Of Revivals and Awakenings

15 February 2023

As I write these words, students at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, are participating in an event that is labeled by some a “revival” and by others an “awakening.” For the last week, students and faculty (and others) have been engaged in a round-the-clock religious catharsis leading to weeping, reconcilation, and a sense of that “God is moving.” According to persons familiar with what is taking place in various buildings on the campus, there is an “outpouring” similar to an “outpouring” that took place on the same campus in February 1970. 

An outpouring of what, exactly?

Those participating in and sympathetic to these events would answer that it is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, prompting those who are its beneficiaries to greater religious fervor, deeper awareness of their own sin and culpability, more powerful experiences of forgiveness and mercy, and a broadening sense of love for brothers and sisters and, indeed, for the whole of creation. On the whole, not a bad set of benefits.

Those less sympathetic might suggest an outpouring of pent-up emotion, resulting from the societal frustrations and general malaise, public health restrictions on human-to-human contact, nervous economic forecasts of recessional woes, and unbreakable political gridlock, wars and rumors of wars—all of which have gripped this nation for the last decade or more. Depending on their receptivity to religious truth-claims, these respondents may or may not be willing to grant any role to the Holy in motivating the outpouring or vouchsafing its consequences. 

I don’t know. I am not and haven’t been there. 

In the interests of honesty about theological and social location, I acknowledge my general reluctance to credit claims of divinely inspired, emotionally cathartic changes of heart. I am a Presbyterian, a member of that ostensibly “frozen” body of Protestant believers who have historically relied on reason over emotion in assessing the validity of religious experience. My theology professor in seminary once cautioned our class about religions that rely too heavily on the role of the Spirit, a reliance (he claimed) that led to “inappropriate enthusiasms.” I heard those words nearly fifty years ago, but their resonance in my mind has never completely quieted. I am not generally sympathetic to evangelical emphases on individual righteousness and having a “personal relationship with Jesus as my savior.” I’m not individually (or corporately, for that matter) righteous and I don’t know what a “personal relationship with Jesus” is, at least in any sense that corresponds to the accepted definitions of “personal” and “relationship.” 

That said, I am also aware that reason and post-Enlightenment rationalism have not served the religious mind well. Reducing all spiritual experience to the movement of electrons along neuro-biological highways has a way of disenchanting the world, robbing it of its capacity for wonder and awe. If we think we can explain all phenomena through available means, even if those means are not immediately ready to hand, what is the point of faith? What is the point of poetry, or art, or music? The world is in need, as philosopher Charles Taylor has observed, of a theology of re-enchantment.

If I had to guess, I would say that the students of Asbury are our avatars in a quest for theological re-enchantment. There is something in the human—I hesitate over the choice of the next word: brain? mind? heart? spirit? soul?—that yearns for mystery, for encounter with that which defies all explanation and dwells in realms unreachable by reason. There is something in us that yearns to know—by whatever means such knowledge is attained—that we are not alone here, that we are in fact accompanied and gathered up in an ultimate reality that is infinite and timeless and vaster than imagination (to say nothing of language) can capture. Call that ultimate reality “Holy” or “Mystery” or “the Infinite” or even “God”; it is the grail of every spiritual quest.

The students of Asbury University are not the first to venture on (or, perhaps, be conscripted into) such a quest, whether in 1970 or now. The gathered believers on Azuza Street in Los Angeles in 1910, the Sioux and Cheyenne at Wounded Knee who were caught up in the Ghost Dance in 1890, the revivalists at Cane Ridge, KY, in 1801 (is there something about Kentucky soil that gives rise to revivalism?), the evangelistic preachers of the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s, and on and on through history—all of these are the spiritual ancestors of the students at Asbury. Some of those revivals ended in the institutionalization of their insights. Some resulted in church schisms that took generations to heal. Some ended cataclysmically, in slaughter and genocide born of fear and misunderstanding.

It’s too early to say which of these paths (or some other) the present outpouring at Asbury will take. But perhaps it’s not too early to offer a perspective on the great spiritual quest for the Holy, one drawn from the manuals of medieval spirituality. 

Perhaps the most famous of those manuals is The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous author in the late fourteenth century. Written in the form of advice from a wiser older teacher to a younger, more enthusiastic student, The Cloud provides a discipline for approaching the Divine. Using the story of Moses ascending into a thick, dark cloud on Mt Sinai (Ex 19:16-25; 24:1-18), The Cloud counsels that one approached God only in a “cloud of forgetting,” into which one consigns all presumed knowledge or thought, all conclusions or previously formed notions of God, so that one knows nothing and thinks nothing that might obstruct the truth of God. Such an approach requires “unsaying” all that has been said, “unknowing” all that has been known of God, because all things said and known are of human construction. Theologians call this “apophatic” theology, from a Greek word that means “to deny.”

In truth, of course, no theology and no approach to the Infinite can be truly, radically apophatic. Language itself constructs and represents reality with fixed, agreed-upon signs and symbols that have communicability. Such communication is the opposite of “apophatic” denial; it is “cataphatic” affirmation. We think in language, and so our thoughts are cataphatic. Our understanding of our experience can only be expressed in cataphatic terminology. 

The Cloud, and indeed the great body of medieval spiritual texts, would teach us not that we abandon cataphasis, but that we consistently pair it with apophasis. The would remind us that every affirmation of our experience of the divine must be accompanied with a negation; every “knowing” must also be “un-known.” All theology, all human experience of the Holy, is frail and limited and needs to be questioned, precisely because it is human. Even the experience of students in revivals at Asbury. Only by pairing cataphatic experience with apophatic skepticism can we begin to put any weight on that experience and use it as a foundation for growth. 

It is too early yet to assess Asbury’s latest revival. But in assessing it, I will be looking for the ability and willingness of those who experience it to critique and probe it, to “unsay” what the moment has led them to say, to “unknow” that which they believe, in light of this experience, they know. I am not asking them to deny the validity of the experience. I am looking for humility in conclusions and openness in interpretations. I am looking for them to help me—help all of us—grow. Maybe, I am hoping, those students may have a new thing or two to teach even an old dog like me.