[In the next several posts, I will share a chapter from my dissertation, The People of the Name: Oneness Pentecostalism in the United States (Florida State University, 1985). Each subsequent post will deal with one of the unique themes of Oneness Pentecostal belief and life listed in the final paragraph of this post.]
Oneness Pentecostal thinking can only result in a "theology of experience." Regrettably, the apologetic and polemic literature produced by Oneness publishers fails to even approximate any positive expression of the belief system apparent in the ritual worship of songs, testimonies, and sermons. This belief system, which arises from the act of worship, demands more than intellectual affirmation or moral obedience; rather it requires a passionate embrace of the Oneness forms of worship and sense of community as the root of Christian identity and the foundation for theological constructions and ethical obligations. The acts of worship become embedded in the emerging belief system and provide a unity for the larger framework of beliefs and meanings shared by Oneness Pentecostals. This belief system, arising from the act of worship—acts back upon Oneness worship—interpreting its significance and impact upon the arena of everyday life.
Peter Berger points out that the acts of religious ritual consist of two parts: "the things which have to be done" and "the things which have to be said” (usually words of interpretation for ritual actions). In these acts and accompanying interpretations, the participant confronts an ultimate reality and is "made contemporary" with the acts and words of the sacred realm. In such interpretations, the believer "recalls" the traditional meanings embodied in the religious society. Succinctly stated, "Religious ideation is grounded in religious activity." For Berger, the acts and interpretations of religious rituals "restore ever again the continuity between the present moment and the societal tradition, placing the experiences of the individual and the various groups of the society in the context of a history which transcends them all."1 It is precisely in the interpretations given to the acts of ritual worship—most specifically, the song, testimony, and sermon—that the distinctive Oneness belief system most clearly appears.
These interpretations impose a meaningful order upon the experiences of the individual and the community. This system of meaning, whether created or received, constitutes the basis for order through a consensus of "basic knowledge" within the community—shared interpretive schema, moral maxims, and collections of traditional wisdom. Berger points out that this "knowledge" is "pre-theoretical," that is, it is readily available to all within the community, not just to the scholar or theoretician. To participate in the society is to share this "knowledge," to apprehend and internalize its meaningful ordering. When socialized to the order, the individual can correctly interpret his own biography of experiences. The society, in turn, comes to act as the guardian of this meaningful order, objectively through institutionalizing its values and subjectively by structuring individual perceptions along uniform lines.2
Oneness ritual worship encapsulates in action the beliefs of its participants. Regular church services provide a "routinized framework" around which believers orient their lives. The shared symbols and beliefs of this framework give meaning to the intensity of the divine-human encounter in worship and serve to structure social relationships within the community.3 This framework also sets the community apart from the values of the dominant society (although at many times the two "worldviews" intersect).4
From the ritual acts of worship and the interpretations ascribed to them, the entirety of Oneness Pentecostal theological perception, social orientation, and moral direction arises. In testimony, the believer confirms his own experience of overcoming past disorder and despair when embracing the new religious "worldview" and its attendant notions of community. Such individual affirmations edify and encourage the congregation, and, in turn, elicit the communal seal of acceptance upon the individual. In song, the community relives the moment of its collective past: the journey from burdened, misdirected heaviness to joyful, ordered freedom. The stirring gospel message set to music strengthens communal bonds and demonstrates the impact of the "theology of experience" back upon the ritual worship itself. In the sermon, the preacher and the congregation join voices in the proclamation and experience of the divine presence. Here, the message is "fleshed out"—the realm of belief ceases to be abstract and cerebral and becomes real, substantial, and concrete in the experiences of community initiation and renewal.5
Several recurring themes emerge from Oneness testimonies, songs, and sermons which function as the central foundations in the Oneness belief system. The themes, although not systematic, to a great extent encompass the whole of Oneness distinctiveness. Focusing on the eschatological "revelation" of the divine name "Jesus" and its centrality in the life of the believer, these themes differentiate Oneness life and worship from other expressions of Pentecostalism. These themes include: (1) the "Name" and the presence of God in the worshiping community; (2) the "Name," the "concreteness" of Christian salvation, and the assurance of the believer; (3) the "Name," the "perfected humanity" of Christ, and the redeemed life of the believer; and (4) the "Name" and the certain vindication of the future.
1Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1969), pp. 40-41.
2Ibid., pp. 19-22.
3Arthur E. Paris, Black Pentecostalism: Southern Religion to an Urban World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), pp. 93-99.
4See Marion Dearman, "Christ and Conformity: A Study of Pentecostal Values," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 13 (1974): 437-53.
5For a comparative analysis of these elements in black Pentecostalism, see Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 99-106.
Next post: The "Name" and the presence of God in the worshiping community.