It is not insanity when MPs bark or roar

Faith and Reason Dr Patrick Dixon, a medically qualified evangelical church leader, this week defends the `Toronto Blessing' against its many critics.
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The Independent Online
When thousands of Christians start falling over in church, laughing, shouting, moaning, groaning, wriggling, writhing, shaking, rolling and jerking you may think it is time to call in the psychiatrist.

However these things are happening to the most unlikely people. A quietly spoken Conservative MP recently fell over at church, a judge has been shaking when praying for others, a merchant banker has been incoherent with laughter and a bishop has crawled on the floor roaring like a lion.

As a doctor and church leader I have observed these phenomena over the past year in every personality type, in large meetings and small, after rousing sermons or before, in times of silence or during worship, after prayer or before prayer has begun.

Those affected often describe an experience of God beyond logic or language. Their accounts are strikingly similar to classic descriptions of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) found in the Old Testament prophets, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the writings of St Paul and accounts of Christian mystics and charismatics over 2,000 years.

There are also clear parallels with ASCs after sensory deprivation, LSD, fasting, anaesthesia, high-altitude flying and techniques of meditation. The human brain has three states: waking, sleeping and somewhere between. It is in this third state that we usually have our most profound spiritual experiences, when awareness fades of the immediate and we become sensitised to another dimension.

St Paul tells us to fix our eyes on what is unseen. He describes being caught up into a ``third heaven'' beyond words. Peter also knew transcendental states: Dr Luke tells us that Peter fell into a trance when hungry - fasting is a common ASC-inducer, which is presumably why so many religions promote fasting as well as prayer.

Fasting alters brain function, making us less able to process sensory data. As a result we often feel more detached and spiritually aware. Repetitive praying or liturgy can also settle brain activity, bringing tranquillity and spiritual openness. For charismatics, speaking in tongues can have a similar effect. It turns off language and logic centres of the brain, and is a rapid ASC-inducer.

ASCs do not bring us into God's presence, but they can make us aware of a presence to be brought into. ASCs can be as intoxicating as alcohol, hence the early disciples were accused of drunkenness, and Paul tells the Ephesians not to get drunk with wine but to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

I have seen people so drunk after church that they have been unable to walk or drive home. I have seen euphoria in the face of tragedy and deep sadness despite apparent good fortune. Disinhibition is common with long suppressed emotions bubbling to the surface, an explanation perhaps of some of the most bizarre manifestations.

So is this a genuine move of God or just emotionalism or worse? If one believes God exists, and also that He created people to have a relationship with Him, then it is hardly surprising to find that this relationship can affect us physically and emotionally as well as spiritually.

In any group of people seeking God there will always be a mix of human, divine and other spiritual forces operating together. The greatest test is future history: what will be the lasting results of this new wave of emotional faith? The early signs are of widespread personal renewal, of many thousands finding new love for God, a new sense of purpose and direction, a new call to service, a new desire to share their faith with others, to worship and pray.

Some have been disturbed or offended by what they see as dangerous emotionalism. Others have felt inadequate or excluded. In our society the old school continues to promote self-discipline and a stiff upper lip, while a new generation promotes self-awareness and emotional release. The same culture clash is found in the Church and is at the root of the conflict over recent events.

One thing is certain. The Church in Britain will never be quite the same again. What is happening today has followed several decades of change. Half of all evangelicals are now charismatics who promote emotional faith - and the Archbishop of Canterbury is one too. Unlike charismatic churches, the majority of ``stiff upper lip'' congregations are shrinking, especially where there is vague doctrine and a loss of vision.

Recent events in Britain make most sense when one realises that we are on the edge of the biggest spiritual awakening the world has ever seen, with more people now finding faith in Christ every month than has ever happened in the whole of recorded history. Mass hysteria? Certainly not. Infectious faith, yes, and a lot more of it to come.