From Soul to Spirit, with Bob Mumford

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In response to my previous summary of Bob Mumford’s talk at NALC West, my friend Andrew Isaac asked in the comments:

could you elaborate on what Bob said about the nature of Agape in regards to pre-meditation? I’ve been having a hard time understanding why we can’t pre-meditate loving someone with Agape love.

That’s actually something I myself have wrestled with, so I figured its worth another blog post to explore. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do at least pretend to have some of the answers. 🙂

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Dear Andrew,

As with most sweeping generalizations, I believe it is essential to understand the context of Bob Mumford’s comments about Agape. In this case, I see Bob attempting to answer the question:

What does it take for us to love people with God’s supernatural, transforming love?

Or, to put it in the negative, what is it that prevents us from loving people that effectively?

The usual “religious” answer is that it is our own selfishness, laziness, or carnality — and that may well be true much of the time. But I suspect Bob is after bigger fish. Specifically, I think he is tackling the question of:

Why do devout, Bible-believing Christians often act — in all pre-meditated sincerity — in such un-loving ways?

I’m sure I don’t need to give you examples of such behavior; we see it all the time in the media, and even the short history of charismatic Christianity is full of such sad stories (on both sides!).

The answer, I believe, goes back to the idea of Arches. The root of the problem with arches from my point of view (and I think his) is that our underlying allegiance is not really to God Himself, but to our conception of God. The “arche” of our church/doctrine/theology is how we experience God in our intellect, affect (emotion), and intent — i.e., our “soul”. These aren’t necessarily wrong — we can’t live without them! — but they are inherently incomplete and inadequate. Which is why it is deadly if we take them too seriously.

Yes, if we obediently follow our Christian “arches” we will sometimes end up acting in ways consistent with God’s agape love — and that can be a good thing. But the problem is that we will also end up acting in ways opposed to God’s agape love — and that is a bad thing. Worse, if our focus is on our own arche — our human understanding of who God is and what He wants — we won’t ever recognize the difference! We will find ourselves acting more harsh (or indulgent) than God Himself, yet feel fully justified in doing so. Moreover, even the good things we do can lead us to pride in our own religious tradition, and a corresponding intolerance of others.

That, I believe, is why Bob stressed the importance of moving beyond our soul’s understanding (what we think, feel, or habitually do) into the supra-rational realm of the spirit. Rather than trying to feed our arche by increasing what we know (and what we know we know), we need to “commit violence against ourselves” by stepping out the boat and walking by faith in response to the prompting of God’s spirit. That is why the essence of agape is found in a submissive spirit — and why it is intrinsically super-natural.

Remember, Bob is not at all concerned with mere social conformity to some sort of Christian ethics. He wants to see the supernatural power of God unleashed through His church for the transformation of the world, that everything might be filled with His glory. And tragically, it is our very “religious morality” that is the greatest impediment to seeing that happen. We are so obsessed with covering our shame (speaking at least for myself 🙂 that we end up fighting tooth and nail to defend our arche — or destroy those of others — rather than dying to our pride in a way that allows God to extend His kingdom over us.

The solution, however, is not to seek to obliterate our arche. This is a controversial point, given our charismatic tradition of interpreting “arche” as evil spirits. However, I asked Bob this point blank, and he affirmed that (most of the time) the goal is in fact to redeem arche, not destroy them.

What that means to me is that we need to keep a “hole” in the middle of our arche (“the radical center” :-), where we acknowledge our incompleteness and the inadequacy of our doctrine, and explicitly (and continually) leave room for the Holy Spirit to work. And that it is only by the passionate pursuit of God’s transcendent agape in our spirits that we can maintain the healthy dynamic tension that keeps our religious arche (as necessary as they are!) from degenerating into idolatry.

I don’t know if this actually answers your question, but hopefully it provides some food for thought as you work it out on your own.

God bless,
— Ernie P.

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