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Science and the Spirit
James K.A. Smith
Two Globalizations: Pentecostalism and Science
Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity has become one of the most significant religious movements in the 21st century, with a distinct emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit. The “outpouring” of the Spirit in the United States (at Azusa Street in 1906), accompanied and anticipated by similar revivals around the world, quickly spread around the globe such that today some of the most important movements in what Philip Jenkins describes as “the next Christianity” are pentecostal movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. As the heart of Christianity moves to the global south, we are finding that pneumatology is more important than the Western theological tradition might have led us to believe. And increasingly, Pentecostal movements are focusing religious thought and practice on the role of the Spirit. In short, world Christianity is pentecostal Christianity.
But when scholars or journalists think of Pentecostals, visions of laboratories or particle accelerators don’t usually come to mind. Pentecostalism is more likely to evoke images of Appalachian “pew jumping” or chaotic religious services that border on shamanism. This would seem to be the very antithesis of the world constructed by cool scientific rationality: prodded by innumerable instruments, explained by appeals to empirical data, and harnessed for progress. One of the signs of science’s triumph has been its ability to eliminate the ghost in the machine, not least the Holy Ghost. If science and technology is marching boldly into the future, Pentecostal Christianity seems to be clinging to an outmoded first-century worldview.
And yet, there are curious instances which suggest strange and unexpected concatenations of the two. Driving by a Pentecostal megachurch, whether in suburban Dallas or sprawling Lagos, one will notice a tangled myriad of satellite dishes that harness microwaves and utilize satellites in order to broadcast and receive television programs devoted to divine healing. Or consider that in 1981, healing evangelist Oral Roberts founded the (rather short-lived) City of Faith Medical and Research Center at Oral Roberts University. Or we might simply note the fact that an increasing number of Pentecostal colleges and universities offer majors in pre-med biology. These sorts of vignettes suggest that the commonly accepted picture of Pentecostal backwardness in the face of scientific progress is not true to the facts on the ground.
Pentecostal spirituality, and what might be described as a “pentecostal worldview” is a powerful cultural phenomenon, a unique form of “globalization.” But given that it is such a “fantastic” form of Christianity—a kind of spirituality that hearkens back to what will seem a pre-modern view of the world as “enchanted”—globalized pentecostalism runs up against another powerful cultural force: the growth and expansion of modern science and technology, even a creeping “scientism” (à la Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) that is experiencing its own globalization. This raises unique questions regarding how Pentecostals will negotiate life in a late modern world, particularly as regions such as Africa and Asia emerge into modernity with the advent of globalization:
Can a pentecostal worldview—which is focused on the miraculous and fantastic—inhabit the same world and the same cultural space as naturalistic science? Or are the two doomed to remain sequestered in parallel universes? Should we expect yet another “clash of civilizations” on this score?
Must pentecostalism entail what most would expect—a head-in-the-sand ignoring of science, or worse, an anti-intellectual rejection of science? Doesn’t the pentecostal appropriation of communications and media technology indicate otherwise? Or does this signal an internal contradiction between belief and practice?
Does the utilization of modern medicine by pentecostals represent a kind of “backsliding” and the waning of a commitment to a distinctly pentecostal worldview? Or does this signal a more holistic pentecostal understanding of health and healing which is able to appreciate and absorb medical science?
How can pentecostals so aggressively adopt the fruits of science in modern technology (e.g., media technology) without taking seriously the science that informs such technology?
And does science necessarily entail the dis-enchantment of the world? In other words, does a serious involvement with science demand an aggressive naturalism that would rule pentecostal phenomenon benighted and impossible?
What would be unique about a distinctively Pentecostal foray into the science/theology dialogue? Do pentecostals have something unique to contribute to existing conversations, drawing on the resources of pentecostal spirituality and practice?
Pentecostalism and Science: An Emerging Conversation
Several years ago, with a grant from the Templeton Foundation, we gathered a team of scholars to tackle just these sorts of questions. The fruit of that research was a book,
Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences
(Indiana University Press, 2010). It represents the first sustained project that considers issues at the intersection of a pentecostal worldview and contemporary science. In this respect, we hope it makes a timely contribution to current discussions as these two globalizing forces—pentecostal Christianity and modern science—continue to bump into one another around the globe. But we also hope it provides a glimpse into an emerging conversation. As such, the book is a bit of a first report from the front, so to speak.
Many Christians might not realize that, over the past century, Pentecostals in both North America and beyond have retained a vital Spirit-centered spirituality but have also matured in their relation to culture. In other words, Pentecostals are among “the next Christians.”
This is perhaps best seen in the emergence of pentecostal scholarship across the disciplines—beginning largely with history, biblical studies, and theology, and now including Pentecostal engagement with philosophy, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. One can see this illustrated, for instance, the founding and growth of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, launched in 1970, which been a catalyst for Pentecostal scholarship across the disciplines (the society’s journal, Pneuma, was first published in 1979). Gathering together an ecumenical group of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars from traditions ranging from the Assemblies of God to the Roman Catholic church, the SPS provides a forum for the advancement of Pentecostal scholarship. Though its initial focus was in history, biblical studies, and theology, the Society now includes tracks in philosophy, ethics, and the social sciences.
One can note parallel developments in Pentecostal higher education. The early Pentecostal movement spawned a number of Bible schools, mission institutes, and other training centers focused on ministry and mission. Over the course of the twentieth-century, some of these institutions were transformed into Bible colleges and then liberal arts colleges and universities; in addition, new colleges and seminaries were founded. By the end of the 20th century, the United States boasted a wide network of Pentecostal and charismatic accredited universities (including graduate and professional programs), and globally we have seen the emergence of pentecostal centers of higher education in Africa, South America, and the Pacific Islands (Wilson 2002). With this shift to liberal arts education and professional programs, pentecostals have had to move beyond a narrow concern with Bible, theology and missions in order to engage the panoply of academic disciplines, including the social and natural sciences, with core curricula at colleges and universities including requirements in the sciences. However, there has been little reflection on what this engagement with science means for Pentecostal spirituality, and even less reflection on what might be a uniquely Pentecostal perspective on science.
We see this unique juncture as an instance of both challenge and opportunity. On the one hand, there is a clearly a need for Pentecostal and charismatic traditions to take science seriously. We live in a modern (or postmodern) world that reaps incredible benefits from science, and Pentecostal communities have been quick to avail themselves of applied science via technology. On the other hand, a naturalistic worldview—which tends to dominate science, or at least cultural perceptions of science—poses a serious challenge to the distinct sense of transcendence in charismatic spirituality. But naturalism in science is not the end of the story. Indeed, some of the most important discussions in science—particularly in dialogue with theology—have emphasized a new role for “Spirit” as a scientific category. This represents a portal for Pentecostal participation in the science/theology dialogue as well as an avenue for Pentecostal engagement with and in the sciences.
But we also believe that the “need” here is reciprocal: we believe that Pentecostal spirituality, with its distinct emphasis on the Spirit and pneumatology, can yield unique insights for the broader science and religion dialogue. Indeed, we believe that Pentecostal spirituality remains a largely “untapped resource” in current discussions. Our work tries speaks to issues on both fronts: on the one hand, it addresses the sorts of questions that Pentecostals bring to their first engagement with the sciences; on the other hand, it also addresses the sorts of concerns and worries that scientists would have about Pentecostal spirituality.
It is unlikely—and probably not even desirable—that pentecostals would one day devote their resources and energy to constructing particle accelerators. And it’s unlikely that the legacy of pentecostal preachers and missionaries will be displaced by Nobel-winning pentecostal scientists. But we are already seeing pentecostals working in cancer laboratories, developing and utilizing media technologies, engaged in the health-giving work of psychology, and studying human behavior through the social sciences. It is our hope that as Pentecostals and as scientists, their work can contribute to the common good.
Can a pentecostal worldview—which is focused on the miraculous and fantastic—inhabit the same world and the same cultural space as naturalistic science?
What role do you see pentecostal spirituality playing in high education?
Editor's Note: This image was found
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