Where the Spirit Is | R. Shea Watts

Where the Spirit Is

The following is an excerpt from Where the Spirit Is by R. Shea Watts. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Where the Spirit Is is a critical study of the Pentecostal movement and its bodily ways of knowing through testimony and theory toward (more) liberative spiritualities. Gustavo Gutierrez, considered as the father of Latin American liberation theology, lifted up the “need for a spirituality of liberation.” Gutierrez saw theology as an expression of spirituality. Theology, for him, is the secondary and mediating act between a primordial spiritual experience (mystical, contemplative, silence) and the only appropriate response to this experience: to share or announce it (annunciation). Because Gutierrez saw conversion as always to both God and neighbor, spirituality becomes the process of living out that process of coming-together, (as in, binding) of alignment, or harmony, and justice. I suggest that a spirituality of God, neighbor (world, cosmos), and self is a Trinitarian flow evident in Gutierrez’s work and fundamental for spiritualities of liberation. Christ, universally and personally incarnated, becomes the presence and energy binding all things together and pulling them toward harmony and union.

Looking beyond liberation theologies discourses to their underlying spiritual practices through theory and testimony offers opportunities to peel back the layers of worship experiences—the apex of Pentecostal theology—to uncover their social ramifications, asking whether and how Pentecostal ritualizing can be liberative. Through “epistemological vigilance,” i.e., embracing subjectivity, harnessing introspection, and cultivating communal theologies, Pentecostalism potentially subverts the monolith of theological fundamentalist doctrines. Whereas Pentecostal ritualizing ostensibly opens up bodies to boundless freedom in Christ, not all Pentecostals are fully free to be themselves. Rather, many live legalistic lives, enclosed by theologies meant to suppress, fashion, and master subjects of desire into desired subjects.

Theories of affect and ritual, together with testimony, constitute my main methodologies. The former represent approaches to history, culture, politics, and other forms of embodied life that highlight para- and non-cognitive forces, while the latter focus on a wide range of embodied practices and actions that move, teach, and orient bodies in particular, often intended, ways through repetition. Neither affect nor ritual are homogenous categories, but each offers varying genealogies and divergent approaches. Within both broad fields are queer, feminist, Black radical, womanist, ecological, critical race, critical theory, and decolonial studies. Additionally, I engage in theological discourse and scripture interpretation. Like complementary languages, affect and ritual talk to each other, interpret one another, and interface in ways that can enrich conversation around Pentecostal culture. By invoking the slippery word, “culture,” I am intimating how affect and ritual play out in the social through everyday phenomena. The malleability and capaciousness of these theoretical fields will allow me to suggest what is lacking in each, mainly, critical conversations on racism and the racist implications of knowledge production. Thus, when I speak of affect and ritual, I will demonstrate how womanism and Black radical thought are complementary and supplementary to the theoretical fields, often filling in the interstices that exist due to epistemological bias.

A recurring medium that I highlight for the coalescence of affect and ritual is religious experience in general and worship music in particular. I argue that worship music, as sound, organizes bodies in spaces, transmits affect, produces unique ways of knowing, and shapes subjectivity. The dynamics of music play a vital role in interpellation, that is, the process in which the culture’s values (including theology) are internalized at the level of the subject. The worship experience is central to Pentecostal culture and on par with preaching in terms of influence and authority. Worship, as dynamic communal exercise, though seemingly ephemeral, has long-lasting a/effects beyond the event—a/effects that blur the lines of consciousness and notions of subjective autonomy as they push and pull bodies through the world via compulsion. As an affective assemblage that brings together things disparate and alike, music can organize and constitute an archive of feelings. In Pentecostal worship, the participant always practices and performs, individually and collectively, as they strive to cultivate an epistemological framework that makes sense (sense-making) and feels right. This implies a kind of resonance that seeks to resolve any perceived dissonance. However, at times, such as a song built around a minor scale, dissonance is the point. All to say, worship music offers a unique entry point into the affective and ritualistic components of Pentecostal worship, which can be liberative, exploitative, improvisational, manipulative, and perhaps even accidental. How one understands and wields power makes the difference. Power, throughout this book, is explored on two intersecting planes, the religious and the secular, both of which are enveloped in the cultural. Thus, I speak of power in dialogue with the work of Michel Foucault, whose interest is in how power is always simultaneously produced and restricted/opposed, how it is systemic and governs all social life, on the one hand, and power, as dunamis, found in Acts 2 as the fulfillment of the prophecy found in the book of Joel about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh, on the other.

If religions find little nourishment in disembodied reflection, then Pentecostalism represents a case in point for embodied reflection—bodily-knowing-seeking-understanding, a process that begins in the body, informed by the needs and desires of the body, and subsequently moves to contemplation and reflection. Theology, thus, is an embodied exercise, a fleshy practice: “The Word became flesh.” “Dancing in the Spirit,” the title of this chapter, builds upon what Maia Kotrosits calls “sense-making,” a hyphenated phrase which evidences how “thinking and feeling are hopelessly interwoven experiences.” We may think of the hyphen as a way bringing together things that are neither fully commensurate nor opposites. The hyphen seeks to bring together seemingly disparate things. In this way, perhaps “Pentecostal-ism” can be imagined as holding the tension of experiential knowing and theoretical, intellectualized, logocentric projects without wholesale accepting or rejecting each other. I extend Kotrosits’ notion of sense-making into the performative register; dancing suggests ecstatic possibilities of Pentecostal-ism and the interpretations of it are anchored in and performed by the body: “To say we ‘make sense’ of something, for instance, is to accord an intuitive, bodily, and non- or beyond- conscious force to knowing. Knowledge arrives as an ‘impression.’” Knowledge arrives as an impression, which is to say, in a felt (sensate) or registered manner. Sense-making that does not take into account performance, that does not factor in the corporeal movements, gestures, posturing that occur, is incomplete. “Dancing in the Spirit” means engaging religious experience under the assumption that it is spirit, or the Spirit, that is animating it.

Theories of affect and ritual studies, in conversation, provide a history and open-ended, multifaceted framework for exploring this endeavor, though neither is self-sufficient for attending to the boisterous potential of Pentecostal worship. In fact, Pentecostal permutations potentially undermine the conventions and traditions of the spiritual practices of Pentecostal worship, itself. The complementarity and adjacency of theories of affect and ritual studies demonstrates the ways in which these theories coalesce, the ways that theory can bend, be inverted, and stretched beyond Cartesian anxiety that renders bodies as bifurcated halves of mind/body. Through their interarticulation, we can theorize via affect and ritual in the interstices of what remains just out of reach of cognition and language, complementing and augmenting other ongoing approaches to Pentecostalism. Some scholars reduce and relegate Pentecostalism to a historical devolution, arguing that it is a return to more primitive forms of religion. Others, especially within theological studies, dismiss it as hyper-sensationalism or superstition. Others, such as anthropologists, use fieldwork and interviews to flesh out key insights and characteristics. Still others try to inject it with philosophy in efforts to legitimize it. I propose an approach that engages Pentecostalism in all of its gestural, visceral, and corporeal potential, its paradoxical nuances, its messy ecstatic outbursts, ruptures, performances, contradictions. Embracing Pentecostal experiences means accepting that no one methodology can capture, convey, or tame it.

As a lifelong Pentecostal and having completed doctoral work in the study of theology, this book is the culmination of my life experiences and interests. It encompasses my experiences growing up in the Pentecostal church, the ways in which they marked, shaped, and wounded me. It is also representative of my academic pursuits, which have given me the necessary tools to explore, prod, and interrogate these experiences. Over the past few years, these two streams have flowed together into one. The moment of their coalescence has been burned into memory: July of 2017, when I attended The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries’ (TFAM) yearly gathering. In a hotel ballroom in New Orleans, sounds of ecstatic worship and spirited preaching filled the spaces of the room. Though skeptical, I found myself moved to tears in unexplainable and uncontainable ways. From the depths of my body, in the innermost places, it felt as if something was bubbling up and out. As the dynamics of the singing and shouting ebbed and flowed, so, too, did my body’s responses to the sounds—evidenced by shaking, goosebumps, a rush of blood to the head, crying, and a warm, overwhelming sense of the special sacredness of those moments. Moved and moving, the more I tried to restrain the feelings, the more intense my bodily reactions became. What bubbled up eventually burst out of me.

There, surrounded by Black LGBTQ church leaders, many of whom have been historically chastised and rejected by their own traditions, I was confronted by the familiar feelings of my religious upbringing in ways I could neither explain, nor deter. I felt like a child once again, exploring the wonder and awe of being engulfed in an affective atmosphere. These overwhelming sensations were made tangible in the collective connectedness of the group—the hugs, kisses, warm greetings, tears and laughter, and the ecstatic communal worship. The atmosphere of each session was electric, charged with an open-ended excitement of what is possible, i.e., what “the Spirit” would and could do in that particular space and time. The sights and sounds of the worship experience were more than an observational event; they constituted ways of knowing that are felt, but seldom spoken, absorbed, but not cognitively registered at the time. I was only aware that “something” was happening to me, to my body, in my person. This felt change meant that life would be somehow different. Some three years later, I am still processing the effects of all that transpired.

Where the Spirit Is, moves in two directions. It is at once a reference to the Pauline passage, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” and also a nod to a theology of embodiment or enfleshment (of the Holy Spirit), extended beyond the one-time Incarnation of Jesus, which I consider foundational for spirit-filled liberative praxis. This shift of understanding in the Word-becoming-flesh is consonant with the notion of “deep incarnation,” that is, that the Spirit incarnates all things. As Elizabeth Johnson has argued, deep incarnation is a “new radical embodiment, in which the Wisdom/Word of God joins the material world to accomplish a new level of union between Creator and creature.” Building on the work of Niels Henrik Gregerson, Johnson extends the notion of deep incarnation to include all flesh: “The flesh assumed in Jesus connects with all humanity, all biological life, all soil, the whole matrix of the material universe down to its very roots.” If all humans are incarnated by the Spirit and fashioned in the imago Dei (God’s image and likeness), then all people are endowed with infinite and irrevocable worth. Such is the vision that Seymour carried—a vision espoused by TFAM. By centering The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM), a Black LGBTQ Pentecostal tradition, this project connects Seymour’s original egalitarian vision of Azusa St. with TFAM’s radical inclusivity as liberative praxis. Central to Seymour’s theology was the belief that Azusa Street was an outpouring, or “Pentecost,” in which the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, in accordance with the vision of Joel the prophet and reiterated by the Apostle Paul. Seymour steps into the prophetic tradition, pioneering a new order of Christian leaders. It is also perhaps why Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder and leader of TFAM, declares the movement as a “Third Pentecost.”

Where the Spirit Is underscores people and movements consonant with Seymour’s vision through their embodiment and espousal of a spirited, egalitarian, and inclusive ethos—not all of whom were or are self-avowed Pentecostals nor exclusively Christian. Therefore, a theology of deep incarnation, i.e., that the Spirit incarnates all created things, is precursory to the divisions and demarcations of religion (this God and not that one, this holy book and not that, these people but not them). Insofar as spirited practices are lived out for and toward liberation—in responding to the vicissitudes and exigencies of the social milieu—these are instances and loci of the Holy Spirit’s work, or, “where the Spirit is.” As Dr. James Cone compellingly argues in A Black Theology of Liberation, “Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ.” Forces of liberation evidence God’s work in the world, both through the Holy Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ, both of which inform the daily life of the Christian. And when Christians live in proximity to the good news through a heightened awareness of the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, they begin to live out their spirituality in ways of endless possibilities, wholly embracing Walter Rauschenbusch’s sentiment that “the kingdom is always but coming.” This turn of phrase distorts traditional, binary breaks between the here and now and eschatological futurity: the kin-dom of God is here and now, but not yet fully. The kin-dom is the domain where the radical inclusive and liberative life in the Spirit is lived out. The kin-dom is the cosmos that binds all creation together like muscle and connective tissue. One etymology of the word religion, argued by various thinkers, including Lactantius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, comes from the Latin root religio-, which means to “bind” or “connect.” Of course, religion is a way to behold how everything is already bound together—the universe and all life within it. To understand the degree to which we are bound, and consider whether these bindings are liberative, therefore becomes the work at hand, prompting one to ask if there is indeed freedom “Where the Spirit of the Lord is.” There must be a realization that all life is always already connected and shared, and until all are free, none are free.

Praise for Where the Spirit Is

“Vivid, resonant, and profound, R. Shea Watts’ Where the Spirit Is adds to the growing literature on feeling Pentecostal. Watts deftly combines affect theory, ritual studies, and liberation theologies, producing a generous study defined by its acute attention to the embodied interactions of race, sexuality, gender, worship, sound, and justice.”
Donovan O. Schaefer, University of Pennsylvania

Where the Spirit Is is a unique and fascinating work in which R. Shea Watts uses his own personal and very complex experience growing up Pentecostal to explore the work of the Spirit. … This book conducts a very complex dance, interweaving searing personal experience with sharp insights into academic analysis. Watts dances away from simple condemnations or praise and keeps pressing the fundamental question of liberative praxis: ‘What then can be done to flesh out freedom in the present age?’”
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Chicago Theological Seminary, emerita

About the Author

R. Shea Watts

R. Shea Watts is a professor in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Wingate University. He earned a PhD in theology and culture from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2021 and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his spouse, Kathryn, and their three cats, Sophie, Curly, and Rosalyn.

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