I’m gonna delve into something radical here. As always, I welcome a chance to dialogue about this. Ready to think outside the box? Let me post a few quotes first and then I’ll explain…
Catholic mystic St. Teresa (1515-1582) basically describes the spiritual gift of words of knowledge that she often received in prayer as “…very distinctly formed, but by the bodily ear they are not heard. They are, however, much more clearly understood than if they were heard by the ear.”
Crossreference Jane Roberts, a classic New Age trance channeler, who described a similar experience in 1963: “…a fantastic avalanche of radical, new ideas burst into my head with tremendous force…I felt as if knowledge was being implanted in the very cells of my body so that I couldn’t forget it – a gut knowing, a biological spirituality. It was feeling and knowing, rather than intellectual knowledge.”
Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714) described a life of union with God where believers became a participant in the nature of God. Along with ecstatic experiences including spiritual gifts, “He who has reached this high grade of love …will be overcome and almost drunken, indeed, swallowed up” in the presence of God.
Spiritualist James Martin Peebles wrote revivalist Dwight Moody in a letter concerning the similarities between Spiritualism and Moody’s proto-Pentecostal beliefs in experience: “Yes, my brother, with you I want to see a revival of religion, a return to Pentecostal times, a return to that Christianity which gladdened and glorified the first three centuries after Christ.” Peebles glibly suggested a joint revival circuit with Pentecostals and Spiritualist mediums displaying the power of God together: “…what a power, what a mighty power, under the good providence of God, we should be evangelizing the world.” To Peebles, the Pentecostal experience merely confirmed his own views.
A Methodist parishioner, after participating in a Mesmeric trance, was described by an observer: “…she appeared to be in a state of ecstatic joy, when she grasped [the Mesmerist's] hand and said: ‘O, Brother Sunderland, this is the happiest state I was ever in. It is heaven…Yes, Brother Sunderland, and this is the same heaven – the same as when my soul was converted and filled with the love of God.’” The Mesmerist was also a Methodist minister.
Theologian Harvey Cox recounts attending a Pentecostal service in Boston. After an inspiring time of worship, singing and dancing, the minister praised the presence of the Holy Spirit with these words: “Yes, this is the way it ought to be. Yes. This is the way it’s going to be in heaven. Yes, and we don’t have to wait for heaven because here at Holy Tabernacle tonight this is the way it is now.”
Okay, I’m sure you can see the similarities here. I pulled just a few quotes from hundreds to give an idea of just how similar experiences felt in Christian and alternative religious groups are. Now don’t freak out; just listen. Christians have always had a tendency to reject all such occult experiences as counterfeit and demonic. Modern occultists although valuing the role of experience, usually assign it to the fringes of the unconscious mind. But what if our spiritual history, full of countless examples of people chasing experience, were saying the same thing?
Pentecostalism and Roman Catholicism are the largest Christian groups in the world. Why do you think that is? Pentecostalism is 500 million strong – bigger than all other denominations combined. I think it’s because of their willingness to value experience and the supernatural. Similarly, why do you think Wicca and the New Age movement are gaining ground? Same reason – they value personal experience and the supernatural.
I am a Pentecostal (don’t laugh – you’re the minority, not me) and proud that my Christian heritage includes the quotes of the Christians above. You may have Martin Luther, but we have Tertullian, Symeon the New Theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux (and a host of other mystics), Jacob Boehme, Valentin Weigel, the Pietists, and Horace Bushnell. But I also deeply sympathize with the quotes of occultists above who were disillusioned by the Christianity of their youth and went elsewhere to find spiritual experience. As a Christian, though I feel occultists are misdirected, I also believe their innate desire to seek out spiritual experience is dead on. That’s why they supplemented their formal religion with, say, Spiritualism. They are looking for the level of spiritual vitality that has made Pentecostalism the largest Protestant grouping in the entire world.
There’s a trend in Christian ecumenical circles nowadays: embrace Pentecostalism but relegate spiritual gifts to soteriological functions. Unfortunately, the trend is catching on since people like contemporary music but think spiritual gifts are freaky. Listen up ecumenists – you are destroying the single most important bridge to evangelize other religious groups. Pentecostalism has spread because of its power, not its ritual. You should be bending over backwards to accommodate individual experience in the church, not dismissing it as self-indulgent or immature. Individual experience is what anchors people to the faith. If you remove it from Christianity, you create an environment for people to go searching elsewhere for what you have minimized for the sake of achieving doctrinal consensus.
So what are occultists and others looking for? The same thing Christians are looking for. I think they are looking for the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Christians and occultists are the same. All of us are internally “wired” to seek after an experience (praxis) that accompanies our faith (dogma). To deny that experiential element is to reject part of what makes religion effective – a point of spiritual connection that bridges a pathway towards relationship with God.