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Mystical & charismatic Christianity

As a person with charismatic leanings, I have come to prefer Catholic / Anglican / Episcopal forms of charismatic Christianity. As mentioned in my last post, charismatic Catholicism goes way back to the early church, under the rubric of Christian mysticism. The reason I prefer these forms is because they are more balanced. Protestant charismatics and Pentecostals greatly overemphasize things like speaking in tongues, which are really a minor gift. Tongues have been practiced throughout church history, and there is no historical or scriptural basis for the claim that tongues and other charismatic gifts ever ceased*. But they have never been considered "a big deal" or in any way a sign that a person is more spiritual than another who doesn't do tongues or such gifts. Only with the advent of modern charismatic movements did such an extreme emphasis get put on tongues and charismatic gifts. St. Paul commanded us to desire the better gifts - in that context, he was referring to the essential ministry gifts, as opposed to tongues and other specialized gifts. Ministry gifts would be things like teaching, preaching, evangelism, discipling, leading worship, and church leadership. If a church doesn't focus on these, and instead focuses mainly on charismatic gifts, then it will be unbalanced. In fact, many Protestant charismatic churches, even those that don't over-emphasize tongues, tend to have shallow Bible study skills and sermons, and focus too much on the experiential without a sufficiently solid grounding and practical knowledge of Scripture.

Traditional Christian mysticism, including charismatic Catholicism, focused on prayer, including ecstatic prayer, personal experience of the presence and love of God, experience of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes visions and healings. This is also balanced with an emphasis on knowing and understanding Scripture. The more biblical balance is what I find appealing about this tradition.

I also see some of this in my church, an independent evangelical Protestant church (Covenant Fellowship Church). Though the staff and people there may not embrace or be familiar with terms like 'mysticism', what they practice is a well balanced approach to charismatic Christianity. At the morning prayer meetings, I hear many people praying passionately, often in prayer tongues. But the church never emphasizes tongues or such gifts; rather, the small group experience emphasize Scripture and accountability. It is these mystical and passionate aspects that I am trying to learn from them and cultivate in my own spiritual life.

The goal or object of spirituality in proper mystical and charismatic Christianity is God himself, seeking his presence - as in mystical writers like Brother Lawrence (Practicing the Presence of God), St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Kierkegaard, and others. The most common abuse, especially in modern charismatic churches, is that without a proper spiritual balance, people get caught up in the charismatic experiences themselves, and seek those experiences for the sake of the experiences themselves. This leads to an overly subjective, self-focused religious practice, as God is not really the focus, but the experience itself, or the worshiper's own desires.

Sometimes this emphasis on the personal and subjective can get intellectualized or theologized, and we see this in some of the more speculative streams of mysticism. This leads to a loss of an orthodox focus on God as transcendent and holy, and focuses on a personal "God experience". This can even be coupled with a de-emphasis of the dual humanity and deity of Christ, such that one tries to become divine as Jesus was, as if he were simply a holy man who attained a divine filling and status. Such shows an influence of Gnosticism, Arianism, or modern liberal theology. I'm not sure, but Paul Tillich might qualify for the latter category, though I haven't read Tillich myself yet. I'll let you know after I read some of his stuff.

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* Tongues: Practice of tongues, especially prayer tongues in worship, is recorded throughout church history. In 390 St. Augustine wrote of some believers using tongues in worship. Other church fathers before him like Irenaeus (175 A.D.) mention the practice. Famous saints like Hildegard von Bingen (1100s) and the Moravians (1300s) used tongues in prayer. Tongues have not been unusual in revival movements, such as the Wesleyan revivals of the 1700s. For more, see the Wikipedia article on glossolalia.

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