Why I am (not), part II – charismatic / evangelical / liberal…

Last time I was looking at my Anglo-Catholic upbringing and subsequent late-teen explorations into atheism and alternative spiritualities. 

When I came back to Christian faith in my early 20s, it was from a desperate sense of the need for ‘salvation’ in all senses. My life had come dramatically unstuck; I’d tried almost everything else, and was finally willing to give Christianity a go again. I felt it was the only option I had left.

Why I’m (not) charismatic

This new phase of my faith journey took me to a lively C of E ‘church plant’ that met in a school gym. Apart from being Anglican, it was in every way the complete opposite of my childhood church with all its archaic grandeur and musty ceremony.

My new church was broadly evangelical but strongly charismatic. There was a major emphasis on the active power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and on the exercise of spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues. In my school days I’d been dragged along to a few charismatic services and events, and had found them both exciting and slightly bewildering. Now though I embraced it wholeheartedly; it seemed to me I’d found the real thing. There was an expectation that God would show up each week, speaking and acting directly, and indeed he seemed to.

These were thrilling times for me; I felt I was personally experiencing the reality of Christ first-hand. It was like being part of the church from the book of Acts – for me at the time by far the most exciting book of the Bible, and the one which convinced me most of Christianity’s reality.

Nonetheless, a few of the elements were quite far-out, including some prosperity theology as well as the phenomenon of being ‘slain in the Spirit’. Our church also welcomed The Toronto Blessing in a big way during my first year there. Looking back I have some major question marks over the whole thing, and I’m unsure how much was divine and how much human. But I can’t deny that something was happening, and it made a profound impression on me, shaping my expectations of Christian experience for a long time.

Probably the best and most enduring legacy for me of those early charismatic days has been the experience of being filled with the joy and presence of God during times of wholehearted musical worship. However sceptical I’ve become in many ways, I cannot write these experiences off as entirely emotional or psychological.

Such experiences have transformed my theology and my faith, and I can no longer see God as distant, aloof or uninvolved. Charismatic worship has taught me to listen out for God speaking in and through the world around me. I certainly don’t think it’s healthy to interpret everything that happens as a sign, and nor do I believe that God will miraculously intervene whenever we want. But I’m now prepared to see God in and through everyday things, and I expect him to be present, active and vocal in the world and in our lives (even if often he doesn’t seem to be).

I still love musical worship and I’m still actively involved in it, though I now find some charismatic choruses rather shallow and childish, and I’m ill at ease with some of the theology they express. I also wish that alongside the exuberant expression of joy and love, there was also room in charismatic worship for darker emotions – for anger and rage, sorrow and hurt, disappointment and abandonment, bewilderment, even hate.

Overall though, I’ve gained much from charismatic Christianity, to the extent that I’d still probably label myself as ‘cautiously charismatic’. I greatly value what it’s taught me about extempore prayer, though I no longer see it as the only valid kind. I still pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’, and I still expect him to (though I know he’s already there). I believe in the power of prayer, though not in any guaranteed results.

On the more dubious side, I think I ‘speak in tongues’ (I may well be kidding myself). However, I’ve never prophesied or anything else, and I see all of these ‘spiritual gifts’ as potentially beneficial but not essential. I’m slightly sceptical about most specific examples of prophecies, ‘words of knowledge’, ‘pictures’ etc. I’ve heard a few that I’m pretty sure were genuine, a whole bunch of others that I’m a lot less sure about; and some that I think were abuses of power. And these days I find the whole charismatic obsession with spiritual warfare deeply disturbing and I give it a wide berth.

But to the extent that I’m an agnostic, it’s very much a charismatic agnostic.

Why I’m (not) evangelical

In the early days of my new-found Christian faith I started to devour the Bible eagerly, if with some bewilderment. I was particularly bothered by the discrepancies between the gospels, for example the resurrection accounts and the birth narratives.

My charismatic church was broadly evangelical, and the Bible was definitely taken as authoritative (if interpreted in rather particular and slightly odd ways). But it was at university that I came under the influence of more mainstream conservative evangelical theology via the Christian Union and the conservative organisation UCCF.

Around this time I attended the evangelical ‘Word Alive’ Bible conference and heard teaching from conservative groups like the Proclamation Trust, and from teachers like Don Carson and Roy Clements. They were brilliant but they left me rather cold; they fed my mind but failed to touch my heart. Rather like atheism, a lot of what they said made intellectual sense but didn’t take account of my real experience.

For some years I tried quite hard to be a good evangelical, and felt guilty about all my difficulties with the Bible. But evangelicalism (particularly Reformed and conservative evangelicalism) never really worked for me.

I am still broadly evangelical in that I greatly value the Bible. But I’m not an evangelical in that I’ve never subscribed to sola scriptura, and I no longer see the Bible as simply the inerrant Word of God, unquestionably authoritative in all aspects of life and theology.

I am evangelical in that I accept most of the miracles associated with Christ, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection. I’m not evangelical in that I don’t believe in a literal, physical eternal hell, nor do I accept that only professing Christians will ‘make it to heaven’.

I am evangelical in that I’m largely pro-life (hopefully in a nuanced way). I’m not evangelical in that I’m cautiously in favour of gay relationships, and not entirely opposed to assisted dying in all cases.

I am evangelical in that I believe people need Christ. I’m not evangelical in that I’m no longer comfortable with most forms of evangelism, which I see as overly simplistic or as merely selling another product. I also believe that people may be able to know Christ without knowing they know him.

For years then I’ve been on a journey out of what has felt like a straitjacket of evangelical belief. My path has inevitably taken me through various forms of liberal faith.

Why I’m (not) liberal

I’ve said my dad was a Catholic, but really he was a fairly liberal one. He was a little bit of a heretic in some ways, freely questioning Catholic dogma on Mary, papal infallibility etc. He was also a scientist by training and we all grew up seeing no contradiction between science and faith, or between evolution and Christianity (I’ve never changed on that). My parents were progressively committed to inter-denominational unity, and open to influences from quite way-out thinkers and other faith traditions. We had many interesting and open theological discussions.

So my family taught me to think and (to an extent) encouraged me to be sceptical and critical; not just to accept the official church line on any particular subject. That’s certainly something I’ve retained.

Later at Uni, at the same time as I was enthusiastically embracing Charismatic Christianity, I encountered more liberal voices at the college Chaplaincy. While I felt these to be a little heretical and dodgy, I liked the people, often more than I liked my fellow evangelicals. The liberals seemed freer, funnier, more human and less prone to spout ‘right answers’ or biblical proof-texts.

The Chaplaincy also put on a creative informal Eucharist which I loved. Meanwhile I was gaining a more academic liberal perspective from the college’s optional weekly Theology and Ethics course, which opened up all sorts of fascinating insights that I wasn’t getting at church or CU.

After Uni, I started to move away from strict evangelicalism towards more liberal, open theology.  I began exploring the Contemplative and Orthodox traditions, among others. I allowed myself to question and even reject many evangelical doctrines.

I am now deeply liberal in the eyes of my more evangelical friends. However, I’m not truly liberal by a long chalk, and I doubt that I ever will be. I can’t discount the supernatural elements of faith, because they’ve been part of my experience. I can’t write off the Bible as merely human, because I’ve felt its power. If I’m a liberal, it’s definitely an evangelical liberal.

So now I find I have to carve a new path which is not strictly evangelical, liberal, charismatic, Catholic, contemplative, agnostic, pagan or anything else, but which is a dynamic synthesis of the good that I’ve gained from each of these streams. I’m not quite sure where it’s taking me, but for now I’m enjoying the journey.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Charismatic, Emerging, Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, Liberalism, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Why I am (not), part II – charismatic / evangelical / liberal…

  1. Mad Marsie [Snr.] says:

    Good to have time with you and Rosie the other night. Amazed that I managed to remain alert and it was one of those [rare] evenings when I could have chatted into the early hours…it’s me age you know…. After our discussion I was re-assured that others have had similar experience/understanding of [our current]church. One can ‘know’ in one’s head it is ‘so’ but to hear it from another’s mouth is more helpful…

    Like the idea of ‘cautious charismatic’ that sums me up i think. When I first came to London [from a broadly ‘Mission England’ church life], I found it difficult to settle in any church. As a last resort I went to this Frankenstein-esque looking church, up the hill in Honor Oak near to where I lived at the time. It ‘shouldn’t’ have worked but it did – I still don’t know why as such- perhaps the vicar’s ‘Can I come and chat with you at home’ ? made the difference.

    I stayed four years, became church warden; went to Taize for Easter [with 1,700 German’s – ‘zwei dog’…!!! … another story … it was for a season…

    We currently see through a glass darkly…God is able to accept our many variations and choices [to change]. There is a BIIIIIGGG meadow to frolic in.. but with a fence to keep us safe….

    Like

    • Thanks John! I really enjoyed it too – shame we had to have an early ‘pumpkin time’. Hope we can do it again in the not-too-distant future…

      The Frankenstein-esque church sounds interesting! I suspect you’re right about what made it work despite everything. I guess it’s all about the quality of relationships in the end, which I suppose includes the level of the church’s and congregation’s openness to examine itself honestly…

      I wonder if ‘Springfield’ could = ‘big meadow’…

      Like

  2. James Pruitt says:

    Harvey

    As you may recall I questioned whether you were an Evangelical following posts of yours on 9/6/11 and 4/9/12. I thought that attacking American conservatives from an Evangelical label gave you a certain credibility that I at least questioned as unwarranted. I think I offended you by some of my comments.

    In the end you maintained that you were an Evangelical. I thought I understood and I am usually prone to call people what they want to be called. So I dropped the topic. Last year you said that you were in the process of working out what you believe. Has something changed? You now write in Part I of this series: I have evangelical elements, but Im not really an Evangelical. I think those last five words go to my original point.

    Part II identifies Evangelical viewpoints and mores that you agree with and some to which you dissent. You say here that you are “broadly evangelical.” Please speculate: where do you think you will be on these issues when you are 50? (I am assuming based on reading you for a couple of years that you are younger because of things you have cited, not because of any lack of depth. Sorry to be wordy here, I am trying to make a point that I respect your writing. )

    As I have said earlier, your religious views are very congruent with my own. But I am not an Evangelical, just a Christian.

    Cheers, Jim

    Like

    • Hi Jim, good to hear from you again!

      I turned 40 a month ago, so I’m very glad if that still counts as young 😉

      I certainly don’t want to come across either as anti-American or anti-evangelical, though I’m aware that I probably sometimes do on both counts. It’s never the whole (or even the majority) of either America or of evangelicalism that I have difficulties or disagreements with, but always just specific elements.

      I think the straightest answer I can give to your questions is that I genuinely don’t know how much of an evangelical I am now or am likely to be in the future. On certain subjects and beliefs I fit broadly within mainstream evangelicalism; on others I don’t fit at all. I attend a broadly evangelical/charismatic Anglican church, where I feel largely at home but not entirely. Hence ‘The Evangelical Liberal’, which isn’t meant to be an exact categorization but rather a deliberate oxymoron, an anti-categorization if you like. I’m a bit evangelical and a bit anti-evangelical; a bit liberal, and a bit anti-liberal. You could just say I’m quite confused – but I think that’s confused in a good way.

      So ‘The Confused Charismatic Anglican with Evangelical, Liberal and Other Elements’ might be a more accurate blog title, but probably less catchy. 😉

      Or, like you say, I could just settle for ‘Christian’.

      All the best, and thanks as always for taking the trouble to comment,

      Harvey

      Like

  3. Terry says:

    ‘Cautiously Charismatic’… A new name for your blog? Or a name for a new blog?

    Like

    • Yes, I like it… though not sure how well a blog with ‘Cautiously’ in the title would do – it’s not exactly inspirational! Maybe I should just go the whole hog and call it The Cautiously Charismatic Evangelical Liberal (TM).

      A guy called Simon Hall did a great talk at Greenbelt entitled ‘The Thoughtful Charismatic’. Well worth a listen for anyone who’s charismatically inclined but feels dissatisfied with a lot of contemporary charismatic theology and practice.

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  4. I really like your reflections, beside the Anglo catholic roots you’re taking the words out of my mouth! Im thinking of a sabbatical next year based on the three words ‘evangelical, charismatic, liberal’ – visiting people/congregations etc.
    Where are you geographically?

    Like

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