Mathew Clark, Pentecostalism and Philosophy of Religion

19 05 2013

[This is a summary of a talk given by Mathew Clark, Regent’s Theological College at the University of Wales, at the first Philosophy and Religious Practices’ workshop at the University of Liverpool (a report for which is available here).]

Intro: My own experience of exorcism and of healings. Pentecostals, who in total now number close on 10% of the world’s population, live and think in a world in which their Christian living is accompanied by an observable phenomenology which they understand to be the work and influence of the Holy Spirit, linked to the mission of Jesus Christ.

1.    Pentecostal groups in the UK

Typology:

–       Classical groups: Elim, Assemblies of God, Apostolic Church

–       Influences: Charismatic Anglicans, RC’s, Methodists and others (neo-Pentecostals) – UK archbishops?

–       Newer groups e g Terry Virgo’s New Frontiers church

–       Immigrant groups: West Indian and African, but others from Asia (Korea, Singapore, India) and from Latin America (e g Universal Church – Brazil)

–       Growth occurring primarily in the last two categories

–       Still relatively very small, total excluding charismatics probably less than 1/2 million – this is stark contrast to major growth areas in other regions eg E and SE Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Significant social markers:

–       fervour,

–       commitment to alternative Christian life-style,

–       evangelisation at every level (personal, community and national),

–       religiously conservative (if not politically) and

–       a growing public profile (although often through lens of sceptical or hostile UK media.)

Philosophical markers:

–       Hold to a Christian world-view vs secular (shared with evangelicalism)

–       Pervasive miraculous: tongues, prophetic speech, healing and miracles

–       Holistic view of reality (no strong body-spirit/physical-spiritual dualism)

–       Balance of spirit-freedom and text-restraint (role of the text)

–       Approach science-religion (and secular-religious) debate from unique angle of common and popular phenomenology

2.    Two major issues:

2.1  Experience and propagation of the “miraculous”

–       “Muslims also receive healing but they do not convert to Christianity” – indignant Hindu professor on proselytization of Hindus by Pentecostals in South Africa, because of healing and exorcism.

–       “I cannot do theology as though I had not met God powerfully” – my own comments while writing What is distinctive about Pentecostal Theology, 1987 (With H Lederle – Pretoria: Unisa Press).

–       Science-religion debate not purely a question of philosophical categories and possibilities, but of existential and empirical phenomenology of spirit-matter interaction.

2.2  Role of the text

–       Full spectrum of religious/spiritual approaches to Biblical text demonstrated in the movement: text as inspired, text as semi-divine, text as autonomously efficacious, text as narrative witness, text as divine command, etc. In practical terms, no normative hermeneutic.

–       However, major role of text is to provide direction and boundaries to proclamation and experience – “text” and “spirit” provide balancing emphases.

–       Therefore text both liberating and restricting: it confines religious and spiritual experiences within boundaries, thereby limiting superstition and promoting modernisation; but it can also operate legalistically and in over-literal interpretations become socially unhelpful (e g age of the earth debates, role of women in church and society, uncritical acceptance of authority of rulers, etc.)

3.    Conclusion:

The practice of philosophy (of religion) in the UK, like the development and practice of public policy (and, as the C of E has discovered, ecclesiastical policy), cannot proceed without taking cognisance of these groups and their worldview and daily experiences – their lived religion. They make the insistence upon a scientistic-secularist-rationalist-humanist state and state policies appear simplistic and perhaps neglectful of significant personal-existential and empirical-social reality.

Philosophy in the UK may be in danger of practicing without taking due note of strong arguments for a “space for thought” which recognises the limitations of the rationalistic and materialistic paradigm in which Western thinking tends to operate.

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