I’m not a Roman Catholic. If you are friends with me on Facebook, though, you might wonder sometimes. In the past half-year I’ve paid more attention to the actions and words of the Pope than ever before. While not in preparation to bend my knee towards Rome, this action on my part does represent a real admiration for a lot of what I have seen from Francis. It seems that nearly every week he is doing or saying something worthy of profound reflection.
So it was that yesterday a published interview contained the following line from the Pontiff:
“A religion without mystics is a philosophy.”
Short, simple, and catchy, it had all the hallmarks of an immediately classic quotation. So perfect it was in its construction and truth, I thought, that he must have been quoting someone else. After a quick search, however, it seems that the words are his and his alone.
I like the idea of the mystical being a constituent part of what differentiates pursuits of the mind from pursuits of the soul. I think Francis is wise to remind us of this. The thought also dovetails nicely with a topic I was already considering: Pentecostalism’s approach to biblical interpretation.
When it comes to Pentecostal spirituality, many scholars admit that there is a tension in the movement surrounding the place of (for lack of a better word) mysticism. Pentecostals, as a group that asserts the deep and powerful place of sometimes extravagant spiritual experience, the role of the Holy Spirit in speaking to and through them, and the ongoing use of spiritual gifts, are by their very orientation focused upon union with God and other ineffable realities. And yet many of us within the movement, itself having grown up–especially in America–in the midst of a very scientific and modernist world, are tempted to leave this mystically complicated and messy spirituality for the clean lines of evangelicalism.
One of the places this evangelical influence upon Pentecostalism is felt most strongly is in the area of biblical interpretation. As one scholar has said, the Pentecostal approach to reading the Scriptures has often been a very experiential one. They feel out, in other words, how God is speaking to them through it. This might mean appropriating a biblical story as their own, adopting the words of the Scripture as God’s personal message to them, or simply saying that “God gave me this verse.”
Such an approach, while deeply coded within Pentecostalism, is not at all the evangelical approach. As the two groups have often aligned in common cause in the past few decades, some say that Pentecostals have perceived the need to move towards a different style of Bible reading. I feel this tension when I teach the course Biblical Interpretation here at my university. We use an evangelical textbook that seeks to have students engage in a logically progressing scientific study of the Bible, along the way asserting that the meaning of a passage is found in original authorial intent and, basically, that the text cannot mean what it never meant.
As someone who has had a not insignificant amount of training in the Bible, I accept the hallmarks of this approach and I teach it to my students. And yet as a Pentecostal I can’t help but feel there is something wrong with it. That the Holy Spirit can speak to us through the Scriptures in ways unexpected. That scientific exegesis does not exhaust what is happening here. That revelation from the Lord has not completely ended in the cold lines of the printed page. I’m wise enough to know that the contents of any continuing revelation cannot be in contradiction to the rest of the Scripture nor be used to create teachings unknown from the rest of the Bible (no Joseph Smith here, thank you very much!), but I do want to remain open to the possibility that God can communicate otherwise. I’m willing, therefore, to say that we start by analyzing the Bible carefully, but do not necessarily end there.
To be a Pentecostal “mystic” would seem to require an approach of this sort, despite the dangers our evangelical friends might see. Pentecostals the world over do read the Bible experientially and immediate to themselves. They inhabit its story, and in the midst of that story the Spirit of God inhabits them, even from time to time speaking through them to the congregation. If all of this isn’t a kind of mysticism, I don’t know what is.