I want to consider a very basic question in this post: What exactly is Pentecostalism? And, perhaps surprisingly, I’m going to argue that it is, in fact, nothing.
Over the past several weeks, I have been inspired by my fellow Engaged Pentecostalism Editors who have written on the meaning of Pentecostalism. For example, Katie Francis explored the movement of the Spirit in her religious journey from Pentecostal churches to the Presbyterian Church, and Mary Beth Unthank described what she believes is the heart of Pentecostalism: “Pentecostal means working for justice, dismantling systems of oppression, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, and forsaking my own interests for someone in need.”
“But, Joel,” you might be thinking, “how can you affirm Katie and Mary Beth’s posts? They are both saying something. “
Yes, on the surface, both posts are describing something. They both outline aspects of Pentecostalism that suggest a thing-ness to the movement.
Indeed, any basic google search will reveal a plethora of characteristics that mark Pentecostalism, most notably speaking in tongues, experientialism, embodiment, healing, and an assortment of others affectivities. These all appear to be things.
At the beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the United States, language played a key role. When people were “filled with the Spirit,” new languages spontaneously flowed out. But what was being said?
This is an important question that disrupted Pentecostalism from the beginning. If we step back and explore the Scripture, we find ambiguity in the Pentecost event recorded in Acts 2:5-6:
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
So were the disciples speaking other languages? For many early U.S. pentecostals, the belief was that the Spirit miraculously imparts believers the ability to speak actual languages. In fact, the first recorded person to speak in tongues was Agnes Ozman, and those present insisted that she was speaking Chinese.
The theological term for this phenomenon is “xenolalia.” Because of this position on tongues, hundreds of missionaries quickly left their homes, assuming that when they arrived in their new environments that they’d be able to speak to the locals through the Spirit.
Unfortunately, these missionaries quickly discovered that they could not communicate with those in their new non-English speaking communities.
And this is where Pentecostalism finds its footing. Pentecostals transitioned away from xenolalia, adopting “glossolalia,” or the idea that they were speaking an unknown, Heavenly language.
In other words, speaking in tongues (glossolalia) is linguistically incoherent. So why is that important?
In his book Black Pentecostal Breath, Ashon Crawley argues that “Western” philosophy and theology are preoccupied with control. Consequently, philosophers and theologians, most of whom are white men, have forced categories on the world that function to silence the unusual and incoherent (at least, incoherent to the constructed “standard”).
Xenolalia, which emerged in Charles Parham’s theology, is controllable––it is an actual language we can use for our purposes. Glossolalia, however, is out-of-control; in Crawley’s words,
Glossolalia retreats from the linguistic system through enunciating and elaborating vocables, aspirating sounded out breath without the need for grammatical structure or rule.
For decades scientists have tried to explain glossolalia. Is it simply about power, manipulation, or unusual brain activity? The goal has been to control it by reducing it to a category that we can neatly file away in our impressive list of human determinations.
But the Bible compares the Spirit to the wind, moving whenever, wherever, however, and on whomever the Spirit wills. The Spirit, like the wind, cannot be stuffed into a container, labeled, and placed on a shelf.
Aesthesis-glossolalia is irreducibly incoherent and generative for a Blackpentecostal radical imagination; not the recovery of nonsense but the refusal of sense having the final say. Glossolalia––registering as nothing at all––is the movement into incoherence as a choreosonic form toward praise, toward divine encounter
The Spirit, which is often (though not exclusively) expressed through tongues, is no-thing in particular. Tongues rejects the hubris of human ingenuity that works to control and conquer. It embraces the unknowability of God, moving not by sight (discriminating) but rather by faith (the unseen/undiscriminating).
The “thing-ness” of Pentecostalism is no-thing; Pentecostalism flows with the ever-moving Spirit, which pervades indexing:
Healing is no-thing medical; tongues is no-thing grammatical; interpretation is no-thing systematic; miracles are no-thing scientific; faith is no-thing “rational”; prophecy is no-thing explainable; wisdom is no-thing learned; discernment is no-thing visible; and knowledge is no-thing academic.
In short, Spirit-gifts are no-thing controllable. And this is the power of Pentecostal nothingness:
“That nothing can change, that nothing can have change applied to it, that nothing can be broken and broken into, means that nothing is irreducibly full, irreducibly potential in its force”Crawley
Because Pentecostalism is no-thing, it can fit every-thing and speak to every-one, meaning it is irreducible and thus inexorable, ineluctable, inextricable, and most assuredly intractable.
If we were to travel the globe, visiting Christian churches that emphasize the active presence of the Holy Spirit, we’d be hard pressed to find a specific “thing-ness” to these religious communities. Some profess that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of the Spirit while others don’t. Some are energetic and seemingly chaotic while others are orderly. Some promote worldly detachment while others preach active involvement in the community. Moreover, some pentecostals hold to a Trinitarian theology while others preach Oneness.
What, then, is Pentecostalism? It is no-thing.
It openly rejects the philosophy of reductionism, which dissects “nature” and dehumanizes people through stratification.
The reason we started Engaged Pentecostalism as a communal space, featuring authors from various backgrounds, is to ensure that EP does not become some-thing. Indeed, another writer is free to fully disagree with my argument here because EP doesn’t seek uniformity because the Spirit doesn’t move uniformly.
The Spirit moves in each unique space in the exact way the Spirit wills. To say otherwise reduces the Spirit to a controllable “thing,” which restricts the Spirit to our own understanding. Restriction is, in fact, the exact “thing” the Spirit is not (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
Global Pentecostalism is a movement of the Spirit that is unruly and irrepressible. Hence, the only way to stop the Spirit is to try to contain the Spirit, forcing the Spirit to conform to political ideology, social constructions, and linguistic range.
Spirit no-thingness is inexhaustibly full and freeing because it is boundless. Fullness of life comes when we let go of our sinful desire to control and instead simply move with the Spirit, all the while offering this same free-wheeling-ness to the world.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.