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.
A Proposal with a Future
Simeon Zahl’s The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience is a timely and generative study. It provides diagnostics, analyses, and proposals on a myriad of themes that are often neglected or passed over in theology. For this reason, it should be an important, oft-cited work for years to come.
One of its main contributions is to put forward the pressing thesis that when identified is quite perplexing: Theologians make many claims as to the availability and activity of God within their proposals, but they have an exceedingly difficult time accounting for this availability and activity in ways that are not overwhelmed by some clearly demarcated extremes. Because of this orientation, what one is left with is an obvious sense of what the “boogeymen” are, so to speak, but also an accompanying, latent dissatisfaction with what emerges affirmatively. The pivot points have to do with matters related to the God-human interface broadly and to the characterization of specific theological proposals as divinely authorized particularly. This problem is largely a Protestant one in Zahl’s work. The “boogeymen” in this case are thinking of experience as either “the foundation for all dogmatic claims” (in the vein of Schleiermacher) or as a theme “hopelessly compromised by idolatry and sinfulness,” thereby meriting its exclusion in the outworking of theological claims (16). Undoubtedly, the “boogeymen” are worth avoiding in some sense: Theology can easily be usurped by anthropology, and humans are notoriously weak in allowing their own flaws and vices to project unto their theological claims, especially in light of an unbridled subjectivism. The challenge here, of course, is not to deny the significance of experience as a result of avoiding these extremes, for in doing so, Zahl knows where this will lead: “We cannot hide behind either methodological anxieties or metaphysical generalities. To do so . . . would be to eclipse the Spirit from our theology” (72). That is precisely what has happened in many sectors of Western Christian theology. Often, “you wonder where the Spirit went” in these contexts (to riff on an article title by Robert Jenson). The point stands not just for specific proposals but for much of modern theology; in fact, plenty of people do not even bother to wonder the point at all while (ironically) claiming strong trinitarian commitments. As Zahl hints in the book, this neglect may not be so much a result of intellectual shortsightedness as it is a function of a multitextured form of anxiety. When it comes to these questions, theologians often show terribly burdening, occluding, and debilitating anxieties. These anxieties are real and powerful; they are also stubborn and (to use Zahl’s language) intransigent.
Through the means of a book, what Zahl can do in response to these anxieties is limited. He can and does identify them. Such is a strong feature of the work. He can offer theories as to why they are so. On this point, the book may have benefitted from a more robust account of wider claims—a deep dive, if you will, as to how and why these anxieties took place, given the kinds of historical, pastoral, cultural, and intellectual currents that are operative in specific cases. I realize that is quite a bit to ask, and Zahl does some of that work, but I am convinced that more has to be done so as to make his proposals deeply resonant in the contemporary setting of anglophone culture. My concern is that without this kind of deep probing, anxieties have a way of reproducing and reshaping themselves in uncritical and routinized ways. Take the case of the Protestant fixation on establishing that “works” are not soteriologically meritorious. In my view, the anxiety makes much more sense within the context of sixteenth-century Europe than it does today in north transatlantic culture, yet, according to my experience, in many (often nonacademic but rather ecclesial) settings, the anxiety is still at work and reproduced/morphed in the name of doctrinal fidelity. Yes, as Zahl points out, we should not let cultural circumstances exceedingly relativize what can be ascertained as long-standing features and patterns within the human experience generally and the spiritual life particularly, but we also cannot generalize and equivocate on this point since the anxiety of one setting will be textured differently from another. In one setting, an anxiety can be a practical threat; in another, it can be an existential threat; and still in another, it can be a hypothetical threat. Each is a different experience and involves a different degree of abstraction. And, one may add, the antidote or alternative need not be, as Zahl points out, a default rationalism. The dangers of enthusiasm need not be resisted by what is given a pass as “safe,” namely a “rational” approach (whatever that may mean). The dangers of enthusiasm are rivalled by the dangers of rationalism, yet the former tend to be prioritized as more of a threat than the latter in formal academic settings in the West. This state of affairs is problematic and in need of problematization.
Via a book, one can also offer new analyses, categories, and proposals, and happily Zahl does this throughout the work. Examples include qualifying and demarcating the kinds of experience operative in theologizing; a focus on and inclusion of affect theory for theological reasoning; references to mood congruent cognition, attachment theory, and their relevance to spirituality; the theme of affective salience; and so on. I especially appreciate the emphasis on the “practical recognizability” of the Spirit. Such an approach resists the tendencies towards abstraction and vagueness in theological proposals and in turn offers some sense of concreteness to pneumatological discernment, which is something direly needed in the present discussions. As I take it, the direction here is to give an account of changed/transformed lives and in turn to bridge the conceptual and disciplinary gap between theology and spirituality.
Toward the end of the book, Zahl focuses on rereadings of Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther, and Augustine. These are, of course, significant figures with vast secondary literatures surrounding them. Once again, Zahl highlights these figures so as to stress omissions in terms of how they have been subsequently read and appropriated. Given the way affect plays a role in the thought of these figures and the way affect ties directly to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, one can see quite readily through Zahl’s analysis that they have been neglected for their pneumatological contributions. At the same time, I suspect that operative in this neglect is a kind of background orientation, to which Zahl references early in the book: “Why have so many contemporary theologians found flawed arguments about major Protestant distinctives to be compelling, and why have these theological narratives encountered so little resistance? The present study has arisen to a substantial degree out of reflection on these questions. I have become convinced that the underlying issue in each case is less about the particular readings of the Reformers involved than it is about deeper theological assumptions and methodological commitments that have created conditions under which misreadings such as these can flourish” (5). I find this intuition to be spot-on. In fact, Zahl reckons that in the case of Luther and Melanchthon, the misreadings and neglect of earlier themes (as stressed in the pre- and post-Schwärmerei Luther and in the move from the Apology to the Formula of Concord) took place within a matter of decades. Zahl was attuned to this point early in the work. As I mentioned earlier, I wish he would have unpacked more the factors contributing to these shifts. Why is it that people and movements tend to transition so readily in the neglect of the Spirit? We need to hear time and time again why theologians continue to operate in such a way so that we can be clearheaded so as not to perpetuate these patterns moving forward. I sense that avoiding these tendencies would constitute a massive shift within Western theology, one that I (and, I would imagine, many in the global South) would welcome heartily.
Overall, I am very grateful for this work. Zahl has given us a contemporary and suggestive account of the Holy Spirit and experience that should bear fruit for years to come. It is the kind of rare and special work that has the potential to unleash research trajectories. I look forward to seeing that kind of activity, for it should constitute an important development in Christian pneumatological reflection.
Experiencing God Outside the Church
Simeon Zahl’s monograph is a creative recovery of a concept that has too long frightened us. Critiques of experience abound in the theological literature of the twentieth century, particularly in Protestant thought. Its use as a source in Schleiermacher and Herrmann was held to betoken a subjectivism in which God was sought within the psychological depths of the individual. From an epistemological perspective, this could only compromise the objectivity of the Word of God, or silence its claim upon us. And, from a soteriological perspective, a stress on Christian piety was adjudged to result in a presumptuous addition of our affective and moral responses to the once for all work of Christ. Furthermore, with the later accrual of philosophical and anthropological influences, it became commonplace amongst post-liberals to argue that all experience is theory laden and therefore shaped by language, culture, and practice. To this extent, religious experience was to be regarded as the effect of faith rather than its cause or setting.
Zahl challenges these nostrums in different ways, while recognising that they are not wholly without validity. The language of experience needs to be foregrounded, otherwise we have too little to say about grace, faith, participation in Christ, sanctification, and our actualisation of the Word of God. Theology cannot function without reference to the experience of Christians. This is the domain of the third article too often neglected or diminished, but now requiring revitalisation, not least in light of the global growth of Pentecostalism. This was forcefully illustrated for me recently by an African woman in our (Scottish Presbyterian) congregation. To our shame, she confessed that she had to suppress her emotions while attending Sunday worship. Zahl’s study suggests that the fault is not hers but a tradition that has for too long been nervous around the public expression of emotions.
His book contains a surprising number of moving parts as he develops an approach to Christian experience, while also tilting at various claims that have recently populated the field. Several elements of his position have already been iterated in a succession of important journal articles which also repay careful study. Despite the risk of oversimplifying his central thesis, I shall seek to delineate its key components before pressing several questions. Recent Protestant theology—the work of Torrance and Tanner is regularly cited—recognises the need to combine the priority of Christ’s work with a rich account of its effects within the Christian life. Though not wrong, these suffer from an unhelpful degree of abstraction that fails to specify exactly how our human participation works. What effects and affects take place in the life of the faithful? Attempts to answer this question often lapse into theological rhetoric or unintentional vagueness. Thomists, by contrast, generally have a much clearer account of what is involved through their exposition of the acquired and infused virtues. Yet there is both a drift from the christological setting of faith and an unrealistic appraisal of what is possible. The phenomenon of “Christian mediocrity” here raises its head. And this Nietzschean problem may also affect much recent Protestantism. Though Zahl doesn’t quite put it this way, if all these accounts of sacramental, spiritual, and moral practice are indeed accurate, then should we not expect Christians to perform much better than they actually do? This seems to me an important corrective to inflated estimates of the moral formation actually achieved by sacramental communities.
In response to this set of problems, Zahl intertwines insights from recent affect theory with a recovery of some distinctive Reformational insights. Recent work in psychology counteracts the aforementioned thesis that affective experience is linguistically constructed. Our material and bodily condition prevents such plasticity, thus ensuring a greater degree of constancy across cultures. This also helps to explain the phenomenon of “affective intransigence.” Within the life of faith, the constraints and impulses of our embodied nature continue to shape us, often exposing unruly elements of the self that are never wholly mastered or extinguished even in the most saintly of lives. Here Luther’s simul iustus et peccator needs to be heard again, though Zahl finds this more fully worked out by his Wittenberg colleague, Philip Melanchthon. In working faith within us, the Holy Spirit enables us both to receive the good news of a righteousness in Christ that God imputes to us, while simultaneously leading us into a new way of life. As the gospel is announced, there arises a profound sense of liberation with an entry to a mode of existence which is characterised by different delights attended by characteristic emotions. We are to think of justification and sanctification as distinguished but never separated. The constants of the human condition, moreover, entail that imputed righteousness remains normative not just in a sixteenth-century context of sin, guilt, and fear, but for every generation similarly afflicted no matter how differently this expressed. And this has important experiential outcomes for the Christian. The life of faith too can exhibit a moral and spiritual advance even amidst the continued antagonism of “flesh and spirit.” Here a further move takes place, as he appeals to an Augustinian notion of delight as the alternative to virtue theories that prescribe actions to which we are initially averse, in order eventually to acquire the requisite habit.
In this short sketch, I cannot do justice to the subtlety and complexity of Zahl’s argument. What is evident, however, is his accomplished historical scholarship, a welcome interaction with recent literature in critical theory, acute but fair exposition of opposing views, and an ability to weave together an impressive set of arguments in support of a position that is both evangelically adequate and pastorally plausible. As a sympathetic and appreciative reader, I offer the following queries some of which he has already gestured towards in his concluding remarks.
The discussion intends to release the concept of religious experience from earlier epistemological and apologetic projects. If we no longer deploy it as the starting point in theology, then it can be rehabilitated in more constructive ways by Christian self-description. That seems right to me, but it leaves open the question of whether there is an experience of God outside of the church that might characterise, however abstractly, our universal human condition. Calvin’s use of the “sensus divinitatis” was an attempt to give a phenomenological account of this, without reference to an epistemological foundation or an apologetic strategy. On one reading, Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence” serves a similar purpose. I see no reason why Zahl’s project cannot accommodate such notions, nor indeed a wider sense of the Holy Spirit’s agency beyond the walls of the church. His project is of course about “Christian experience,” but it raises the question of whether there are other forms of religious or spiritual experience which can be set in relation to this, whether constructively or critically. His discussion of Christian religious affections also generates some normative questions. Should our assessment of theological claims be determined in part by an account of the affective and practical contexts in which these arise and flourish? The regular appeal to various projects of deconstruction, especially queer theology, seems to confirm this, as do the important remarks about “affective salience.”
A key question is whether Zahl’s own pneumatology satisfies the criteria by which he judges alternative approaches. In other words, can he avoid a lapse into either theological abstractionism or overinflated claims for the Christian life? Although, for the most part, he is constantly alert to this problem, I worry a bit about some of his remarks on conversion. “A theory of Christian identity also needs to do justice to New Testament descriptions of the punctiliarity of baptism in the Spirit and of the powerful affective immediacy often involved in Christian conversion” (212). The appeal to a sudden and momentary transitional experience appears to be the affective counterpart to the doctrine of justification here expounded. To be sure, one can appeal to some brief and dramatic examples of such punctiliar moments in the New Testament. But are these strikingly telescoped accounts to become normative for all subsequent Christian experience? Might there not be a multiplicity of ways of coming to faith which resist conformity to a single model? This strikes me as at least requiring further scrutiny, particularly in light of recent psychological literature on religious conversion which discerns a temporally extended process rather than a single event.1
This last point leads me to wonder whether the process of being socialised into the Christian faith may require greater use of notions of practice and habit than is generally conceded. Some alliances with Thomism may be required here. (At one point, admittedly, the argument seems to move in this direction.) In the context of recent work on neurophysiology, Simon Harak has written of the development of virtuous passions through spiritual exercises.2 Repeated habitual practice can reshape our bodily responses to stimuli, at least in some measure. Our worse selves can be constrained, tempered, and even redirected. Might there be ways in which a more Augustinian approach can appropriate this work? Do wise counselling and pastoral instruction not sometimes proceed along lines that encourage the development of new habits of body and mind? As he notes earlier in the book, Protestantism has often drawn upon Thomism. Zahl might worry here about the reappearance of a moralism that overburdens people and suppresses the more joyful notes elicited by the gospel tidings of comfort and joy. I share this anxiety, as I suspect did Torrance in his relentless critique of the psychologising tendences of seventeenth-century Reformed thought. But is the formation of good habits at least one element in the Christian life?
Zahl works hard to show the continuities between the anxieties of the sixteenth century and those of our own age. While much of this is persuasive, some things have undoubtedly changed. In particular, most of us seem much less terrorised by the prospect of hell than our sixteenth-century forebears. We do not share all the fears of the past in relation to divine retribution, though, as he points out, we may have generated some of our own signature anxieties in cravings for self-esteem and public recognition. But this leads me to ask whether some forms of Protestantism need to be adapted. Are we at risk of so stressing the depravity of our condition, perhaps to accentuate its solution, that we overburden people with long prayers of confession and impossible demands that further threaten their sense of self-worth? As Stephen Pattison has argued, a sense of shame is all too easily reinforced rather than dispelled.3 To put it bluntly, people should leave church feeling better about themselves in light of God’s grace, not worse. In this respect, Pentecostal worship is instructive, as are the studies of the faith of postmillennials. This is difficult territory with many pitfalls—the same doctrine of the church may have widely contrasting contexts and affective accompaniments in different locations—and it says much for Zahl’s approach that he has further raised our awareness of this. And, in doing so, he has impressively overcome the baleful division of systematic and practical theology. His fine book is a mature and accomplished treatment of a theme deserving renewed attention. He leaves us wanting more and looking forward to his next production.
For example, Raymond F. Paloutzian, “Psychology of Religious Conversion and Spiritual Transformation,” in Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion, ed. Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Faradien (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 217.↩
G. Simon Harak, Virtuous Passions: The Formation of Christian Character (New York: Paulist, 1993).↩
Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).↩
Simeon Zahl offers a many-stranded, carefully constructed argument of The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience. It is a rich and complex work. Different readers will focus on different aspects of the whole: for me, three contributions to contemporary theology particularly stand out.
The first is Zahl’s defence of the importance of experience. In many quarters of course this will not sound like news. But for those influenced by Karl Barth and by George Lindbeck’s rejection of experiential-expressivism in the Nature of Doctrine, Zahl’s argument here is highly significant. He offers a historical account of how modern theology, especially in Protestant form, came to be so nervous about experience; he does conceptual work to distinguish among different ways experience can play a role in theology (engagement with experience is not always apologetic, not always seeking a universal foundation for theology); he develops an analysis of the role of mood, emotion and affect within all reasoning; he points to central moments in the tradition where theological reflection manifestly draws on experience (from Peter in Acts and Paul in Galatians, to Augustine in relation to grace and Luther in relation to justification),1 and to classic theological debates where defence of a doctrine includes an argument about its “affective salience,” the consequences the doctrine will have for the emotional life of the believer. The cumulative effect of these different strands of argument is powerful: after Zahl, it is going to seem silly, and dated, to imagine that one could engage in a traditionally rooted theology while turning one’s back on experience.
I can attest to the significance of what Zahl does here by reference to my own work on Karl Rahner. Rahner is often dismissed by ecumenically minded Protestants, and some Catholics, on the grounds that he represents a liberal/modern /apologetic/foundationalist version of Catholicism. If Zahl’s book had been in existence earlier, then my own arguments to show that Rahner’s emphasis on the category of experience does not make him an apologist or a foundationalist would have been a great deal easier, or perhaps not even necessary. In relation to this particular figure, one might say, I have also made an attempt to push back against modern theology’s anxiety around experience, but Zahl has done the work at a much more general level, and in a much more thorough way.
A second component of Zahl’s larger argument I found particularly significant is his diagnosis of a tendency to abstraction in contemporary theology. In many cases, when systematic theologians get to a point where one expects them to be talking about something that connects to life, to experience, to the concrete, to that which is “practically recognizable”—when for instance, they are discussing the role of the Spirit in sanctification and one anticipates comments on the way people do and don’t change—there is a sudden and mysterious “swerve” away. The “subtle but powerful walls” that modern Christian theology has built between theology and lived experience make themselves felt, and we are offered nothing but abstract claims which could mean nearly anything in terms of the concrete shape of a life.
I am persuaded Zahl is right about this tendency to “swerve”—he provides some striking examples, and it would not be hard to find others. It is an analysis which, among other things, can give focus and precision to a widely held worry about the separation of theology and spirituality. And yet there is something in the way Zahl frames the issue that is troubling. He is very clear as to what recent theologians do not do, which is to write about real experience, in time, in bodies, in relation to emotions and desires and things that happen to people in “practically recognisable” ways. What they do instead, he suggests, is to veer into an ontological or metaphysical language. Once one notices the recurring distinction between the metaphysical and ontological, on the one hand, and the temporal, embodied, affective, and recognisable, on the other, it becomes puzzling. I don’t think Zahl intends to set up a contrast between two spheres, between a world of emotion and concrete things on the one hand, and a timeless, disembodied realm beyond all experience on the other. And I don’t think he means to suggest, in using the language of “ontology” in relation to the latter, that only the disembodied and timeless truly have being. But this is the direction in which some of the language points. The very framework within which he is trying to promote attention to experience, bodies and affect seems to presuppose, and give a subtle priority to, an alternate timeless and bodiless realm. On this front, it seems to me, there might still be a little work to be done. But Zahl accomplishes so much in this volume as a whole, it is only fair on his part to leave a little work for someone else.
The third element of the argument that stands out for me is Zahl’s retrieval and defence of classical Protestant patterns of thought around justification by faith and sanctification. He pushes back against a range of critics who want to move away from the classic “forensic” understanding of justification in favour of a more participatory account: on the one hand the critics are wrong to cast justification by faith as mere “legal fiction” and mere propositionalism; on the other, the participation-centred understandings of salvation do not do what they claim, because they remain abstract, finding little purchase in experience.
Zahl’s retrieval of themes from Luther and Melanchthon (and behind them, Augustine) is, I think, a brilliant piece of ressourcement, faithful to the tradition to which it is a return while also a fresh and challenging intervention into contemporary debate. Justification by faith and the classical Protestant “disjunctive” understanding of the working of grace become, in Zahl’s hands, genuine possibilities for belief in our own time: psychologically plausible, experientially concrete, realistic and compassionate. Zahl is capable of bringing out, in a way that can be understood by an outsider, the deep and continuing attractiveness of these traditional Protestant patterns of thought. His retrieval of an “affective Augustinianism” will have, I think, a particularly wide appeal.
I would like to end this review of The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience by taking a step back and reflecting a little on the sheer difficulty of reviewing it. I am conscious in what I have written so far of plucking three elements from a larger, carefully interwoven whole, and of doing a certain violence to the whole in the plucking. While focusing on classical Protestant ressourcement, for instance, I haven’t mentioned the illuminating discussions of recent neo-Thomism. I haven’t touched on the careful treatment of biblical, especially New Testament, texts and scholarship which is a rich strand through the volume, nor the fascinating combination of unexpected sources—the way at one point insights from queer theory, for example, are shown to illuminate and reinforce Augustine’s thought. I haven’t directly discussed pneumatology or affect theory, either of which might be viewed as the centre of the volume; I have not even fully laid out the connections between the three components of the argument that I do discuss. My review is not, in other words, doing any kind of justice to the architecture of the argument as a whole. One reason for this is that I can hope for other Syndicate reviewers to cover other aspects of the book, but my neglect also arises from the fact that Zahl’s seems to me quite a hard argument to capture well in a brief piece of commentary. This is a clearly written book, but it is also an unusually intricate one. Zahl fights on many fronts, knitting his argument from interventions in a range of distinct debates, and it makes for a complexly structured whole.
It is not an easy thing to meet all the expectations placed on a systematic theologian, and one way of thinking about the intricacy of Zahl’s argument is that he shows what emerges when someone actually does manage to meet all these expectations. This is what it looks like, one might say, when a theologian genuinely works in a way that is biblically rooted, historically rich, and engaged in contemporary debates, while also combining commitment to a particular tradition with ecumenical generosity and interdisciplinary expansiveness, bringing together careful conceptual analysis with practical and pastoral relevance, and when all this is done with proper attention to the scholarly literature in each of the areas touched upon, and with a self-reflexive clarity. It might be possible to use Zahl’s book, then, as a case study with students, to show them everything that is expected in putting together an argument in systematic theology—or one might hesitate to do so, for fear of leaving them daunted.
Another way to think about the intricacy and complexity of the argument, however, is that it contributes to a certain tension in this book, a tension between what Zahl says and the way he says it. This is a book which argues very effectively that experience and affect permeate every aspect of Christian doctrine—how it arises, how it is reflected on, how it is defended, what it is aimed at. And yet the careful, scholarly, academic idiom in which he argues for all this is one which seems to detach the argument from any particular person’s experience—the author’s or the reader’s—and invite us to reflect on texts and ideas and theories at some distance from ourselves. Zahl defines his terms with admirable care, for instance, and tends to return to them repeatedly, in a way which supports the precision and clarity of the argument, and helps hold it together in its complexity, but this is not necessarily a strategy one would use if one were more focused on the “affective effect” of one’s prose. (“Affective effect” is a phrase Zahl uses a number of times, and to my mind it itself captures the issue quite nicely. It is more precise than reference to “emotional impact” or “gut response” would be, but it is also—or at least so it seems to me—a much more emotionally distancing term.)
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be fair to hold this element of tension between style and content against The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience. Zahl is attempting to challenge the anti-experiential instincts of a major strand of modern theology. These instincts are deeply held, and are not likely to be given up lightly. If his argument is to have an impact, he has to couch it in a language and style which gives his audience no easy option to dismiss it. He is unlikely to succeed in undercutting such a long-held prejudice, in other words, if he unfolds his own argument as anything other than systematic theology of the most transparently rigorous and scholarly kind. So if a conclusion to draw from The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience might be that theologians should wear their rigour and their scholarship lightly so as not to detract from the experiential and emotional impact of their work, this is not something it would have been wise for Zahl to attempt in The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience.
Might it have been possible to add Karl Barth’s rejection of liberal theology to this list? Was it not precisely Barth’s experience of shock and disappointment in his teacher’s actions in the run up to the first world War which proved decisive in shaping the direction of his theology?↩
What about Rattling Medals and Talking Images?
“[The Duke of Norfolk’s] joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs’ bones. ‘Marry!’ he says, for an oath, and ‘By the Mass!,’ and sometimes takes out one of his medals or charms from wherever it is hung about his person, and kisses it in a fervor, calling on some saint or martyr to stop his current rage getting the better of him. . . . He thinks book-reading an affectation altogether, and wishes there were less of it at court” (Wolf Hall, 134).
I begin with this passage from Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall in appreciative imitation of Zahl, who opens The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience with an epigraph from George Eliot’s short story “Janet’s Repentance.” Threading a strand of that story through his introduction, Zahl attends to Eliot’s reflections on how the “poor ghosts” of ideas are sometimes “made flesh,” acquiring for us a powerful and passionate presence (1–2). Eliot helps Zahl set up his rehabilitation of “experience,” which has suffered, if not exile, then studied avoidance in much contemporary theology. As a theological category, experience is particularly vexed for Protestants. And yet, Zahl argues, experience is also deeply important in two ways: first, through its implicit function in “the affective salience of doctrine;” and, second, through its formal function as a source of theological reflection together with Scripture, reason, and tradition (46). Hailing Eliot thus seems a fitting opening gesture for two corresponding reasons. First, novels are generally more attuned to their affective salience than doctrinal exposition is; and, second, novels provide an opportunity to observe the affective lives of others, perhaps even to discern how experience functions as a source for a character’s own theologizing about life. Beginning with Eliot, Zahl introduces his readers to an approach to theology and experience that is as clear as it proves fertile.
My particular homage to Zahl through Wolf Hall is meant to build on Zahl’s work by pressing some questions about other forms theology’s relationship to experience might take. It draws on that second way novels can help us think about theology and experience by considering how experience shapes a character’s own theology in order to ask whether there might be a way of construing the relation of theology and experience uncaptured by the formal and implicit options Zahl outlines. The Mantel passage presses for me the question: Have Catholics been let off the hook too easily? And relatedly: How does the picture of theology’s relation to affect shift once Catholics are also held to account for experience?
Early in his book, Zahl explains why experience isn’t the problem for Protestants that it is for Catholics. He writes, “At the eve of the Protestant Reformation, Catholic theology already had a sophisticated way of addressing the question of pneumatological discernment: the authority of the magisterial teaching office of the Church” (17). He later refers to the Catholic approach as the “magisterial-ecclesial solution to the problem” (17). Yet the magisterium offers no real solution to the problem of experience, nor does it obviate the difficulties and exigencies of discernment. Magisterial pronouncements about experience—of miracles, apparitions, saintliness—always lag behind myriad individual and communal forms of discernment. Pope Francis pointed to this in the Thanksgiving mass for Oscar Romero’s canonization, when he chided the church hierarchy that was late to recognize Romero and implored bishops to listen to the people who can “smell holiness.”1 The acts of discernment required in a church with a magisterium multiply rather than contract: people make an act of discernment about a saint and particular miracles attesting to her sanctity; the hierarchy makes acts of discernment about the saint and the people’s acts of discernment; and people again discern the adequacy the magisterium’s response, which is sometimes overturned in later years. In terms of declaring saints, recognizing apparitions, and affirming miracles, the hierarchy almost always follows popular movements, which are constituted by multiple people reflecting on and discerning their own experience of the Spirit.
My point in raising the role of experience in the Catholic Church is not to quibble with Zahl about whether Catholics have found a way to render experience less tendentious. His claim about Catholicism is a minor point he makes on the way to describing the heart of his project, when he turns to early Protestant theology both to correct misreadings of it (convincingly, to my mind) and to show the work that affect theory can do (powerfully, in my judgment). I raise this point because I believe Zahl is advocating an important shift in systematic theological work, and I want to think with it and push it further. For I wonder if in excluding Catholic theology, he has also impoverished his resources for answering some of his principal questions, including “Why are some theological ideas lifechanging for certain people, but dry as dust for others? Why are theologians so prone to developing systems of great intellectual coherence and elegance, but which bear only passing resemblance to the lives Christians actually seem to lead?” (4) How, I wonder, would turning to Hilary Mantel rather than George Eliot give us a different way into these questions?
The fictionalized Duke of Norfolk is not, I admit, a compelling picture of saintliness in Wolf Hall. He’s vindictive, snobbish, fury-prone, and obsessed with worldly status—though Zahl has pointed out to us the way “affective intransigence,” the opacity of the heart, and the freedom of the Spirit disappoint hopes of tidy paths from sinner to saint (221–29). And yet in his life, the Duke sees God, via the saints and martyrs, via the medals and relics hanging on his body, soothing his wilder rages. His passions are bound up with these material sites of divine presence; he kisses them, swears with them, subdues by them. He does not, the passage makes clear, turn to the verbal articulations of doctrine found in books. Nor does the consoling power of the Duke of Norfolk’s soteriological commitments come to him by the ghost of an idea acquiring presence and power through a persuasive interlocutor. Consolation comes to him through the sound and feel of his rattling medals and relics, which assure him that God is present to him, that he has not been abandoned by the divine, that God can be transformatively with him even during his most vicious rages. How might cases like the Duke’s expand what theology engaged with affect theory and experience elucidates? What kind of pneumatology might come from attention to his case? What soteriology?
Let’s take a more compelling figure of saintliness than the Duke and turn instead to the figure in Christianity most universally recognized as a saint: Francis. Thomas of Celano represents an important moment of conversion in his second Life of the saint:
There is much that is fascinating here, but I limit myself to highlighting three ways in which it is particularly interesting to think about with Zahl’s terms. First, it ascribes agency to the Spirit and so presents itself for pneumatological reflection. Second, it describes an affective transformation in Francis that ends, not in delight or consolation, but in receiving stigmata on his heart that foreshadow the later ones he will receive in the flesh. Third, it attributes the occasion of this transformation, not to a doctrine or idea, but to an encounter with an image, which speaks to him as Christ. One interpretation of this event is that in it, experience functions purely formally, as a source for theological reflection. Another interpretation sees the image as itself theologically significant (what does it mean that the Franciscan Order facilitated the rise of images of a suffering Christ at a time when the triumphant Christ had been dominant?) and so interprets experience as also functioning here implicitly, as mediating theological claims affectively, though not purely verbally.
I wonder, then, if Zahl’s two descriptions of how experience relates to theology might need to be muddied a bit, or scooted aside to make room for a third. Can we conceive a relation of theology to experience in which the latter is neither something external to theological reflection, something that needs to be coordinated with it as a source, nor wholly internal to doctrine, as in the affective salience of doctrines? What do we make of the fact that the moment Augustine affectively transforms is not when he grasps the doctrine of the incarnation but when he receives the words of Scripture as a site of divine encounter because he remembers the story of Saint Antony’s conversion? Might an affective Augustinian interested in how doctrines “make bodies move” need to attend to the myriad mediators by which that faith is given, reshaped, and strengthened—beyond the rhetorical power of the theology and yet not apart from theology as if a separate source? I wonder if experience can name a field in which doctrinal commitments are mediated to us nonverbally, in which images embody perspectives on the Incarnation and speak to us about our vocation, wounding our hearts.
I raise the question of Catholicism, then, because I see the type of theological experience I am considering here—what we might call nonverbal affective theology—as more obvious and prevalent in the Catholic Church than in most Protestant churches, which were born in a suspicion of the very mediations I want to consider. In some ways, early Protestant theologians like Melanchthon need their doctrinal formulations to do affective work because they’re filling the emotional and corporeal gaps that images, relics, and other forms of saintly veneration once occupied. And once this expanded possibility of theological experience is received, then I wonder how we can return to one of Zahl’s central concerns, which is how theologians might approach theology in ways that take pneumatology, experience, and affect theory more seriously.
On that note, Zahl ends with a rich and thoughtful conclusion about how the content of theology should change—should expand—in light of his study. I wonder if there are also implications about theology’s form. Could his work help make sense of and appreciate, for example, a growing trend among feminist theologians to write theology as literature. In recent years, Janet Martin Soskice wrote a book of creative nonfiction; Elizabeth Johnson wrote eco-feminist theology in dialogue form; Tina Beattie, Susan Brookes Thistlethwaite, and Mary Judith Ress have all written novels related to themes in feminist theology. 3 Are these feminist theologians writing theology in a way that recognizes this third type of experience, the way reading literature can be an affectively-potent mode of forming, transforming, and shifting theological commitments, not because they articulate doctrine but because in their stories and imaginative worlds, they offer theologically-mediated ways of encountering God afresh? The work Zahl has done to expand theology’s relationship to experience is exciting and generative; is their room for more expansion still?
Pope Francis went off script in making this remark, so it is does not appear in the official Vatican transcript. However, records of it can be found in various reports of the event, including this one from the Diocese of Oakland, which reports Pope Francis as saying, “The people of God smell holiness. They know when their leader is on the right path to sanctity.” Michael Jurich, “The People of God ‘Smell Holiness,’” Catholic Voice, November 12, 2018, http://www.catholicvoiceoakland.org/2018/11-12/frontpage3.htm.↩
Thomas of Celano, “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul,” in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder, ed. Regis Armstrong (New York: New City, 2001), 249.↩
Tina Beattie, The Good Priest (Troubador, 2019); Mary Judith Ress, Blood Flowers (iUniverse 2010) and Different Gods (iUniverse, 2018); Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Where Drowned Things Live (Wipf and Stock, 2017) and Every Wickedness (Wipf and Stock, 2017). In addition, Janet Soskice wrote creative nonfiction in Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels (Knopf, 2009).↩