This post concludes a five-part interview with arguably the most controversial contemporary charismatic minister, John Crowder. It’s worth noting that Crowder’s ministry has evolved since 2008, when these interviews first appeared. He’s recently released two new books reflecting this: Mystical Union & Seven Spirits Burning. Our interview here reflects the interest in this pair of books: what does ‘union with God’ look like?
So this is John Crowder and I’s final dialogue, for now at least. Despite some of our differences in previous installments, it’s here where we talk something near and dear to our hearts. It’s precisely here where I fear we’re going to alienate at least some of you dear readers. Why? Because if there’s one thing that most middle-of-the-road Christian moderates distrust more than ‘extreme’ charismatic experiences, it’s mysticism – Christian or otherwise. The word ‘mystic’ is heavily freighted for many people, synonymous with ‘heretical,’ ‘apostate,’ ‘unbiblical,’ etc.. To add insult to injury, John & I don’t spend even a second justifying our use of the term, or indeed explaining any of the terms, dates, movements, and spiritualities we discuss – it’s a kind of conversational machine-gun fire. This isn’t intentional; it’s simply an exchange where we hit the ground running, sharing a mystical lingua franca – though we still come out in somewhat different places. [This is the bridge, perhaps, between my Spirit Week series and my Wisdom Christianity one, exploring the teaching of Cynthia Bourgeault.] Let’s dive in…
Mike: Thanks so much for your time here this past week, John. You’ve given me and my blog-readers much to digest. My final questions have to do with developmental-transformational growth in God – what Protestants typically call sanctification, what Catholic mystics call union with God, and what East Orthodox call theosis or divinization. Wesleyan and holiness preachers – who laid the seed-bed for Pentecostal theology and praxis – advocated what they called a ‘second work’ of ‘entire sanctification,’ known variously in those days as ‘Spirit baptism’ or ‘fire baptism.’ The charismatic and ‘third wave’ movements, as best as I can tell, hold onto a ‘Spirit baptism’ point but stress the continuing in-filling of Holy Spirit, moving from ‘glory to glory’ as it were in increasing supernatural experiences. I guess my first question for you here on this, our final post (for now!), is where do you see this present move of the Spirit you’re involved in going? Where is it heading?
John: I see full-blown transformation of every human paradigm of reality itself. A generation completely raptured in the overwhelming love of God. I don’t care about pioneering new theology, cultural movements or witty new ways of delivering the gospel. I want to love and to experience the love of God more. I think this is the corporate goal of the Holy Spirit. This is true mysticism.
Mike: The great mystical/contemplative writers of ages past talked in great detail about manifestations of the Spirit (they usually called them ‘consolations’), but they had a complex relationship with them: The mystics usually discouraged dwelling too much on the consolations, or trying to keep them coming. To give you a contemporary example, Contemplative Outreach cofounder Thomas Keating says:
At this crucial period in one’s spiritual development, it is important to realize the sharp distinction between charismatic gifts such as tongues, prophecy, healing, etc., and the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. According to Paul, the charismatic gifts (with the exception of tongues) are designed for the building up of the local community. They do not necessarily indicate that those who possess them are either holy or becoming holy through their exercise. If one is attached to them, they are an obstacle to genuine spiritual growth. For those who have received one or more of these gifts, this is clearly part of God’s plan for their sanctification and a cause for gratitude. But they must learn to exercise these gifts with detachment and not take pride in themselves because they happen to be the recipients of a special grace. Generally God provides sufficient external trials to take care of this human tendency. Prophets, healers, and administrators can greatly benefit from opposition, because it tends to free them from the fascination of their gifts and to keep them humble.
Paul himself emphasizes the distinction between charismatic gifts that are given to build up the body of Christ and the substantial gift of divine love. According to him, one possessing the charismatic gifts is still nothing unless one also possesses divine love (see I Cor. 13:1-3). Hence, the basic thrust of charismatic prayer and the exercise of the charismatic gifts should be ordered to the growth of faith, hope, and charity. To remain faithful to the clear invitation to divine union extended by God through the grace of baptism of the Spirit, one must not be diverted by secondary manifestations of spiritual development. Moreover, there is need for discernment with even the most genuine charismatic gifts. It is the duty of the community…to discern these gifts and to determine whether they spring from grace or from the natural energies of the unconscious. Those who possess them should willingly submit to this discernment for the good of the community Otherwise, the exercise of the gifts may be destructive of the common good rather than a means of building up the body of Christ.
Along with the charismatic gifts, which may be given to anyone without a corresponding level of personal spiritual development, so-called “mystical” phenomena, such as clairvoyance, locutions, visions, levitation, trance states, and many others, may accompany spiritual development as one accesses the divine emerging from the ontological unconscious. These also are of little significance compared to the graces of interior transformation set in motion by the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. The unusual and sometimes showy character of “mystical” phenomena makes them a hazard for immature mystics. It is difficult for even advanced persons to avoid taking a certain self-satisfaction in them.
The Charismatic Renewal needs spiritual guides who are thoroughly qualified through knowledge and personal experience of contemplative prayer to distinguish what is essential from what is accidental in the spiritual path. They should be able to recognize when someone is being called by God to interior silence and solitude and when someone is being called out of solitude into some particular ministry or service. People must be encouraged to follow the attraction to interior silence in prayer even if this means not attending prayer meetings for a time. This is especially necessary if, because of the duties of one’s state in life, one cannot attend prayer meetings and still have time to practice contemplative prayer. Periods of silence in the liturgy and during prayer meetings are essential for groups whose members are growing in prayer. To allow one another space in which to develop the contemplative dimension of the gospel is an integral part of commitment to a Christian community. [Full piece here.]
John: We must remember also in scripture that Paul tells us to “lust” after the gifts. How can we do this, unless certain gifts and manifestations should be considered “extensions” of Christ in some way, rather than competitors for His affections? We think of these things in too linear a fashion, through a veil of modernistic hierarchy and competition. We’ve all heard this type of wet blanket statement: seek God’s face & not His hand. It’s been used to keep us from chasing miracles, manifestations, etc. The phrase sounds noble and holy, but it is very unscriptural. We need ALL of God: hands, feet, fingernails and even His serotonin gland. Otherwise we’re screwed. I love my wife’s face, but I’m also very thankful that she has hands as well. They are quite helpful. We’ve been told not to seek manifestations, but the apostles did so in Acts 4 (“Lord, stretch forth your hand to heal the sick and work wonders,” etc.). Cessationists tell us not to seek after signs and miracles, but the apostles did so, for a greater end, that God would be glorified.
Mike: So is there any line to be drawn between seeking the things of God and simply seeking God?
John: Is there some sort of subjective rubber ruler here? Or is it possible that we are splitting hairs that weren’t meant to be split? Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of God’s Glory. 1 John 4:9 says, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” If Jesus is a “manifestation” of God’s love, a “consolation” if you will, could one make the argument that all Christians are called to worship a manifestation of the unseen God, which happens to be God Himself?
The perceived need to clinically separate God from the experience itself is a two-dimensional, linear way of thinking. Since biblical times, trances have been marked by visions and spiritual encounters, as well as frenzied physical manifestations and miracles. The lines between everyday lifestyle and divine encounter are going to be blurred in these days. Manifestations, ecstasies, consolations – these are not just a form of prayer, but a comprehensive way of living. Dwelling in unbroken pleasure. Letting our days become a fragrant song where Heaven and Earth continually collide. We will not be counting beans and trying to figure out if we are enjoying the worship service too much. We will be overwhelmed. We must worship God to excess in body, soul and spirit. With ALL of our mind, heart, soul and strength.
Mike: I agree with you in principle, but…those YouTube videos of you and your friends still seem pretty weird!
John: While ecstatic experience is biblically orthodox, it is far from tame or ordinary in its practical application. Ecstatics have always produced the most bizarre physical manifestations: falling over, fainting, shaking, trembling, uncontrollable laughter, running, shouting and convulsing. Not to mention the signs, wonders and miraculous phenomena. Such strange outward behavior has marked the lives of many great saints and prophets, past and present. And these wild ecstatic contortions have been evident in every great revival – at the birth of every mainstream denominational movement in church history. The inward working of God’s goodness tends to produce an uncontrollable wildfire when He takes the helm of clinical, religious sobriety – when He turns our water into wine.
Mike: I’ll drink to that!
John: God’s sheer goodness is so great that it is uncontainable. Maybe the “self control” God desires is for us to control the old dead, dry, boring, sober self – so that we can demonstrate His true happiness. This goes far deeper than a surface manifestation of laughter, shaking or bodily demonstration.
Mike: Do you think some of the worshippers at your meetings are faking it?
John: Are some manifestations feigned? Of course. In churches that are experiencing renewal, I often see people “fake” their joy in order to look spiritual – as if their laughter is a supernatural manifestation when it is not. This usually comes out of insecurity, as people seek to find their identity behind a particular manifestation. Of course, there is no need to over-analyze every laugh, twitch, crunch or yelp. We need to keep it real, but who am I to intervene into their communion with the Lord? Besides, I see people faking smiles and laughter in many mainline churches as well.
Mike: Ouch! But what about the peer pressure to conform to what your neighbors are doing – y’know, to look more spiritual?
John: There is no need to recreate a past experience, fake a manifestation or feign your happiness. But I don’t think this is a grievous sin that is going to ruin us all. Ultimately, God wants to give true joy that is thorough and lasting. Manifestations are valid, and I am a proponent for daily encounter. But truly encountering God should cause you to be changed. Don’t tell me you’ve seen an angel, but you still look like hell! When God really shows up, you are not just twitching to look spiritual in front of your friends. You are undone. One cannot stir up the soul with emotion, in order to gain a spiritual experience. But the crazy thing about the gospel is this: you are already having a spiritual experience! Whether you feel it or not, you are already united with Christ and seated with Him in heavenly places. As these spiritual realities impact your soul, there is no limit to the excess of emotions that are ignited.
Mike: So much of what you’re saying here an “old mystic” or contemplative could agree to. The main difference, I think, is that they’d say some of the most flamboyant emotional displays would last a season ‘till they were purged, leaving a more whole and balanced person in their aftermath. But you seem to see this as an ongoing, normative stage of theosis.
John: Physical manifestations of ecstasy have been termed “fits”, “enthusiasms”, “the jerks”, “convulsions” and many other names in various revivals. But the similar thread of losing control to the Spirit of God has always been present.
It is humorous to consider the writings of great 18th and 19th century revivalists and missionaries of the past, when they spoke of gathering together to be “refreshed” in the Holy Spirit. Ever wonder what that looked like? We’ve stereotyped so many of our forerunners as stiff-necked, starch-collared holy rollers. But many of them were complete Holy Ghost drunks. Ecstatic trances and manifestations of spiritual intoxication did not end with the days of Samuel, David and Elijah.
Mike: Humor some of my more skeptical readers. When has this happened with the safe reivivals? Y’know, the ones far enough away from us in the present that they’re okay to talk about, even among cessationist types?
John: The First Great Awakening is a classic example. In Jonathan Edwards’ meetings, people swooned and fell over and entered trances under the weighty hand of God.
Mike: Fire-baptized Calvinists? Get out of town!
John: Describing the revival of 1740-1742, Edwards notes, “It was a very frequent thing to see a house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions, and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy.” Remember, this guy is the founder of Princeton University. And the early Methodist meetings were deemed to be “more like a drunken rabble than the worshipers of God.”
Mike: Well then, it must have been that pernicious Arminian Methodist influence. : )
John: One of Edwards’ present-day disciples, John Piper, is known for his theology of Christian Hedonism. He purports that our enjoyment of God is the very essence of true worship. Are we to draw a line between our enjoyment of God and God Himself?
Mike: I can hear my Calvinist friends’ jaws hitting the floor that you’re invoking Edwards and even Piper in service of your genre of divine enjoyment. If you’re game, I will personally accompany you to Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis to interrupt one of Mr. Piper’s sermons with blowback from a Holy Spirit Spliff. We’ll pray and see what happens to the Christian Hedonist himself.
John: Consider this view: rather than pitting the manifestation against God (i.e. worship God vs. worship the experience), we must see the experiences as means of worshipping God, to which there is no limit. For in the experience, I am partaking in the pleasure of God – the very thing I was created for – to be interdependent upon Him, enjoying Him forever.
I will make another analogy: as a married man, I am not continually comparing the love I have for my wife to the love I have for God. My wife will never be an idol who threatens to steal my devotion to the Lord. This is because I understand that in loving my wife, this is somehow a mystical extension of my love for Christ. By caring for her, I am worshiping Him. In the same way, when I give a cold cup of water to the poorest of poor, I am also doing this to Christ. I am not worshiping the beggar, but I am worshiping Christ through the beggar. It is foolish to draw lines of competition between God and experience that were never intended to be dissected in such fashion.
Let me also say that manifestations can be quite “extreme” if not outright fanatical, yet still be divine in origin. The radical nature of the manifestation is not in itself a determining factor of its source. I have considered myself nearly on the brink of insanity at times when God swept over me for hours of uncontrollable drunken behavior, yet the corresponding fruit was altogether tremendous, miraculous and life changing. I am always filled with joy and expectancy in these encounters.
Mike: I am all for diversity in the ways we love, enjoy, and worship God. Like I said when we were discussing charis-missional last post, I think that one of the ways we can love God is by loving others. I have no problem adding ecstatic worship and divine manifestations to the mix. But back to the mystics: They argue for a kind of divine detachment, from both people and manifestations. They encourage Christians to hold people, manifestations and all things subordinate to the indwelling Trinity and our deepening communion with God. People never go away, of course – but manifestations are seen as a transitory stage leading to greater (even if more subtle) intimacy with God.
John: Is it possible that this type of activity (manifestations/consolations) is a valid form of dwelling on the Trinity? That in allowing God to sing through us – body, soul and spirit – in all this craziness, we are somehow practicing His presence? Forget the loud and crazy orthopraxy for a moment, in all its various forms – is God’s tangible presence apparent in the midst of it all, and if so, how would you know? Do some propose to conjecture, who have never actually tasted? I believe that the more we taste and practice His presence, the more we individuate from the consensus orthodoxy of society, and grow into what Kierkegaard called the true “religious” sphere of life (religious meaning truly “spiritual”). We stop swimming with the pack, and we start to make waves.
Mike: God’s tangible presence, tasting God for oneself, individuating from consensus orthodoxy to actualized religious life…I like it! I’ll buy it. But I have to keep going back to these pesky mystics, whom we both love. They usually warn folks not to get ‘stuck’ at the level of manifestation but press on to the level of fully recognized Union.
John: But did they always practice what they preached? Teresa of Avila was continuously in ecstasies with documented eye-witness accounts of her levitating in mid-ecstasy, along with her own numerous admissions of this stuff (read her Life ch. 18 and onward). She sure impacted mystical theology, and didn’t seem to ever tone it down. Joseph of Cupertino was whacked all the time, and often struck mute. Catherine of Sienna and Catherine Emmerich literally spent years of their life in ecstatic states, with wild manifestations happening continually. Your readers wouldn’t believe some of the supernatural things that happened to them. This happened not because they focused on manifestations, but because they contemplated Christ.
Teresa, a doctor of the church, also acknowledged that all the levels of manifestation overlapped (recollection, union, ecstasy, prayer of quiet, etc.), but she also stated that full-blown ecstasy, the highest level of mystical prayer, is actually where all these manifestations were the craziest (ligature, inability to move, drunken stupor, levitations, etc.) She said that this was a level wherein the will almost ceased to function entirely because of the heavy pleasure of her inward raptures. I freely surrender my free will to the pleasures of Christ!
Others like John of the Cross and some of the darker mystics were absolutely depressed, so you have to take what they say about this with a big fat grain of salt. Anything that smacked of enjoyment was on the naughty list for them. You may note that we have coined a term “the new mystics” because we can now filter their theology through 500 years of rich, post-reformation grace theology. I am not into the morbid self-mortifications and false humility that many of the older mystics espoused, because it simply contradicts the finished works of the gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news that only God can save us, and that He did so with one fantastic checkmate of love on the cross. If you want a dark night of the soul for the romance of it, then go for it. You’re not going to earn any extra points with God. Depression is not a fruit of the Spirit, but joy is. I choose the free gift of grace.
Mike: I think the ‘dark night’ might be a bit more complex than that. Since neither of us are even close to 40, I’ll refrain from commenting for at least a decade. But I agree that the Reformation had valuable contributions to Christian spirituality. Grace informs mysticism by making it less a striving to attain union with God, and more a letting go to consciously awaken to the union that was always there.
John: Yes, the mystics all had their seven-step programs of spiritual advancement. Call me a Calvinist [There he goes again! – ed.] (you’ll only find a few charismatic ones), but I’m of the opinion that there is a one-step program called conversion. I believe that grace has to be drunk straight. No additives. What if God wanted to blow the whole “stages” and “levels” and “Christian growth curve” theology right out of the water, and somehow made us all pure and holy and perfect and obtaining all of Heaven’s goodies through one simple event: the spilling of Christ’s blood? What if just maybe, this whole religious mortification issue was put to death in one fell swoop, when we died together with Christ (Rom. 6, Gal. 2:20)? That would mean the craziest non-stop Holy Ghost party has just begun, and we’re all invited!
Many theologies have been built around an idea that manifestations are the lowest rung on the spirituality ladder. I just don’t see any scriptural support for it. Why would God take me from a fun experience to a boring one? I think this Christian journey is about getting progressively better, “from Glory to Glory.” You can try to mortify the soul, but it will never happen. Your best bet is to plug the soul’s desire for pleasure into socket it was created for. The only answer to counteract the pleasures of sin is not to kill yourself. The answer is to find a greater pleasure. He never gives us a lesser covenant in place of a better one. This is the whole “Galatian bewitchment” that Paul addressed. We think that after God gives us a treat, it is then up to us to suffer, work and earn our way through the rest of life. God would not grace us with consolations, just to bait us into a morbid, suffering-centered religion.
Mike: I think one of the blog commentors the other day said, helpfully, that boredom isn’t the ultimately enemy. And I’d beg to differ that silence and stillness is boring and a step down – it can be of course, but it all depends on one’s consent to God’s loving presence with you in the moment. I sit still, I center, I speak quietly in tongues – it’s kind of nice actually. But I digress…
Thank you again for all the time and energy you put into this dialogue. Hopefully we can do it again sometime. Since you’re like the only charismatic-oriented Christians I’m aware of who have a clue as to the mystics and their teachings, I guess I’m asking you what I’d like to ask the charismatic/prophetic movement on the whole: Do you see a day where the average ‘Spirit-filled Christian’ becomes a full contemplative in the classic sense? If not, what do you see?
John: Will everybody get this? I don’t know. This is Christianity 101. It’s just the gospel. The good news that God cracked open Heaven’s wine barrel for us. But for some reason, not everybody is thirsty. They just want to sit around, debate about the menu and scoff at the drunk guy in the corner.
Peace – Oinga Oinga Oinga!
And there you have it, folks. Your thoughts?