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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Touch the face of the divine"

"I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago-- whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows-- such a man was caught up to the third heaven." 2 Cor 12:2

I was on my way to the third heaven but I was stopped at customs and turned back; too much baggage.

The purpose of this blog is not to investigate the possible interpretations of the third heaven referred in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church. The synchroblog for this month concerns"Christian Approaches to Altered States of Consciousness". As I reflected upon this topic I was led to consider my journey through aspects of pentecostal/charismatic Christianity.

Is all Pentecostal experience purely a play on emotions or is there a deeper connection with the Holy Spirit that occurs as individuals surrender more fully to the presence of God in a church meeting or in personal times of spiritual intimacy? It is very easy to stand back and look at events in Toronto or Pensacola or to make sniping comments about particular TV ministries but what happens for an individual and can we expect more from our experience of God?

The post will canvass a few ideas and cross-reference a few links and will, hopefully, provoke enough dialogue for further consideration of the topic.

An article by Charles T. Tart on "Altered States of Consciousness" makes the following point "
ASCs can sometimes give us new and wider perspectives on reality and consciousness but...ASCs, like ordinary consciousness, are mixtures of pluses and minuses, insights and delusions, genuine creativity and misleading imagination, so the observations and insights from ASCs need to be subjected to empirical test, just as those of ordinary consciousness do."

Evangelicalism (which is my church home) has championed Christian faith as a very cerebral process. The spiritual life is lived at a cognitive level and what cannot be understood is often dismissed. I realise that this is a somewhat generalised view but the spirit of modernism is alive and well in evangelicalism. Tart makes a valid point that Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) have pluses and minuses and I believe that this is where, for Christians, Paul's advice comes in: "
but test everything; hold fast what is good." (1 Thess 5:21)

If there are pluses and minuses my goal in this post is to attempt to point out some of the possible pluses and encourage people to seek deeper experiences of God and not to be afraid of losing control to some degree.

There is a fascinating, extremely balanced, article at that is well worth reading where the author, who is Lutheran, writes of a pentecostal service in Guatemala where he witnessed all manner of "trance-like" experiences. He makes a very good point at the end when, in summing up, he writes

It's not about some charismatic leader duping people into blindly following a particular extremist philosophy at all--there is no philosophy apart from that which other churches teach--live according to Judeo-Christian morality and be good people. Only here you can reach out and touch the face of the divine."

One of the key issues that I have encountered is the notion that people who fall down, laugh, speak in tongues, shake etc, in a pentecostal style meeting are being manipulated. Of course, there is always evidence of manipulation but this evidence can be found for all aspects of church life down through the centuries. The underlying theological position of this church was a solid Biblical message but I love the final sentence - "Only here you can reach out and touch the face of the divine." Wow. What an invitation. Somehow there is a possibility to experience so much more of God that our minds, emotions, bodies cannot cope with the encounter.

Dr John Court, a former Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary and now Director of Counseling at a Christian College in South Australia, in an article titled "
Discerning between the emotional, the psychotic and the spiritual" makes a good observation which has been a benchmark for many well-balanced pentecostal movements and churches namely:

"Where we see real and lasting change with maturity of spirituality and a desire to know God more, then I believe God is at work"

Is this a sufficient test? Yes, I believe it is. The Christian Church is involved in the work of building the Kingdom of God. If an encounter with the living God results in an altered state of consciousness that draws people into greater maturity and a deeper desire to know God and His Word then, yes, it is good.

So do we need to fear the dilemma between delusions, the devil and the divine?

Dr. Court suggests in relation to ASCs that "the really important questions relate not to the behaviour we observe, but the meaning of this behaviour, and its purpose." Of course there are parallels in other aspects of religion and psychology but what is the purpose?

In the Book of Acts Chapters 10 and 22 both the Apostles Peter and Paul experienced trance-like states where God communicated profound spiritual insight that was a turning point for the church at that time. I am not suggesting that all communication from God will be so pivotal but when God wants to speak deeply to us it can come during trance-like states where we are so caught up in the experience of God that all else seems to fall away from us.

I don't have all of the answers but I do know that I want to "touch the face of the divine". I welcome input as I explore this topic but I long to see a version of Christian experience that will see people enter into a transcendent encounter with the living God.


Please check out the other Synchrobloggers writing about Christian approaches to altered states of consciousness.

Shamanic Vision and Apocalyptic Scripture at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Can prayer be an example of Alternate Conciousness? at Eternal Echoes
Better Than I Was [at times], Not Better Than You Are by Mike of Earthsea
emotionalism vs rationalism at Adam Gonnerman's Igneous Quill
Consciousness of the absurd and the absurdity of consciousness at Steve's Notes from the Underground
The Unconscious Christian by Matt Stone
Hypnochristians at Jamie's More Than Stone
The extreme consciousness of the Spirit by Les Chatwin
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me at Mike's Musings
What is reality? by David Fisher at Be the Revolution


Steve Hayes said...

I'm not very clear what constitutes an "altered state of consciousness", and whether pentecostal/charismatic experiences are included.

One English Bible, the New English bible, i think, translated "speaking in tongues as "ecstatic utterance". I believe it was a mistranslation, first because it uis not what the text says, and secondly because I don't know of anyone (including me) who has spoken in tongues and has experienced an "altered state of consciousness".

Les said...

Steve, to be honest I struggled with this, my first, synchroblog. With my theological experiences I wanted to try and explore the pentecostal/charismatic arena. I do believe, though, that when using tongues as a private prayer language one can experience transcendent experiences although whether this is an ASC is, I agree, a debatable point.

Sally said...

I don't have all of the answers but I do know that I want to "touch the face of the divine".