Charismatic

The charismatic movement had a large impact early in my Christian life. I use “charismatic” to refer to a movement in modern Christianity that emphasizes the Holy Spirit, and places heavy emphasis on prophecy, miracles, speaking in tongues, and other supernatural manifestations. Charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit is capable of working as powerfully in modern times as it did in the time of the early church, if only Christians would display enough faith.

One major appeal of this movement to me was the possibility of a direct encounter with God. I had good friends who believed that God spoke to them directly, giving them guidance in major decisions. I had friends who had testimony of miraculous, medically impossible healings. And plenty more still who claimed to be able to speak in a mysterious, incomprehensible language of angels.

I was never able to really experience these more esoteric experiences for myself, despite longing for it, and trying really hard. I was also unnerved by how charismatic ideas led to unhealthy individualism. If I can hear from God directly, what use is there for church, for Christian community? Later in life, I drifted away from the charismatic movement. Nevertheless, it has had an immense influence on my faith today, an influence that I think is mostly positive.

Most importantly, I think these early charismatic ideas inoculated me from over-intellectualizing my faith, despite my career in academia. I did (and still do!) enjoy abstract theological philosophizing, but since it was drilled in me from so early on that it was this mysterious, supernatural connection with God that was most important, I never felt that it was possible to truly understand the divine through logical argument. The charismatics thus gave me an early introduction to the Orthodox idea of “mystery”, that there are things about God that are beyond the reach of human reason.

It strikes me how some key ideas from the charismatic movement are present in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox church enthusiastically affirms the possibility of miracles in modern times, and also emphasizes that the Christian needs to know God experientially. Indeed, one way of explaining the filioque controversy, the formal reason that Rome split from the Orthodox Church in 1054, was that the Eastern churches were standing firm on the importance of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to say that I left the charismatic movement. Rather, the charismatic ideas I found most compelling were present in a different form in the Orthodox church.

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The Prodigal Son

I think it would be useful to start this blog with an account of my journey in the Orthodox faith. This will probably be a multi-part series of blog posts. I will not attempt to explain Orthodox theology beyond what is necessary for the narrative. I would recommend Father Thomas Hopko’s excellent series The Orthodox Faith (full text available at that link for free!) for readers who want to learn what Orthodox Christians believe.

The first time I recall grappling with the idea of God was when I was 12, at a church retreat organized by St. Ignatius in Petaling Jaya. I was only there because I had a good friend who was also going. There was a short skit where the senior campers performed Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is the NIV version of Luke 15:11-24:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

I found this depiction of God’s love toward fallen humanity deeply compelling. I had a 12-year-old’s basic understanding of right and wrong, and I was struck by how the father’s actions turned that understanding upside down. To show such extravagant compassion to someone who had wronged you so grievously? Unthinkable!

I recall almost nothing of the play itself, or of the rest of the church retreat. But that awestruck feeling at the beauty of the story is still seared in my memory. It is in pursuing that beauty that I became a Christian.

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