Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pietist theology for civil discourse

From Harrisonburg, VA
Philipp Jakob Spener
Forefather of Pietism & neck braces
There's a great piece over at Chris Gehrz's blog, The Pietist Schoolman, a guest post from Christian Collins Winn. Gehrz and Winn are both professors at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the post is Winn's address to the school's opening chapel service yesterday:

Pietism and Civil Discourse

In the piece, Winn identifies four characteristics from the Pietist tradition, specifically from its forefather, Philipp Jakob Spener, characteristics that comprise a Pietist theology for civil discourse. (Civil discourse being something that is sorely needed these days, and something I tried to model yesterday in my response to a piece by Michael Shank on Mennonites and politics.)

But here are the four characteristics with some commentary:

  1. A spirit of good faith - In virtue terms, I'd call this "charity" in the more classical sense of caritas, which connotes "costliness, esteem, affection." A related virtue would be kindness.
  2. A genuine openness to being taught - Winn rightly notes this requires the virtue of humility. We cannot assume beforehand that we are in the right, and we must always be open for the pleasant surprise of being wrong, learning something new, or understanding someone at a deeper level.
  3. A love for one's neighbor - I'll note here the brilliant quote I came across from Jamie Smith the other day: "The neighbor could be a friend or an enemy, a foreigner or a brother. The call to love the neighbor is a call to love all of them - that is why all of Jesus' injunctions to love are taken up in the call to love the neighbor."
  4. The hopeful commitment to God's peace - Hope and peace both being virtues/gifts/fruits of the Holy Spirit that, along with joy, ensure that we not become dour and spiritlessly duty-bound, where life becomes "just one damned thing after another."
When I came as a Brethren to a Mennonite seminary in 2008, I quickly fell in love with the Anabaptist tradition, particularly through the work of John Howard Yoder. Before seminary I knew that Brethren and Mennonites were historically related somehow, and it had something to do with Anabaptism. But I also knew that Brethren were connected to another theological tradition, that of Pietism. Since Mennonites don't explicitly associate themselves with Pietism the way Brethren do, I simply didn't learn much about the "other half" of my Brethren tradition. But I did learn a few things...

Pietism after Karl Barth (including today) is a dirty word. "Pietist" is an epithet taken to mean - among other things - any form of Christian expression that is individualistic, emotion/experience-focused, and not particularly concerned with matters of ethics or serious discipleship. While the one book I read in seminary about Pietism helped dispel this negative caricature, I still see "pietist" deployed in this pejorative sense in contemporary theological discourse. Even my heroes - Yoder and Hauerwas - use the word as a put-down.

And since Brethren aren't exactly known for deep understandings about their own tradition, my resources have been few to help portray Pietism in a positive light, and one that would have import to contemporary Christian discipleship. So it thrills me to no end that I've found Gehrz and Winn, who are drawing on the riches of the Pietist tradition in ways that completely short-circuit the ways in which "pietist" has come to function in theological discourse. (Indeed, theological discourse could take some lessons from the characteristics above!) They help show what Brethren have long known (or at least felt): There is deep continuity between the Anabaptist and Pietist traditions because of their concern for costly Christian discipleship in God's reconciling work toward the peaceable kingdom come.

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