On being a pentecostal Christian.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book about science education recently, called Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond. (I’ll add a link to the review once I put it up.) It seems clear to me that Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and so-called “Intelligent Design” are misguided attempts to read Scripture over/against the well-established findings of contemporary science, stretching back to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Learning so much about the beauty and careful implementation of good science brings me joy and excitement, even a sense of awe.

It is also clear to me that many scientists do not see the need for belief in God given the success of the natural sciences’ explanations for how the world is as it is, stretching back to within nanoseconds of the Big Bang. For many scientists, affirming something like a pentecostal worldview, affirming the interaction of a personal God with her creation, seems superfluous. There is a piece of me that understands the attraction of “dropping” any hypothesis about the existence of a God, let alone the one postulated by pentecostal Christians.

Pentecostal Christians affirm that God is beyond but also sustaining nature (what is detectable by human senses or instruments), and that God is personally interested in the well-being of all Creation–perhaps most especially the creatures made in God’s image and likeness, human beings (Genesis 1:28). Pentecostal Christians affirm that God answers petitionary and intercessory prayer, and that God does acts of power (usually called miracles) that go beyond current human understanding of the laws which govern natural processes at all levels of possible human analysis. God does these things to demonstrate the centrality of Jesus to human history, God’s loving reign, which brings concrete liberation to all who seek it, and the defeat of evil (represented in a pentecostal worldview by Satan and the demons).

I often feel a tension between my appreciation for science and my pentecostal belief and experience. But ironically, I think I share a great deal in common with trained scientists. I am a pentecostal in part because there should, in my opinion, be evidence that Jesus’ message and teaching are true, and that it works in peoples’ lives. It seems to me that so many people in North America (or the West) have so much trouble being Christians because they have been taught to limit their Christian experience either to morality (upon which Christians cannot monopolize, if we’re honest) or to their inner experience (belief helps them feel better). But is this the extent of the power of the Gospel? If it is, wouldn’t there be something far more interesting to do with our lives? What’s unique about this kind of religious experience? What does it offer that other worldviews cannot deliver equally as well, if not better?

Until recently, it has been common for people (Christian or not) to perceive pentecostals as people who obsess over “speaking in tongues”, “divine healing”, or sometimes even the so-called “prosperity Gospel.” I think pentecostal Christianity has a much deeper challenge to offer. At its best, pentecostal spirituality is neither anti-intellectual nor anti-science. Rather, it offers a larger meta-narrative that includes reason and science, while acknowledging that human power is not the last word–that privilege belongs to Jesus the Messiah, crucified by the Romans but raised bodily from the dead by God.

But with science, pentecostals joyfully affirm that evidence matters. We can get into all kinds of interesting philosophical discussions about a great many things, but there are practical questions that need good answers. God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, or God did not. God heals the sick and raises the dead today, or God does not. God does these things through the people of God today, or not. And if we answer yes to these questions–especially because we are convinced by study and experience that God is love–what are the most effective ways to participate in God’s project of liberation?

When I identify myself as a pentecostal, part of what I’m saying is: I want God to teach me, and the Church, ever-increasing effectiveness at doing the concrete kinds of things that bring people liberation. And I’m also saying that I’m willing to take the risk that healing and other things like that are done badly or not at all, based on evidence of their effectiveness.

I’m not saying that science is objective or has no story behind it. I’m not saying that pentecostal Christians without training in science and professional scientists will always agree on how to interpret the data that emerge. But I think scientists and pentecostals should be able to agree: in the long run, if this is true, it has to work. And if it doesn’t work, we find another way to do it or we toss out our assumptions and try new ones.

I also call myself a pentecostal to signal: I am looking for a community committed to running these kinds of experiments. I know they exist. I’m just not sure (given the complexity of my experience in Christian subcultures) how to find them. Can anyone identify with me?


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