Like water, he will flow through, around, in spite of impervious barriers. So, in some respects, no matter where we live (east, west, north, south), we’ve been seeing the age of the Spirit since Peter delivered his sermon on Pentecost.
    I’ve been inspired by all the comments posted here. This has been a blessing to me.