Much of my spiritual life, which I define from my freshman year of college, has been defined by two very different mindsets that were battling themselves out with each other. On the one hand, I inherited the mode of rational, skeptical inquiry from my mother, who had felt burned by churches and taught me to never believe something simply because someone told me I must. While there was room for faith in the shape of my skepticism, I was always quick to observe how religious people could be quite, shall we say, stubborn and off the rails in some of their beliefs. In my earlier days of rabid debate, I would always observe how various people in discussions about theology had a penchant for engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics. Of course the same could probably be said of myself, I am sure as skeptics are commonly selectively skeptical about everything but themselves, but I applied such a skepticism to myself routinely.
On the other hand, there was this wonderous side of profound changes and dramatic experiences that surrounded my life, and the desire to have that to happen to me. Soon after experiencing a dramatic deliverance in my life after coming to a profound sense of faith and repentance, I could read the Scriptures with a new eye; I don’t mean that to say that I was interpreting the Scriptures correctly but only that when I read the Bible it seems to be less of an unlockable mystery to a world I could peer into, as if I replaced blinders with really blurry lenses. Then I remember one day in my freshman year, timid as I was, asking God for the “spirit of Paul,” wishing I could be courageous and bold as he was. That summer I had a couple events that I will only describe as a clear calling from the Lord, but yet a calling that was as mysterious as it was clear. I never tried to make a big deal of all of it, until I got to seminary and was trying to comprehend it. This and many other events or experiences nurtured what I might call a latent charismatic faith.
However, my skeptical faith was always ruthlessly questioning everything I had experienced, thinking I could use it to puff myself up. However, my latent charismatic faith was always trying to break through the iron-clad rationalism that my skeptical side had, never letting my skepticism become a lack of faith. I was a man of two different mindsets, each one rubbing up against the other. Which side is right?
In the modern church, the divide between non-charismatic and charismatic churches tends towards mutually exclusive views. Either the spiritual gifts have ceased and to practice them is some sort of error rooted in ecstasy or mislabeling of natural, although uncommon, psychological processes or the spiritual gifts are very real and those who do not have them are somehow blind or somehow less spiritually inclined than they are. My discovery: both are right and both are wrong, at the same time.
During my time at seminary, I was worshipping one day in chapel and I had a word to my heart saying that I would be a servant. This was both exciting and disconcerting. On the one hand, what would this mean? What role would I take? On the other hand, I had become personally drained from some of my relationships prior to coming to seminary, so I didn’t want to just take on a lot of other stuff; I felt isolated and wanted to feel at peace amongst friends. However, I had a group of people with whom I spent regular time with, going to homes to worship and even participating in the practices of prayer and seeking for the leading of the Holy Spirit. There was one day where we had all gotten together and I had suddenly felt a sense of belonging; I had felt cared for and loved and I was willing at that point to move forward with whatever things meant.
And as I look back, it was when I committed myself to that direct I felt God had given to me that the very people whose brought me the comfort I longed for became the very people who would participate in the greatest pain and suffering in my life. Embroiled in a sharp conflict, I had seen many things during it or afterwards said towards me that I could specifically pin to the behaviors of the people it would have come from; controlling when I was being controlled, building walls and when walls of silence and exclusion were built around me, calling me passive aggressive in a very passive aggressive way through using other persons, treating me as if I was a sexual player looking for “friends with benefits” as I was the one being looked at and spoken to lustful ways and treated in objectifying ways, regarded as a narcissist when I was the one being treated with outright contempt, spoken as if I was a deceiver when I was repeatedly told things that turned out to be false and misleading. All these projects were masks trying to be forced upon me, and when I tried to speak my true feels of fear about what was happening, which emanated from a growing feeling of absolute isolation, my fear based upon what was happening was treated as a cover, pathologized, and spiritually gaslit with Scripture about not fearing. As what I felt was routinely invalidated, overlooked, and ignored over the course of many months, I eventually broke down and began to accept the iron masks people tried to foist on me as my actual person and then I projected my fears outward as what people felt about me. For a brief period of time, I wanted to die because since I was a kid I was always a sensitive kid who wanted to do good for others and the very thought of being what people treated me as was as if to deny the very thing I wanted as a kid.
As I recovered and over the years as I came to my senses and unlocked the iron mask that had been forced onto me, I looked more and more back upon the experiences and how I see the truth of both my skeptical faith and my charismatic faith. On the one hand, my skeptical faith can identify how the religiosity of many of these people was joined with a strong projective nature, as if their faith function to give them the basis to deny their worst qualities by externalizing them upon others and wear a mask of righteousness they believed to be their person. Deliverance here functioned as a deliverance of the person from seeing themselves as they can be, to externalize their negative characteristics as false and to internalize their positive characteristics of the truth. However, my charismatic faith sees the word of God in the call to be a servant, seeing in it echoes of the songs of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah as someone who was treated as guilty for the very things others were guilty of. Not to suggest grandiose role to myself as I am not perfect person in the situation or in life, but God was calling me to be the very thing all of us as the Body of Christ are to be in following Jesus the redemptive servant of God. Deliverance here focuses on the image of the very person put to death who provokes an awareness in the onlookers of their blame they scapegoated onto others, by shifting what we externalized as not being part of who we are as truly being a part of us and in need of forgiveness and real redemption.
In my interpreting the past through a hermeneutical-ized faith, which I wrote about previously, I see both the skeptical side wary of charismatic and ecstatic elements and the charismatic side open to seeing God’s hand and hearing God’s word being brought together in a complementary rather than antagonistic fashion. And, as I have spent the past year in returning to academics, I found my understanding of the Apostle Paul developing in a sharp, dramatic way. In the past year, I have come to the supposition that Romans is primarily focused on the plight of faith for Jewish Christians who would have been tempted to Maccabean-like zeal for glory against their Roman overlords, but Paul pleads with them to suffer with Christ to receive the glory of Christ instead. Secondly, I developed an interest in the idea of a Trinitarian epistemology, which through a winding path took me to Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 and the Corinthians correspondence as a whole. It is there that I realized Paul struggles with two forms of fleshly “charismaticism.” The “charismaticism” of 1 Corinthians where people have spiritual gifts and yet act in very arrogant and self-serving ways, rather than focusing on a love for one another. Then there is the “charismaticism” of the “super-apostles” of 2 Corinthians who forced Paul to mention his own spiritual experience in an indirect way because they themselves claimed such dramatic experiences; Paul referred to these people as bearing a disguise, much as Satan disguises himself in light. In response, Paul appeals to his own suffering along the lines of Christ as his own credentials. Paul himself was simultaneously a charismatic and skeptic, it seems to me. Unless my own traumas have blinded me, I would say that God answered the prayer to have the spirit of Paul in a sharply unexpected and surprising way.
So this is why I now identify as post-charismatic, even though I never at any point in time truly identified as charismatic, despite my latent charismatic side. The early Church clearly believed they had experiences of a dramatic fashion that came from God, but yet they also saw immature and counterfeit versions. Nor did the leaders place a huge emphasis on the charismatic experiences in their teachings. Paul primarily addresses such charismatic giftings in the context of letters that explicitly or implicitly address growing divisions, as in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, or where people are about to abandon Christ as evidence of how God actually works, as in Galatians. Whereas perseverance in faith and love in the face of hardship and suffering is a consistent, prominent theme of Paul and the whole New Testament. Put differently, for Paul, charismatic experiences are only addressed when the love of Christ is threatened by division or apostasy. The charismatic gifts are a part of the experience of the Spirit of God’s People, and yet they are not the center of faith and life, but they aid in the rightly directed faith and life instead. But when treated for their own sake and the power of God given to people is valued as a personal possession and source of experience, it can lead to either a spiritually immature charismaticism as in 1 Corinthians or to the sheep’s clothing charismaticism of 2 Corinthians.
At one time I knew who to blame for everything that happened, but then I came to realize that naivete is different from complicity. When so many great things seem to happen, it can be easy to lose the discerning edge, particularly in this day where there is a strong predilection for religion and spirituality to be therapeuticized and thus be subtly triumphed over by the therapeutic, where religious and Scriptural language are code words for psychological events and processes, rather than psychology and therapy being Spiritualized (and I mean, the work of the Spirit and not some generic set of ideas and practices we label spirituality) self-consciously and a critical eye and brought into orbit around the love of Christ. It can be hard at first to see the differences between mature charismaticism, misdirected and immature, yet genuine charismaticism, and fraudulent charismaticism. It is here where a tempered skepticism provides the basis of discernment.