Saturday, January 09, 2010

The "Tangible Presence" of God: Questions and Musings

Here’s a question that I have been mulling over for a couple of days:
How much of the modern charismatic movement’s stress on the "tangible presence" of God in the form of signs, wonders and individual manifestations is the result of a non-sacramental theology?
For some context for this question let me tell you a brief story. A couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with a twenty-something friend of mine who I’ve known since he was a sweaky 5th grader. My friend is on a spiritual pilgrimage. He grew up in a traditional evangelical environment that while not closed to the more sensational gifts of the spirit, did not promote or facilitate them. After graduating from an evangelical college he has decided to spend a year on the west coast attending a supernatural boot camp of sorts. He was on a couple week break visiting his folks and we caught up at a coffee shop. In the course of the conversation I queried what his motivation was for studying at this institution and what about the expression of Christian faith so appealed to him. He said some interesting things (these are my report of what he said so there is certainly an interpretive layer to the quotations): “I long for intimacy”. “You don’t have much of a relationship with out intimacy”. “I have longed desired the tangible presence of God in my life”. "My Christian discipleship was focused on doing and not on being or experience". I asked him about this “tangible presence”. He said “it can manifest in different forms, but it is often a warm pressure in the middle of my hand or a pain in my leg, or something like that”. What it seemed he was saying was that this "tangible presence" of God is God’s way of being physically present to him.

I really enjoyed the conversation we had together and I was moved by the conversation and found myself reflecting since then on a couple of elements. One of them was the question  with which I opened this post and to which I’ll return shortly. Before I do, the conversation caused me to think about my lack of desire for intimacy with God. When he explained what he meant by "tangible presence" I thought to myself: "I have no desire for that". I don't even think about that. This however was not always the case. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I remember this was a essential pursuit in my spiritual life. I desired and tried to maintain intimate contact with God. However, in my late thirties this pursuit is foreign to me. I don’t seek intimacy with God and I don’t feel compelled to. It’s not that I don’t want relationship with God certainly or that I don’t have what I think is a good relationship (although of course it can always be improving); it’s more that intimacy is not a central element of the relationship nor is it a central desire. Is this possible? Is it possible to have a very deep and sturdy relationship without a lot of intimacy? It must be. Generally speaking I’m not a very “touchy-feely” kind of person. I express my commitment in relationship, say in my marriage, through faithfulness and service not by gushing with emotion—I’m sort of an emotional rock. (I'm sure there is a psychological reason that years of counseling could surface). This is who I've become. So is it so surprising that that is how my relationship with God is characterized. But is this OK? Is it best? Or do I need to repent and pursue such? I'm not really angling for a reponse these are just my musings. Contact with God is essential, I'm convinced, but what that looks like is diverse as my opening question I think reveals.

Back to the question: how much of the modern charismatic movement’s stress on the tangible presence of God in the form of signs, wonders and individual manifestations is the result of a non-sacramental theology? When I was talking with my friend I thought about the manner of contact that he was describing and that of the great traditions of the church like the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions that are highly sacramental. The tangible presence of God exists in the sacraments and the liturgy of the church -- not in individualistic forms as with the Charismatic movement, but in the communal experiences of liturgy and sacrament. What strikes me is that though so different, the sacramental theology and the theology of signs and wonders (or however one labels it) are after the same thing: God’s tangible presence.

Two sources I’ve been reading recently bring this home. One is the recent and excellent book Worshiping With the Church Fathers (IVP, 2009) by Christopher Hall. The purpose of the book is to introduce an evangelical audience to the worship life of the Church Fathers. It deals with the Sacraments, Prayer and spiritual disciplines. I think this is an important book. Hall states,
The church fathers view life sacramentally, while many evangelicals have found and worshiped Christ in a nonsacramental tradition. Hence, the idea that God uses tangible, earthly means such as wine, bread and water to communicate blessing and nourish fellowship will strike some readers as farfetched, implausible, superstitious and a misreading of Scripture that has warped the church’s tradition (13). 
The other source is Scott Hahn’s recent book on Pope Benedict’s biblical theology Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Brazos, 2009). In discussing the central place of the Word in the church, Hahn describes Benedict’s perspective on the role of the priesthood. He writes,
But the apostolic Word abides in power through the priestly ministry established by the apostles. The priestly ministry . . . is central to Benedict’s understanding of the Church and its role in salvation history . . .Through the priestly ministry, the revealed Word becomes sacrament, bringing forth the kingdom proclaimed by Christ and bringing the world into communion with the divine (50).
One last thought: Is there some biblical diversity in the New Testament witness about how contact or intimacy with God is characterized? For example, John's Gospel is no doubt a favorite for those seeking tangible intimacy for both sacramental and nonsacramental approaches. John presents an intimate Jesus. This can be contrasted with Matthew's presentation. Jesus is much more intellectual and one's relationship with Jesus while no less devoted is much more dutiful. These are generalizations, but it is no wonder why my favorite Gospel is Matthew!


Craig L. Adams said...

American Methodists are partly responsible for this too. In early American Methodism, ordained clergy were relatively rare, and they were traveling large circuits. Local leadership fell to the Lay Leaders and Class Leaders in the local congregations or classes. Holy Communion became a quarterly event since there was bound to be a clergy person present to conduct the quarterly conference. While it had never been Wesley's intention (certainly) nor anyone else's to deliberately de-emphasize the sacrament, that was the result of a policy which insisted on "duly ordained clergy" to conduct the sacrament but spread the clergy thin in an effort to evangelize the country. The emphasis fell upon "experienced religion" - another Wesleyan distinctive. And, this attitude pervaded American revivalism.

Since Pentecostalism originally emerged from Methodism & the Holiness movement, the preference for "experienced religion" (now understood as Baptism in the Holy Spirit) over sacrament was passed along.

Jason said...

Grew up in charismatic circles myself, but I'm not sure where in scripture we find the need to feel things in our palms or legs to know that God is with us and for us.

sujomo said...

Thanks for the stimulating thoughts, Joel. I think Craig's comments are helpful as the Wesleys emphasized the Lord's Supper and prayer. I think your young friend probably linked signs and wonders to answered prayer. Compared to earlier generations who were strong on personal prayer maybe prayer (and fasting which is given a prominent and positive place in Matthew 6)is less emphasized in some evangelical circles. When our children were young my wife used to always encourage them to "pray for daddy's car" (when it was overheating in a tropical climate) or "pray for a parking space". I think you like Matthew's Gospel because of its obvious links to the Old Testament and, therefore, the message of the Word of God as a whole. cheers, sujomo (I'm Mike's friend)

James said...

Thanks for your openness Prof. Willitts. I'm part of the Charismatic movement myself and was kind of suprised by the question as Catholic mystics, who of course are highly sacramental, have a huge influence on the Charismatic / Pentecostal movements.

As Christians we don't "need" to feel God's presence but it sure is fun. We are supposed to have joy unspeakable. For real, not just in theory, and in his presence is fullness of joy. Plus it is fruitful, God is manifesting his presence at IHOP in Kansas City, Missouri at they baptized 700 last week and in the past when he wasn't as intensely I believe it took them several years to baptize that many.

Joel Willitts said...

Point taken and I don't pretend to know a great deal about these things. It struck me as an intersting question as far as it goes.

Joel Willitts said...

One more point: the fact that there are charismatic Catholics and mystics seems reactionary within the tradition. What's more their existence stilll leaves room for the question about Charismatic movement

Tim Byrnes said...

Thank you for this post. This is a very relevant discussion and a very hot topic where I am (in New York City). I am a huge advocate for belief in the miraculous, and for Divine intimacy of the Elijah/Moses type (I've been known to even throw the word Jedi around a bit!); what bums me out is when the thirst for "spiritual" experience is not coupled with an equal thirst for wisdom. I see this all too often. All of God's miraculous manifestations in Scripture have the seed of eternal wisdom in them. God is never a magician. I feel many crave an experience of God the magician. This is why so much modern "prophecy" falls flat on its face.

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

I recently read Dan Treier's "Intro to Theological Interpretation" wherein he suggests (I believe rightly in light of my having been in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement for some 25 years now and serving as a Pentecostal ordained minister and overseer for 11) that Matthew is actually the typically preferred Gospel account of Pentecostal/Charismatics. Anecdotally, I must admit this is true for myself and also that most of the individuals I've met who prefer John actually belong to the more liturgical (even sacramental) churches.

Joel Willitts said...

Rick thanks for your post. Did Treier have some evidence to support this claim? This is interesting and perhaps due to the fact that John does not report some of the miraculous works that the synoptics do, but what in Matthew would you say appeals esp to charismatics? John's Gospel, as you say, is favoured by sacarmentalists (e.g. Brown). My point in the post was more related to the "intimacy" element: John presentation of Jesus is deeply intimate and having taught it for several years I have observed how it appeals personally to students.

Ark said...

hi, i think this is my first comment on this blog.

this actually is something that is really bothering me right now as a Christian.

Why don't I feel the tangible presence of God in life? Why no miracles and divine interventions? Why does God seem so non-existent? Hadn't I felt him before in some of my earlier ministry?

And with this also came along some other intellectual doubts with the ride... and a few weeks back... I had so much doubt and despair... am I wrong? Have I just been fooling myself and there's no divine creator?

I really wanted a tangible feeling of God or lots of miracles in my life as an answer... as God's way of telling me he's real.

right now.. i've tried to suppress the doubt a bit.. by focusing on God's definite revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.. I ask myself "Isnt that enuf?"

but still, I am still feeling insecure and some feelings of doubt remain. I still pray daily and ask God to let me feel him.

sigh. if u guys have any practical advice, please help a brother here.

Michael F. Bird said...

Ark: Don't substitute your perception of God with his reality. There are many seasons in life when we feel close and far from God. In such times I take solace from Psalm 77! Otherwise, strongly recommended is Alister McGrath's book on doubt!!

Joel: I think John's Gospel is the most nonsacramental Gospel there is use. There is such a huge emphasis on faith, no institution of the Lord's Supper, no Baptism of Jesus. I find it interesting also that many Pentecostal churches that I know are filled with ex-Catholics.

Ranger said...

Ark: I'd also suggest Os Guinness' book on Doubt (alongside McGrath's book). As Michael said, feelings of God's presence come and go and come again, but we are not to anchor our faith on such feelings, or any personal divine intervention or even personal experience of the miraculous. Our anchor is Jesus Christ, God's self-revelation.

Another word of advice; perusing the internet looking for answers and flooding your mind with more questions, answers, doubts and general information may not be the best means to respond either. There are lots of good questions out there, and lots of good answers, but you have to take time to work through them and flooding your mind with too much information for you to actually grasp at once is not the best practice for seeking truth.

I'd suggest opening your Bible and prayerfully reading through the gospels. Allow God to speak to you through His word. Do you have someone who mentors you personally? If not, I'd suggest you find someone who is willing to walk alongside you through your questions and doubts...preferably someone who has been there before.

Tim Byrnes said...

Ark: Ranger's advice is fantastic, through and through. The Internet as an informational quick-fix is one of the devil's greatest snares.
On top of Ranger's advice, I would add the suggestion, as difficult as it is to hear, of praying to God and asking for Him to show you opportunities where you can suffer on behalf of others (and tacitly on the behalf of justice and righteousness), in the way Christ did. Perhaps God is using this dry time to push you into an even deeper spirituality on Christ's line?

James said...

Quote from the great Michael Bird that is relevant: "Experience is the oft neglected aspect of Paul's theological appeals and argumentation. In some of his most polemical contexts (i.e., Galatians and Corinthians), Paul can appeal to a common experience as the basis for shared beliefs and behaviours." In light of this we need to not decouple experience from believe as they go together.

Have their been any scholarly studies on the presence or absence of God's presence throughout the Bible? Seems like this is a massively important subject, and I'm not aware of any.

Terry Wright said...

James, there's a book on the themes of presence and absence in the Joseph narrative:

Building on the sacramental theme, Ian Stackhouse argues that the reason music is so prominent in charismatic circles is because the 'worship time' has effectively replaced the sacrament of Holy Communion. See

danny said...

I wonder if you're confusing 2 separate things here: the pursuit of spiritual gifts (signs and wonders, whatever you want to call them) and physical presence, specifically things like what your friend describes.

As far as signs and wonders go, I doubt non-sacramental theology has much to do with it. I think it has more to do with a reading of the NT that notes that the Holy Spirit is an "experienced reality," to use Gordon Fee's term. Anyway, I take this up at my own blog (sorry, not trying to troll, I just didn't want to take up a ton of space here).

Chris said...

As a Christian from the Pentecostal tradition, I have always grown up with an appreciation for the experience of the Spirit (which many Pentecostals, as well as Charismatics, term as 'God's manifest presence'). Strikingly, although I have been in many, many meetings where there has been a lot of enthusiasm and manifestations, I can only count with one hand how many of those meetings that I can truly describe as marked by a definite experience of the Spirit. By 'definite experience of the Spirit', I do not mean that the Spirit was not present in other meetings; rather, that there were some meetings that the Spirit was so present that it was undeniable.

Perhaps an explanation is needed to explain how I manage to determine what counts as a 'undeniable'. Barth's description of God as the 'Wholly Other' is perhaps most fitting here: those meetings that stand out in my mind are marked by a distinctive sense of the 'other-ness', the absolutely sacred nature of the Being of God. As an anecdote, I remember once when I had to teach a Hermeneutics class in church on reading the NT in light of 1st Century Jewish Religion (fascinating, page-turning stuff, believe you me). One of my students was an atheist. After the teaching was over, she and a friend of mine were having a conversation on the nearby couch. Now, I was cranky, tired (it was a work day), and I wanted nothing more than to go home to collapse in bed. I was waiting for the conversation to end because my friend needed to counter-sign the record of the offering for that day: needless to say, I was getting really annoyed.

Then suddenly, inexplicably, this sense of the sacred just filled the small room. No music, no meditative prayer in the background, none of the stuff typically associated with Pentecostal/Charismatic enthusiasm: yet, suddenly, this sacredness just filled the room. The atheist suddenly broke into weeping. I went immediately from cranky to overawed - so much so I knelt down behind a table to hide my face from the Lord; such was the sense of holiness and 'other'-ness.

That night, our atheist friend declared on facebook that she had met Jesus, and on the Christmas that just passed, she was baptised. :)

Reflecting on such moments as a theology student, I think what the Pentecostals and Charismatics call the 'manifest presence of God' is really the NT experience of the Spirit as the downpayment of new creation being made real to them. The description of the Spirit as being the foretaste of the resurrection, as the One who removes in the veil in 2 Cor. 3 to behold the face of the Son, shifts from the Intellectual plane to the affective plane. God makes what the Scriptures describe real beyond intellectual apprehension. And that makes sense, since to become new creation requires you to actually Become new creation, and that demands something more than just a mental appropriation of that fact.

I don't buy into the necessity of there being some sort of physical sensation accompanying this - the terms 'manifest presence' and 'touch of God' are only used because they are terms inherited from the Pentecostal fathers; our people (sadly theologically un-educated) have not better terms at their disposal to try to describe their experience. But for eschatology to move beyond just an intellectual exercise to an actual way of life, it is necessary for God to make it real at an affective level - and that is what I think is going on when people describe such an experience of the Spirit.

Just some long, rambling thoughts from a Pente! :P

Chris said...

And as for non-sacramantality in such Spirit-experiences, I think that such an element is more found in Pentecostalism than in Charismatism. Pentecostalism espoused a strong sense of suspicion towards anything that resembled tradition, because their pneumatology was centred on a Spirit who is essentially free and unbound (once again, I can't help being reminded of Barth, specifically of his chapter on the Holy Spirit in his "Evangelical Theology").

Charismatism, however, being the product of a union between Pentecostalism and mainline traditions, has always been more open to experiencing God in the sacraments. I know of Catholic Charismatic friends who see the sacraments as being a central means of experiencing the Spirit.

Just some more thoughts!

newbeginning said...

James asks "Have their been any scholarly studies on the presence or absence of God's presence throughout the Bible?" Does Gordon Fee's massive "God's Empowering Presence" qualify here? Fee writes, “Each word of this title expresses one of my urgencies, because I became convinced they were Paul’s own urgencies.... Thus: the Holy Spirit as person, the person of God himself; the Holy Spirit as God’s personal presence; and the Holy Spirit as God’s empowering presence” (5).

newbeginning said...

I don't have access to my copy right now, but I would think that Max Turner's thorough monograph "Power from on High: The Spirit in Israel's Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts" might touch on this as well. (See also his more popular presentation in "The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament Church and Today.")

James said...

Thanks guys for sharing the different titles. My fundamental question is would a Christian living in New Testament times have expected the presence and power of God to wax and wane or to be constant? My reading of the NT would suggest constant, but many have the attitude that there are random periods called "revivals" when the presence and power of God come and the rest of the time not so much. The way you answer this has huge implications for how you pray and do church.

newbeginning said...

James, just a quick, off the top of my head response: I think I'd lean toward variance, not constancy. Passages like the following imply an ebb and a flow in the presence and power of God:

- Mark 5:30, ‘At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?" ’

- Luke 4:14, 'Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit...'

- Isaiah 64:1, 'Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!'

- Acts 4:29-31
29 ' "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." 31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.'

: :

After all, if [our experience of] the presence and power of God were constant, there would be little expectation or hope of God's gracious intervention in human circumstances or crises, or of God's merciful response to human need, and therefore little need for prayer, or even faith.

(Although I don't hold truck with the Warfieldian/cessationist notion of a limited number of Biblical epochs during which God performed miracles...if that's what you are getting at with your observation that "many have the attitude that there are random periods called 'revivals' when the presence and power of God come and the rest of the time not so much." I see a lot more evidence of God's presence and power being made available to his children from the Garden on!)

Taido said...

Great thoughts here. Joel, as I read your post, I was convinced you had crawled into my head and transcribed (albeit with much greater clarity) my own feelings and thoughts concerning "intimacy" with God. My summary would be "surely intimacy is important, but it isn't all that is important." I think your analogy of a marriage is spot on.

T. Webb said...

Dr. Willits,

It's funny that as soon as I had read your first sentance, "How much of the modern charismatic movement’s stress on the "tangible presence" of God in the form of signs, wonders and individual manifestations..." I thought to my self (as a Presbyterian) "What about the sacraments? Those are God's ordained 'tangible presence' in which we are nourished with Christ himself!" I'd go further and say that much of the entertainment passing for worship that exists in contemporary Western evangelicalism stems from the same problem.

Thanks, Tim

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