The “new” Christianity

by Don Hartness

In my last post, I presented a concept that should be familiar to many atheists involved in the current debate: the believer’s personal experience as subjective evidence. As I have mentioned already, subjective experience is not valid evidence per se, since one’s subjective experience can never be evaluated by another, one way or another. However, if atheists are to ever understand why their arguments have no effect, they will have to understand the powerful role subjective experience plays in one’s beliefs.

Alister McGrath is a former atheist and the author of The Twilight of Atheism. The title is somewhat of a misnomer, since it indicates that atheism is approaching its deathbed.  On the contrary, McGrath points out that, although atheism (of which he defines as an epistemological statement that there is no God, which excludes any form of agnosticism) is in no danger of dying, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant in a post-modern world that views any statement of epistemological certainty with suspicion. To put it another way, the same movement that threatens religion is the same force that threatens any claim to truth of any kind.

McGrath points out that atheism, although attacking a form of Christianity based on Biblical authority and denominational tradition, fails to address another form that is on the rise: Pentecostalism. The reader must understand that, for McGrath, this does not mean the denomination with a similar name. Instead, McGrath is using the term for a faith defined experientially, and not through a book, dogma, doctrine, denomination, and/or religious tradition.

It is this concept of “personal experience” that I will return to again in this series

“Pentecostalism declares that it is possible to encounter God directly and personally through the power of the Holy Spirit.  God is to be known immediately and directly, not indirectly through study of a text. Whereas traditional Protestantism is wary of allowing any such direct experience of God, Pentecostalism celebrates it and makes it a hallmark of Christian living. God impacts upon the totality of existence, and is not confined – as in some traditional Protestant traditions – to the world of the mind. Walter Hollenweger, the most distinguished historian of the movement to date, points to the importance of this aspect: When you become a Pentecostal, you talk about how you’ve been healed, or how your very life has been changed. That’s something that Pentecostals talk about over and over, partly because people are interested in hearing that sort of thing. Pentecostalism today addresses the whole of life, including the thinking part. More mainline forms of Christianity address the thinking part first, and that often affects the rest of life – but not always.” This may be contrasted with what Harvey Cox describes as “text-orientated believers” – that is, those Protestants who believe that God can only be accessed (and then to a limited extent, in the form of abstract religious ideas) through reading the Bible or hearing an expository sermon. For Cox, Pentecostalism celebrates the resurgence of “primal spirituality” and absolutely refuses to allow its experience of God to be limited to ideas. God is experienced and known as a personal, transformative, living reality.

If the analysis that we have sketched in this chapter has any validity, it is this form of Protestantism that may be expected to resist erosion by atheism. Pentecostalism is strongly predisposed toward the dispossessed and oppressed, undermining one of the most effective atheist critiques of religion – that it oppresses. Just as significantly, Pentecostalism offers a direct, personal, transformative encounter with God in the worship of the church and in personal experience. On discussing the issues raised in this book with leading Pentecostals, especially in the great urban sprawls of Asia, I found them responding with an appeal to their experience. How can God’s existence be doubted, when God is such a powerful reality in our lives? And how can God’s relevance be doubted, when God inspires us to care for the poor, heal the sick, and work for the dispossessed?” The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath, p. 215-216