Experimental Theology in America

As some of you may have noticed, I have been off the blog for a while now. My wife and I (more her than me!) had a baby girl on Oct. 31st – Brighton Angelina Strobel. We are very excited and very tired. All that to say, I’ve been meaning to write a review of a fantastic book but am only getting around to it now. The book, written by Patricia A. Ward, is entitled Experimental Theology in America: Madame Guyon, Fenelon, and Their Readers (Baylor University Press, 2009).

For those who have been following this blog for a while now, you know that we have an interest in the nature of evangelicalism. I was taken in by Bruce Hindmarsh’s claim that evangelicalism is best understood as a school of spirituality – a school that borrows heavily from other schools. Towards this end, Patricia Ward’s book goes a long way to justifying that claim (though this is my own interest and not her stated goal). This book is an excellent example of intellectual history, focusing its attention on the mystical writings of Madame Guyon and her defender Fenelon. As interesting as that is, you might wonder, why do I find it interesting? In my studies of early American theology, focusing on Edwards, I noticed what seemed to be a influence of Fenelon. Edwards did, in fact, read Fenelon, and Edwards’s spirituality does reflect some of Fenelon’s spirituality. That is what originally made me curious about Ward’s work, but now, after reading it, I am amazed at how ubiquitous Guyon and Fenelon’s influence actually was. Wesley appropriated, with caution, some of Guyon, as did figures like A. W. Tozer. Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s protegé, was compared to Fenelon, and Fenelon became something of an ecumenical spiritual figure (as did, in her own right, Guyon).

Ward takes her readers through a brief overview of nineteenth-century holiness movements and the spirituality they appropriated. Ward’s own background can be traced to these camp meetings, and, to her surprise, Madame Guyon can be found in the outbreak of holiness in that century. The main emphasis of Ward’s volume is a thorough look at the lives and writings of Guyon and Fenelon, and their reception since their deaths. With a specific focus on America, Ward outlines the different “intermediaries” into Protestantism, through a fascinating textual history of both figures. This includes the transmission of Quietism to Pennsylvania through common German speaking resources, Quaker and Methodist appropriations, and what could be called the “Protestantizing” of both figures and their spirituality. Ward takes her insights into the influence of Quiestism on early America by highlighting key twentith-century evangelicals who have turned to these figures, and completes her account with a detailed look at modern holiness and Charismatic movements.

The breadth of influence by two Catholic mystics (who were never fully accepted by the Catholic church) upon Protestant religion is fascinating in its own right. But what might be more interesting is the common spirituality developed among members of vastly different theological, cultural, and ecclesial backgrounds. Ward points to Leszek Kolakowski, who offers an explanation of this phenomena:

The structure of quietest religiosity is an absence of structure; in sum, all the formulas by which this devotion is expressed are explications of a single idea…without the least complexity” (56).

As Ward notes, in this sense, Quietism itself was something of a return to the main structural features of the Reformation. As Madame Guyon states, “conversion is nothing but diverting the self away from the creature in order to return to God. Conversion is only half perfect, although it is good and valid for salvation, when it is from sin to grace. To be complete, it must be made from without to within” (57). What is this if not a standard evangelical depiction of “new birth” in different language (minus, admittedly, the idea of needing to “perfect” salvation). The focus of her work, and the simplicity of her project, developed into a non-centralized spirituality, which, if nothing else, had the taste of Protestantism. The fact that she quoted from the Bible directly in French, the language of her audience, was another key feature of her having more of a Protestant flavor.

Therefore, to go back to our first point, Madame Guyon and Fenelon served as “Protestant-enough” for the evangelical movement to adopt for their own cause. For instance, A. W. Tozer was influenced by both Guyon and Fenelon as well as Francis de Sales, Molinos, Brother Lawrence, John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. And yet, Tozer, a noted fundamentalist, is accepted as the “safe” version of Protestant spirituality by those who would apostatize his major resources. Note Tozer’s comment:

I refer to the evangelical mystic who has been brought by the gospel into intimate fellowship with the Godhead…He differs from the ordinary orthodox Christian only because he experiences his faith down in the depths of his sentient being while others do not. He exists in a world of spiritual reality…His religious experience is something elemental, as old as time and the creation. It is immediate acquaintance with God by union with the Eternal son. It is to know that which passes knowledge.”

I think Hindmarsh is right, that evangelicalism is a school of spirituality, but it is a school whose spirituality often cuts against its own doctrinal leanings. Ward shows how the editing of texts, in line with the more explicit work of Wesley in his Christian Library, served to make these figures less ecclesially Catholic and more palatable to Protestant sensibilities. Assuming that we can accept this, what does this mean, if anything, for the future of evangelicalism? I am particularly interested that Tozer, known to be accepted broadly by fundamentalists, was steeped in a broad spiritual tradition. I would love to hear some thoughts on this and maybe any overall thoughts on the book.

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4 thoughts on “Experimental Theology in America

  1. Kyle,

    Congrats, dad! Very exciting, both of my kids are October babies; so welcome to the club, brother :-).

    I have some thoughts on your post here, let me gather them; and maybe I’ll be back with them to offer something usually known as feedback.

  2. Bobby: your Public Relations photos are looking very dashing these days.

    All: Guyone & F, and their spirituality, “quietism,” are interesting, but I’d be careful around them. Basically, F. attempted to present a rational vision of Catholicism, to attract Protestants. But finally I’d say, his quietism – his program of selflessness, openness, elimination of “desire” for material things – borrowed far more heavily, from Buddhism. From the Buddhist program of self-annihilation, suppressing our personal “desires” and passions (for often material things); so as to attain spirituality, or become one with the universe/God. So that even a physically starving Buddha was OK. (Though so was an overweight Buddha, to be sure).

    Seems like a useful experiment. And parts of its extreme spirituality, anti-materialism, reflect similar things in the ascetic side of the New Testament. But to be sure, Mme. G. seem to gets a little sentimental /Gnostic, over-spiritual, at times; lost in too-personal spiritual musings, in her spirituality. While F. was finally severely censured by the Church.

    IN many ways, the movement reminds me very much of the moment that the early church, began drifting into Gnosticism. The moment when many began to settle on a violently hierarchical dualism. A dualism that said that the whole universe is divided into two things – 1) matter, and 2) spirit. And of these two, all material things – “flesh,” “world,” “body,” “possessions,” “passions of the flesh,” the passion for material things – were bad. Whereas it was claimed, only mind or “spirit” was immortal, and good.

    The problem with the extreme hierarchical dualism of spirituality though, was – and is – in part that 1) the Old Testament God made the material “world” and said it was “good.” So Gnosticism and other forms of spirituality ended up condemning the Old Testament God, who made all material things, as evil.

    Then too there is a practical problem with spirituality. The 2) the other problem was that, as James 2.14 ff noted, those religions that only supply ideas, spirits, but not material things, leave us materially, physically, starving to death.

    So was the Church right, in condemning these movements? ALong with the extreme spirituality, the extreme anti-materialism, of Gnosticism?

    Personally, I prefer a more realist theology; one that acknowledges far more importance to this physical, even allegedly “secular” world. And God “made flesh.”

  3. The movement of F & G, it seems to me, was very spiritual. But in my vague memory of their movement, it stressed the spirit, over mere “matter,” this physical “world” and our “body,” to the point of saying the material world was bad. Or to the point of suggesting that trying to preserve our own physical life, was unimportant.

    The problem is that this degree of spirituality, causes people to neglect their own physical bodies. As we see in the history of asceticism. To the point that people, monks, even neglect to feed themselves adequately and so forth. Often ascetics starved to death.

    For this and other reasons, extreme spirituality is a bad thing. And my – admittedly vague – memory of F & G, was that they became all too disdainful of material things. For that and other reasons, the Church rightly condemned them. In spite of some interesting spiritual insights.

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