As Karen Kilby notes in her response later in this symposium, Simeon Zahl’s The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience is a difficult, if fascinating and compelling, book to review. A good part of the difficulty lies in the sheer breadth of intellectual ground the book covers and the depth of its analysis. There is the recovering of discarded affective dimensions from early Protestant theology. There is the detailed theological interpretation of critical New Testament texts and close engagement with relevant biblical scholarship. There is the sustained methodological use of affect theory to build, among other things, a constructive pneumatology. There are critical interjections, leveraged by Zahl’s intriguing theorisation of “affective Augustinianism,” into some of the most significant debates within the doctrine of soteriology. There are the ecumenical possibilities this book might enable between Protestant theology and Pentecostal and Charismatic theologies. And there’s much more still. All this, in Zahl’s skilful hands, gets folded around a central thesis: experience, emotion and embodiment cannot be excluded from Christian doctrine. So, for Zahl, doctrine is resourced by experience (i.e., it supplies the raw material for belief-production alongside, classically, Scripture, reason, and tradition) and doctrine is “felt” in the experience of actual people (i.e., on bodies and behaviour, and in the highs and lows of life and everything in between).
Simeon puts it well when he says in one of his replies: “The real question is not whether we are to incorporate our experience in theology, but how to do it well, given the fact that we are always already doing it.” Naturally, Barth—the archenemy of experience—is fair game for a rough ride in Zahl’s genealogy. If Christiane Tietz’s biography is anything to go by, it’s not that Barth didn’t incorporate experience into his theology but that he didn’t know he was doing it, and if he did, he didn’t know how to do it well, and this had damaging effects on his dogmatics and perhaps on his life and the lives of those around him. Barth is a useful case in point to illustrate another of the fundamental arguments of this book: you can’t really speak about experience without speaking of the Holy Spirit. No wonder theologians wondered where the Spirit went in Barth’s dogmatics given the ostensibly underdeveloped way he approached the category of experience. Unlike Barth, Zahl has a much sharper grasp of this somewhat slippery concept, which is sharpened further by the tools of affect theory. Zahl’s use of affect theory surfaces with full clarity in chapter 4 and is given extra articulation by Simeon in his reply to Natalie Carnes.
First up in this symposium’s attempt to mine some of the riches of this book is Natalie Carnes and her questioning of whether Catholics have been let off the hook a little too easily, and her encouragement to consider the implications of Zahl’s proposals for theology’s form. Then comes Daniel Castelo and his call for a deeper dive into exactly what’s gone wrong in modern theology for the occlusion of experience to take hold in the first place. Next, David Fergusson taps into Zahl’s anti-abstraction thesis and invites further reflection on the need to make theological sense of the possibility of the experience of God outside of the church. And Karen Kilby ends this symposium with an identification of some of the main contributions to contemporary theology Simeon makes, and picks up where Carnes left off with some further reflections on the form-question.
That this is a difficult book to review has also something then to do with the nature of writing about experience. Following Carnes and Kilby, writing about experience presents particular challenges to the form this sort of theology should take. Is systematic theology, as a discipline with a fairly narrowly conceived set of formal conventions, inherently self-limiting? Perhaps one of the shifts in systematic theology this book might inspire—alongside getting theologians to think seriously and theologically about experience—is to invite theologians of the systematic sort to write a bit more creatively, with a bit more permission to draw from experience as a valid source of theological enquiry and integrate these experiential insights into the form as well as content of their writing. There are good reasons the sort of ground clearing work contained in this book needing to take the form it does (so Simeon’s reply to Kilby), but with the foundations Zahl has laid, the fullest possible integration of theology and experience might need a different default genre. There’s a model here in Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath, which Simeon cites later, and also, more recently, in Natalie Wigg-Stevenson’s Transgressive Devotions. These could be worked examples of the sort of theology Zahl is ultimately calling for. With Wigg-Stevenson there’s a further methodological shift into empirical research methodologies, and especially of the qualitative sort, that Zahl doesn’t himself take in this book but could bring his work into closer empirical contact with the real lives of real Christians in order to dismantle further the “subtle but powerful walls between theology and lived experience” (5).
From the rubble of these dismantled walls, I share with Simeon a hope that bridges can be built between Protestant theology and the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions (and the “untapped” [p. 5] pneumatological resources they hold). Further to these ecumenical possibilities are, as David mentions in his response, the bridges this book builds between systematic theology and practical theology as well as various theologies of liberation committed to Zahl’s fundamental claim that you can’t do theology without drawing on lived experience. For this, the book is a major contribution.
For Zahl, as will become clear, part of what it means to speak usefully of experience lies in affect theory. While Zahl sets affect theory to work in relation to the doctrine of salvation (chapter 3), sin and grace (chapter 4), and then sanctification (chapter 5), it’ll be up to others to apply Zahl’s argument to different doctrinal loci; and my heart for one is strangely warmed by the prospect of further work that seeks to reexamine the “affective salience” of the whole nine yards of Christian doctrine. This book will generate new thinking. But for now, we turn to the details of the book itself and hear from the first of our four contributors.
My final word, before clearing aside, is a hearty thanks to everyone involved in this symposium for producing such sharp and provocative contributions amidst the pressures the pandemic continues to place on our bodies, experiences and emotions.