I was just outside of Nashville this week, attending the New Room conference organized by Seedbed, the publishing arm of Asbury Theological Seminary that works for the purpose of sowing for a Great Awakening. While there, we heard from multiple speakers, including from my bishop in the Mississippi United Methodist Annual Conference. However, one speaker that particularly struck me was Jon Tyson, pastor of Church of the City in New York, and his talk about sowing for an awakening. He recounted his personal story of taking a trip with his family to the British Isles to see various churches and sites that saw a wide swath people come to Christian faith in the past. This spurred me to do a little bit of research on religious revivals, at least within the British and American context.
In so doing, I wanted to bring up a hypothesis about religious revivals, at least within the Anglophone world.1
However, a couple of clarifications are in order before presenting the hypothesis. Firstly, God is not an object of scientific theorizing, so I am not intending my language of ‘hypothesis’ to be a theological claim in the direct sense. My hypothesis is a sociological one about us as humans, or at the least humans in Anglophone culture, and when we witness wide-spread change in spiritual awareness and faith. However, there is an implicit theological belief that stands behind this hypothesis: the nature of God’s action in bring people to faith and salvation, however we defined salvation, is to be understood ‘synergistically.’ In other words, the factors that influence human beliefs and decisions about God are a factor in people coming to faith, even though I think it is an error to reduce people’s faith as simply a byproduct of their life experiences and choices. As a consequence, when it comes to the overlap of soteriology and metaphysics, I think that God’s saving action works in a more universal manner to accomplish what no person could ever do, but those who hear a calling from God have an openness to a spiritual awareness that the rest of the population does not have.2
So, with these basic theological and social assumptions expressed, here is the hypothesis I present: Christian spiritual awakenings (1) occur during periods of a wide-spread social disequilibrium that (2) erode people’s confidence in prevailing cultural and social beliefs, (3) resulting in people’s greater openness to spiritual awareness.
This hypothesis works on a particular model of how people think, feel, and reason about life. From early infancy, our minds are immersed with a wide array of perceptual experiences that we don’t know how to make sense of initially. However, as infants we have early biological ‘programs’ that allow us to distinguish between the vast array of perceptual data to find what is important and significant, such as the ability to attach and be attuned to a parental caregiver. This allows us to focus our attention on certain features of our experience that are more important for our immediate survival, while we push the rest to the margins of awareness. This happens automatically, without any real awareness of our lack of awareness. As we grow older, we learn more and more about what we should consider important from what important people teach us, from our own experiences, etc. As we do this through childhood into adolescence and into adulthood, we experience this automatic filtering out much of our experience from our attention and thinking in more and more situations. In part, the idea of ‘maturity’ is the process of developing this automatic way of thinking that allows us to act and respond in ways that one’s culture considers to be reflective of a responsible adult.
This filter of human experience becomes particularly important to observe when it comes to societal and political themes and ideas. The cohesion of societies largely depends on the population more or less sharing a common set of beliefs that lead them to think along similar enough lines. Any sort of thinking or awareness that leads to doubts and skepticism about the prevailing political and social ideologies undergird this social cohesion.
For instance, a nation at war readily resists the idea that the enemy are decent people that love their families, dislike violence, give to charity and help the weak, etc. An awareness of the morally good aspects of the enemy would lead to hesitation in supporting the war. So, people are informed and educated about the importance of the war effort, not necessarily with the intent of vilifying all of the enemy combatants (though that can be the case through broad-based stereotyping), but establishing the importance of the war effort. If people who initially have reservations due to the decency of people on the other side are convinced by this effort, they may not villify the enemy themselves, but they think less about the moral decency of the people on the other side. As a result of being convinced that support the war is important, their attention and awareness will be directed away from those aspects that might cause them to question the war.
Another example is the way the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” has controlled the way we think about the legal system, crime, and victimization. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a staple of our modern justice system, that is primarily concerned about the damage that can be done to people who are innocent of any crimes. As a consequence, it can be rather difficult to persuade people to care for the victims of various crimes, as the belief in the accused’s default innocence leads to the marginalization of victims’ accusations. To maintain this view, people will diminish and be skeptical of the stories of victims, including even blaming them for what happened. Blaming the victim allows the maintenance of the belief in a person’s default innocence, diverting attention away from the pain and suffering of victims. Put differently, innocent until proven guilty can lead us to put out of our awareness the suffering of accusers.3
This can also happen when it comes to religion. In fact, it can be argued that religion and spirituality are one aspect of human belief and life that are most susceptible to this process of numbing awareness. Religion and spirituality are often expressions of what we find most important about life as a whole. As such, political and social power often utilizes religious instruction and teaching to help craft an image of society. But at the same times, only certain types of religious and spiritual awareness are supported by the prevailing social and political beliefs. If you hold a view of society as being ordered hierarchically through the obedience of the people to a ruling authority, you would tend to diminish and devalue the experience of most negative feelings in religious faith, as most negative feelings are usually a hindrance to conformity and obedience. On the other hand, if you view society as a voluntary association of people based up their own free choice, you would relegate any awareness of doctrine as of minimal importance as the creative expression the person is more important than the ability to regulate one’s thinking along specific lines. Put differently, the way we see ourselves and others relating to the larger group and society influences what aspects of religious and spiritual experience we are more aware of and what we relegate to the margins.
Now, some societies are able to tolerate greater degrees of dissent on various social and political topics, issues, and themes than others. Many nations in the Western world have institutionalized diversity within their ruling and political structures, allowing the expression and political support of various ideas that are regularly in conflict with each other. Even though people living in these societies may experience various attempts at non-coercive persuasion and minimal degrees of social pressure to adopt certain views, the beliefs and values they hold become largely a function of their own learning, reasoning, and decision making. However, people’s held beliefs are never purely a matter of self-determination, but we rely upon the ideas transmitted to us from family, friends, authorities, experts, etc. to provide the raw materials that we use to form our own beliefs. In societies that have institutionalized diversity and degrees of tolerance, people are put into a situation where political and social power does not dominate human thinking and consciousness, although they are still influenced by the various ideas and values that get regularly expressed.
As a result, people often experience a form of dissonance or conflict about what to think and feel. This experience has largely occurred outside of people’s awareness, as the cognitive processes of awareness and the numbing of awareness occur largely outside of our awareness. Nevertheless, people’s minds are often left in a state of enduring, unresolved tension, unable to definitively direct how they should think, feel, act, and live. In such a case, people are increasingly more sensitive to becoming cognizant of things they were previously unaware of and oblivious to. This greater potential for novel awareness becomes especially the case when the tensions people experienced are at ‘deeper’ levels of human existence, such as the meaning and purpose of life, society, the world, oneself, etc., as the beliefs we hold here color so much of life.
Under such circumstances, people who have no real specific religious faith nor identify as particularly spiritual may become more open to an awareness of the religious and spiritual dimensions of life. This experience of deep dissonance and tension doesn’t mean that they suddenly become religious or spiritual people, nor does it determine what type of religion or spirituality they are prone to embrace. However, they are more open to becoming cognitively aware of these dimensions of experience as they are not able to as effectively direct their thinking in a way that filters out parts of their experience that are dissonant with specific beliefs.
If we look at the history of the Great Awakenings in the British Isles and the United States, we will notice that they tend to occur during periods of social transformation and upheaval. The first Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s happened under the dramatic change of society that was taking place as a result of the Enlightenment. In fact, it was the English Enlightenment and its values of tolerance propagated by figures such as John Locke that helped form a society where people would experience a greater dissonance in terms of what they believed. With the increasing tendency of higher society and religious teachers to teach and persuade through rational means, the first Great Awakening brought back to the forefront the non-rational, affective experience of the Christian spiritual life back to people’s awareness.
The Second Great Awakening happened in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century. As the United States had finally begun to establish itself as a new country, there was not an established political and societal tradition that controlled how people understood themselves and their relationship to the larger society and world around them. This was especially true the further away from the political center of power in Washington, New York, etc. where the US government would have less direct influence of people’s way of life. So, the states west of the original thirteen colonies where people were left with a greater sense of uncertainty, were sites of revivals where people became more aware of the presence and power of God.
The Third Great Awakening from the mid 19th to the early 20th century occuring the midst of great societal rift that lead to the Civil War, with the consequences determining the course of the country for the next few decades. The Welsh revival at the turn of the 20th century occurred during a period of time where the population of Wales more than double in the course of six decades due to the spread of the industrial revolution. The Fourth Great Awakening in the United States during the 1960s and 70s took root during socially tumultuous times.
The point being is that in history of the Anglophone societies after the rise of the values of social tolerance, religious revivals occur during periods where the fabric of society and politics are being radically challenged and/or transformed. In such periods, people become more increasingly open to and aware of the spiritual and religious dimensions of life.
At these points, then, people become more influenced by the process of social ‘contagion,’ in which other people witness and become aware of the experiences of radical religious change. In periods of social and personal tension, we are more open to the experiences of other people and their testimony. In other words, testimony and contagion through vicarious experience take on a more pronounced effect under such conditions, allowing for religion revival to spark and spread once it has obtained a “critical mass.”
There are actually some useful similarities I want to highlight between modern religious revivals in the Anglophone world and the early movement of Jesus and the apostles. While I don’t want to make an exact equation between the two as if they are fundamentally the same and numb our awareness as to the historical and social differences, I do want to highlight some useful similarities between the two.
Firstly, both the populations of Judea and the wider Gentile world would have experienced greater dissonance regarding their own beliefs and their place in the world. The Roman Empire, far from being an overbearing dictator on individual people’s lives, were concerned for integrating the conquered nations into their political system by protecting and even adapting the ideas and values of the conquered cultures. Greek culture was appropriated by Roman power; Jewish faith in one God was given established protections. While not the paragons of the modern Western virtue of tolerance, a society under Roman rule afforded basic freedoms that allowed for a more pluralistic society. Such an experience would leave people feeling a sense of ambiguity about their place in the world.
For the Israelites, is their place as God’s people to live autonomously within the land that God has promised? If so, how shall this be realized? Or, should they accommodate to the current political structures? Or, should one resist those who accommodate to the political realities, feeling they have become corrupted and unfit to be religious leaders? While I think N.T. Wright’s view that there was a sense of an “ongoing exile” in Second Temple Judaism is a bit overstated, I do think there are important reasons to consider that many Israelites would have experienced a marked conflict between what they deemed to be God’s promises to Israel and the present political reality of Roman political, social, and military hegemony. Amidst the diverse ways people could respond, people of the Jewish faith would have been uniquely open to understanding God in a new and fresh way.
Meanwhile, many people of the Gentile nations would have similarily experienced a sense of uncertainty and tension, as their own local and cultural traditions would come up into tension and conflict with Roman influence. This could spark an openness to hearing a voice calling out to them in a way that the gods and goddess of the pagan temples and religious cults did not speak or do. This is why I think Paul tends to prefer the word calling in his letters to describe the phenomenon of people’s spiritual awareness of the God of Israel.
Secondly, in the result of such a state of uncertainty and tension, people would become much more open to considering the place of other people’s testimony. In 1 Corinthians, Paul notes that Jews and Greeks as a whole found his preaching about the cross, which was primarily a recounting of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, as unpersuasive for various reasons. However, people who experienced a calling and witnessed in some fashion a demonstration of the Spirit were open to seeing and hearing Paul’s preaching about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the power and wisdom of the God of Israel’s Scriptures.
Thirdly, the spread of awakenings and awareness of God as demonstrated through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit often worked through patterns of social contagion. The early portion of Acts catalogs events where there is very no real structured and organized mission, but the apostles were almost trying to catch up to what was spreading and happening everywhere, to the point that the Spirit is even bestowed upon the Gentiles. Furthermore, if the Roman Jews who heard Peter’s message at Pentecost (Acts 2.10) were the ones who helped establish the church in Rome, then Paul’s discussion of the sharing of spiritual gifts in Romans 1.11-12 may reflect something that powerfully defined the Roman Christian community at that time: the emergence of spiritual experience and giftedness that came as a result of Pentecost.4 This is consistent with a model of contagious (spiritual) experience.
In conclusion, then, I want to note that the present period in the United States and the broader Western society is ripe for a potential religious revival. As we witness the clash of right-wing nationalism and left-wing cosmopolitanism in an increasingly diverse society of the post-modern dream, many people are caught in the middle, not aware of what to think and feel. Consequently, people have an increasing openness to an awareness of religious and spiritual matters. However, at the same time, this openness is not the brand of Christianity that is a fusion with right-wing and nationalist politics that has now become a common stereotype for evangelicals in the United States. Nor, is it simply a rebranding of left-wing values and politics in religious garb either. These sets of views are simply reinforcing the various options that are continuously argued and politic-ed for, often vehemently. Such religious movements will not promote a greater awareness of spiritual matters, but a greater awareness of the doctrines and values of those specific, established centers of religio-political instruction.
The present state of matters does not ensure a distinctly Christian revival, however. Firstly, while we can have faith that God is at work, the specific ways God is at work isn’t something we can just assume and take for granted.5 Secondly, an openness to religious and spiritual experience does not logically lead to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Gospel is revelation that defines the Christian life when received. It is not the culmination of human questions, struggles, longings, and experience, but the Gospel provides the fundamental questions and matters of God that we become aware of and then come to understand and grasp. Thus, the tension amidst the societal ambiguity can be lead to awareness of various things and doesn’t entail a particularly Christian revival. Thirdly, while Christian revivals may be sparked, the nature of their long-term sustainability will in part be influenced by people who align themselves with the work of God in their lives along with the newly awakened and renewed people, keeping the social momentum going through witness/testimony and social contagion that keeps the embers growing hot.
- To note, in his talk, Tyson distinguished between revivals, renewals, and awakenings. Revivals are experiencing at a personal level, renewals are experienced in churches and denominations, whereas awakenings are about how those on the outside of faith come to have faith, particularly in a dramatic fashion. However, these distinctions between revival and awakening is not a usual distinction in the language, so I will use revival and awakening interchangeably.
- To be clear, in talking about God’s saving action in a universal manner, I am not rejecting the idea of God’s particular, saving actions towards specific individuals. The distinction between the universal and the particular, which partly undergirds the difference between Wesleyan and Calvinist, are more so logical-turned-metaphysical categories we use to make sense of God’s action than they are, strictly speaking, a description of God’s actions. Put differently, the qualifiers of “universal” and “specific” when applied to soteriology are more so perspectival that frames how we think about salvation rather than being a direct reference to ontological/theological reality.
- In presenting this example, I am not trying to present advocacy for victims as immune to this process. For instance, advocates for rape victims appeal to statistics that they take to show that false accusations are very rare. However, in so doing, they fail to comprehend the basic epistemic limitations for most studies done on false accusations. Instead, they are comfortable thinking the science is settled on the matter, and block out awareness the pain and suffering that can come from a false accusation that would make them hesitate in their advocacy. However, I use the “innocent until proven guilty” side of the disagreement because we can more easily become aware of the problems with that form of thinking, whereas the blinding of awareness by victim advocacy is a much more complicated matter that would entail a foray into scientific methodology and epistemology that goes far beyond the point of this post, plus on the aggregate I think there is way more harm being done to victims of rape and sexual assault who are essentially drowned out than to people who are falsely accused.
- To add, I would suggest that the Roman Christians Paul is addressing would have been primarily defined by (a) a belief in Jesus as the resurrected Lord and (b) the experience of Pentecost. However, they did not develop an understanding that was consistent with the apostolic recognition of the inclusion of the Gentiles without regards to the Torah, hence Paul’s discussion about the Torah in Romans. The Christian community in Rome would have been still principally Jewish in ethic and practice with only a narrow inclusion of beliefs about Jesus and the experience of the Spirit, indicating that their beliefs were influenced by the two processes of testimony and contagious experience but not necessarily the theological reasoning in response to revelation that the church in Jerusalem and Paul had engaged in.
- See my above note on the way we think about God’s work in terms of “universality” and “particularity” that should hedge any absolute confidence to defined how specifically God is acting, even if we can be confident in His ongoing power and love at work.