Pentecostalism at Harvard; Liberation and the Spirit

Article excerpt

LAST YEAR I co-taught one of the liveliest and most productive courses I have ever participated in: "Pentecostalism and Liberation." That might seem an unlikely combination of themes, especially for me. After all, I once wrote somewhat favorably about secularization, even claiming that it was in some measure a product of the impact of biblical religion. Although I was never one of the "death of God" theologians--a media-created blip I stoutly opposed during its short-lived heyday in the 1960s--I believe they made a certain contribution to Christianity by demolishing some outmoded and oppressive images of God. In more recent years I have been part of the liberation theology movement, which supports vigorous Christian participation in social change.

At first sight, none of these aspects of my work seems compatible with Pentecostalism. Is Pentecostalism not a movement that rejects the modern secular world as a realm of irredeemable evil from which all Christians should separate themselves? Would not most Pentecostals view any talk about the "death of God" as the worst sort of blasphemy? And when they do risk involvement in the political order, do not Pentecostals usually end up supporting the most reactionary positions?

My recent more intimate involvement with Pentecostalism has persuaded me that the answers to these questions are not as obvious as some people think. In fact, I have come to see that it is precisely a certain Christian down-to-earth "this-worldliness"--Christian secularity, if you will--that makes Pentecostalism attractive to many millions of people. They are drawn to it because "it works." I also believe that some of the ideas of the "death of God" theologians, such as their emphasis on the experience of radical immanence, their rejection of traditional, ecclesially mediated images of God, and their sense that we stand at the threshold of a new spiritual era are also articulated (in a quite different idiom) in Pentecostalism. Finally, I believe that Pentecostalism and the global upsurge of spirituality it represents may in the long run have a considerably more radical, even revolutionary, impact than liberation theology can. At its best, Pentecostalism attacks not only the demonic political and economic systems that keep God's children in cruel bondage, but the core of distorted values and misshapen worldviews that sustains these oppressive structures.

For five years now I have been catching up on Pentecostal history, reading the theology and visiting Pentecostal churches on three continents. As I have worshiped in these churches I have found that while some Pentecostals do indeed personify the narrow zeal that popular judgment attributes to them, most do not. But I also believe there is something far more important to be said about them. On a global basis, Pentecostals incorporate into their worship the insights and practices of other faiths--shamanic trance, healing, dreams, ancestor veneration--more than any other Christian movement I know of, albeit frequently without realizing it. Pentecostalism, far from being a narrow sect, is "catholic" and universal in a way most Pentecostals do not recognize and many might even deny.

In a shrunken world of diverse and competing religions, where fanatics take delight in smashing other people's temples, we desperately need spiritual movements that include instead of exclude. There is reason to hope that Pentecostals might become such an inclusive movement. After all, the first Pentecost was an event that broke down cultural barriers. But there are grounds for concern. Due to both the historical constraints they have inherited and the contempt with which other Christians have often viewed them, Pentecostals could easily forfeit the uniting spiritual gift they could bring to a fractious and hateful world. This would be a serious loss for everyone.

I taught the seminar on "Pentecostalism and Liberation" with Eldin Villafane, associate dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological School, who is also the founder of the Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston. …