While it would seem that Pietism and Postmodernism share little to no common ground, Roger E. Olson notes that in fact there are several points where they are congenial with each other. Pietism was a movement for church renewal among German Lutherans in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. Its ethos of conversional piety eventually became part of the fabric of especially American religious life. Postmodernism is a cultural condi-tion reacting against rationalism in philosophy and religion. As different as these seem to be, they share common ground in epistemology, spirituality, and ethics. Mr. Olson is Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.
No one could be blamed for asking, “What does Pietism have to do with Postmodernism and vice versa?” – besides the fact they both begin with “P?” Most people’s images of these two terms and the phenomena to which they refer would put them poles apart if not dead opposites. The common image of Pietism is super-spiritual fundamentalism, Bible-thumping absolutism, religious fanaticism. The common image of Postmodernism is super-suspicious relativism, cognitive nihilism, destructive criticism. How could two movements, if that is what they are, be less alike?
And yet, of course, we know the popular images of religious and cultural movements can be and often are simply wrong – even if a kernel of truth lurks somewhere deep inside them. My own years-long study of Pietism1 has convinced me that true, classical, historical Pietism and the authentic Pietist ethos or attitude does not fit the stereotypes. The Pietist movement was relatively short lived. Most historians date it to the publication of German Lutheran theologian Philip Jakob Spener’s Pia Disideria in 1675. It was continued by Spener’s disciples August Herman Francke and Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf. After the mid-eighteenth century it became less of a movement and more of an ethos – melting into the Protestant world in various permutations. John Wesley was profoundly influenced by it, as was Jonathan Edwards.
The hallmarks of true Pietism (as distinct from its distortions and caricatures) include belief that authentic Christianity always includes a dimension of inner spiritual transformation accompanied by religious affections. Also, deep, heartfelt emotion should be a part of genuine conversion, which must continue in a life of conversional piety or devotion centered on Jesus Christ and his cross, the Bible and mission. Without denying the objective aspect of salvation – what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and in justification – Pietism emphasizes what God does in us through the Holy Spirit. That is to say, it adds the subjective dimension to the objective. The distinctive cornerstone doctrine of Pietism is the “inner man” which is the seat of a person’s affections and will. It is there that God works salvation and from there springs knowledge of God that matters and a transformed life of personal relationship with God.2
A few years ago I decided it was time to become better acquainted with Postmodernism – something I had avoided far too long. I had read articles and even a book or two, but the longer I skimmed across the surface of that vast and deep ocean (or is it a mirage?), the less I understood of it. The experts seemed to disagree about it – like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. My deeper investigation into Postmodernism helped a little, but I have come away from even that almost as confused as before.
Before offering my admittedly debatable definition of Postmodernism, I would like to point out that Pietism and Postmodernism do obviously share something in common: certain accusations commonly made against them. For example, Pietism is accused of individualism; so is Postmodernism. Postmodernism is accused of swamping truth in subjectivism; so is Pietism. Pietism is accused of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism; so is Postmodernism. So, right away, they have something in common. That by itself, of course, hardly justifies my thesis, which is simply that Pietism and Postmodernism are congenial with each other in certain ways that may make Pietism a useful resource in Christian mission to Postmodern people. That is a modest thesis; I have no intention of going out on a limb and claiming that these are two peas in a pod or partners in church renewal. All I hope to do here is demonstrate a certain compatibility between them that may point toward a new relevance of Pietism for this Postmodern age.
So, what is Postmodernism? It seems to be one of those phenomena that you know is there but cannot quite pin down. One of my most helpful guides in under-standing its general contours and outlines is a little article entitled “Christianity and Postmodernity” by Alan Padgett published in Christian Scholar’s Review in 1996.3 Padgett does not offer a simple definition such as “incredulity toward all metanarratives,”4 as useful as that is, but offers instead a thick description of the “Postmodern condition” which he rightly describes as a cultural “attitude”:
Reason understood as all-encompassing and all-powerful; the Self understood as an inde-pendent, self-sustaining substance; and Truth understood as pure, absolute and self-evident: these are rejected by many thinkers today, not just French ones. I am, for one, inclined to say that the world of rationalism is a world well lost.5
Padgett continues by discussing four images concerning the way Christian scholars have treated the Postmodern challenge: the ostrich, the bogeyman, the best buddy and the critical dialogue partner. Padgett recommends the stance of “critical dialogue partner” and I agree. This means, he says, studying the best Postmodern thinkers carefully and paying attention to their insights without embracing them uncritically. That is what I intend to do here: simply take a look at some of Postmodernism’s basic insights and compare them with Pietism’s attitudes toward the same phenomena. I hope to show that while Pietists and Postmodernists may think they have nothing in common, in fact, some of their basic impulses are congenial.
I have to admit “up front,” that I am not being entirely original in exploring this comparison. My interest in comparing Pietism and Postmodernism arose out of late-night conversations with my late friend and co-author Stanley Grenz who considered himself both a critical Pietist and a critical Postmodernist. For about two years before his untimely death, he was urging me to write a book on Pietism and Postmodernism because we shared a similar interest in them. This article hardly fulfills that assignment and is indebted to Stan who worked on a similar comparison between Pietism and Evangelicalism in Revisioning Evangeli-cal Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (InterVarsity Press, 1993). Another theologian who has attempted to reach a kind of rapprochement between Pietism and Postmodernism is Carl Raschke whose book The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Baker, 2004) does not use the term “Pietism” but clearly has something like what I mean by it in mind.
One irony in this project, if it can be called that, is that many scholars of Pietism see it as inextricably linked to the rise of modernity in the seventeenth century. For example, F. Ernest Stoeffler says of Pietism that it
helped shift the religious emphasis of [an] entire age. It was a shift from “true” doctrine to right action, from theological speculation to devotional earnestness, from ontological to psychological interest, from an intellectualized to an experiential approach to the Christian Faith, from systematic theology to biblical exposition, from that which God has done in his-tory to that which he wants to do in every human being now, from passive reliance on God’s initiative to human responsibility. Thus we find it [Pietism] constitutes a comprehensive re-orientation of Lutheranism toward the concerns of the modern age.6
Editor and translator of Pia Desideria Theodore Tappert also connects Pietism with modernity: “The Pietist theologians not-withstanding their diversity are the bridge from the Reformations of the sixteenth century to the Enlightenment and beyond.”7 My claim here is that we should now understand “beyond” as referring to the post-Enlightenment, Postmodern cultural condition in which we find ourselves. In other words, I see Pietism, rightly understood, as something of a bridge between the Reformation and postmodernity with which it has more in common than with Enlightenment-inspired modernity with its rationalism, onto-theology, individualism, and highly systematized theologies.
In this article I want to examine three main areas of congeniality between Pietism and Postmodernism without claiming to reach any definite conclusions about compatibility. In other words, I am not so presumptuous as to assert that Pietism and Postmodernism can peacefully join hands as if they were long-lost lov-ers and then live and work together in peaceful harmony. For one thing, peaceful harmony is not exactly part of Postmodernism’s DNA. Inevitably, Postmodernists will be somewhat suspicious of Pietism because of its religious enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I believe that in at least three (and possibly five) areas of life, these two movements can find common ground.
The first area of congeniality is epistemology – specifically religious episte-mology. How do we know religiously? What roles do faith and reason play in the formation of religious beliefs? Postmodernism is, of course, highly suspicious of totalizing truth claims and especially those that claim to be provable by universal reason. Listen to Postmodern philosopher-theologian John Caputo as he describes what Enlightenment-inspired modernity did to religion:
In modernity, the question of God is profoundly recast. Instead of beginning on our knees, we are all seated solemnly and with stern faces on the hard benches of the court of Reason as it is called into session. God is brought before the court, like a defendant with his hat in his hand, and required to give an account of himself, to show his ontological papers, if he expects to win the court’s approval. In such a world, from Anselm’s8 [and we might add the Pietists’] point of view, God is already dead, even if you conclude the proof is valid, because whatever you think you have proven or disproven is not the God he experiences in prayer and liturgy but a philosophical idol. Is there or is there not a sufficient reason for this being so?, the court wants to know. If there are reasons, are they empirical or a priori? Are they good or bad? That is what the court has assembled to decide. What does the defendant have to say for himself? What’s that you say? Nothing but a few hymns, some pious prayers, and a bit of incense? Whom can he call in his defense? Shakers and Quakers and Spirit-seekers all in heat? Next case!9
One can almost hear Pietist prophet Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf proclaim-ing “Amen!” in the background! Together with all Pietists throughout the ages, Zinzendorf believed in “an experiential approach to religious knowing.”10 Put most simply by Zinzendorf, the Pietist approach is an “inward vision” in which “my heart tells me so.”11
For those Postmodern thinkers who have any taste for religion, experiential fideism is the alternative to Enlightenment foundationalist rationalism. With Blaise Pascal, they ask rationalist skeptics and Christian apologists alike, “Do you love by reason?” and declare, “the heart has reasons the reason knows not of.” Postmodern religious thinker Peter Rollins argues that religious rationalism, foundationalism, that seeks rational demonstrations of religious faith, violates the very nature of faith. Of Scottish common-sense realism that lies at the root of so much conservative Christian apologetics and theology he says, “It is precisely this approach to faith that Postmodern religious thinkers question and critique as philosophically untenable, religiously problematic, and biblically unjustified.”12 Like most Postmodern religious thinkers, he prefers the approach of Pascal, not because it avoids the hard questions posed by reason but because it does more justice to the nature of religion which necessarily includes personal involvement and commitment. For Rollins, like Pascal, foundationalist rationalism inevitably treats God as an object of detached contemplation whereas religion, at its best, knows God as mystery and does not treat God as a problem. Rollins puts it succinctly by saying that God is “one who is received by us without ever being directly conceived by us.”13
The spirit of Pietism resonates with this inward, fideistic approach to religious knowledge whole-heartedly. Commenting on commonalities between Karl Barth and Pietism, Eberhard Busch notes that for both of them, and this could be said of Postmodernism as well, “theological truth is not a general, ‘abstract’ truth but concrete truth that can only be heard, thought and told when one is existentially involved.”14 That is not to say, however, that Pietism bases truth itself on subjective experience; experience of God inwardly, including transformation of the affections and commitment to the cause of God, is not productive of truth but the subjective appropriation of truth. Pietism scholar Dale Brown put it well:
Pietism’s theology makes experience more a receptive medium than a productive source of revelation. It was asserted that the corrective influence of Pietism was necessary to point to the truth we are experiencing today—the truth that feelings are a valid part of life, that the response of the total person is to be affirmed.15
feelings are not the source of religious truth; they are only its true mode of recep-tion and ground of certainty. Pietist scholar Gary Sattler notes that “Contrary to some popular opinion, even among the well-educated, the Pietists did not criticize reason without qualification. Reason has its proper place in the scheme of things.”16 For true, classical, historical Pietism, reason is a servant of faith but not its master. With Anselm, they believed in order to understand and reason could help in that understanding project, but it could not take the lead in knowing God.
Zinzendorf was particularly outspoken in rejecting rationalism in religion, even though it would be wrong to call him anti-intellectual. He was an avid reader and deep thinker, a highly educated man of learning and letters. However, for him, as for many Postmodernists, religion is an affair of the heart more than of the intellect. Against the Orthodox party of the German churches he declared, “as soon as truth becomes a system, one does not possess it.”17 Stoeffler could be speaking about all Pietists, however, when he writes that for Zinzendorf, “meaningful religious faith was trust in God as revealed in Christ, based upon the testimony of Scripture, authenticated in personal religious experience, and productive of an affective identification with Christ which is clearly felt.”18 One can almost hear Caputo and Rollins and other anti-religious, religious Postmodernists heartily exclaiming “Amen!”
One of my favorite contemporary (recently deceased) Pietists was Donald Bloesch, longtime professor of theology at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and author of dozens of books on spirituality, ethics, and theology. His book The Ground of Certainty (Eerdmans, 1971) is a defense of Pietist epistemology that parallels Rollins closely. One has to wonder what a conversation between them would have been like—Bloesch the buttoned-down, silver-haired, sophisticated seminary professor and Rollins, the cockney-speaking, long-haired, baggy-jeaned, scruffy Postmodern hipster. I think they would have found much in common. Like Rollins (and the Postmodernists who inspire him such as Caputo), Bloesch abjured rational apologetics by which he clearly meant both evidentialism and coherentism—both evangelical forms of foundationalist thinking. In true Pietist and Postmodern fashion, he declared that
What apologists have often failed to see is that the Gospel cannot be taught; it must be caught through the contagion of the Holy Spirit. We can make the Gospel intelligible, but only the Spirit can make it knowable. Both faith and the condition for faith are given by the Spirit of God as He acts in the preaching of the Gospel message.19
Where Bloesch’s and original Pietism’s religious epistemology may disconnect with that of Caputo and Rollins and other Postmodernists is in the emphasis on conversion as necessary to knowing God truly. According to Bloesch, “what the unbeliever needs is not rational persuasion but supernatural regeneration.”20 This sounds more like classical Pietist leader August Hermann Francke than any even post-secular, Postmodern thinker. However, even for the latter, such as Rollins, some kind of transformative event is necessary for “receiving God” that transcends “conceiving God.”
Carl Raschke, Postmodern and evangelical by his own confession and testimony, argues that this fideistic epistemology of transformative reception is common ground between both impulses and pragmatically productive: “The theme of subjective truth, properly understood,” he argues, “has been far more congenial to the expansion of the gospel throughout the ages than any canon of propositional certitude.”21
The second area of congeniality between Pietism, rightly understood, and at least religious Postmodernism is spirituality. Again, I do not claim Pietism and Postmodernism converge at this point; all I hope to demonstrate—necessarily in a cursory fashion—is that there exists some common ground between them especially compared with certain non-Pietist approaches to spirituality.
Pietist spirituality is decidedly an alternative to sacramental and intellectual spirituality and has much in common with Christian mysticism. The first Pietists such as Johann Arndt, Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, Gerhard Tersteegen, Gottfried Arnold, and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger were influenced to varying degrees and in different ways by Meister Eckhart, Thomas á Kempis, Jacob Boehme, Caspar Schwenkfeld and Jean de Labadie. At least the churchly Pietists wanted to tame mysticism and esotericism within the framework of the historical church tradition; they definitely did not reject sacraments or the life of the mind. With the mystics they agreed that “religion is an affair of the heart”22 more than the head and revolved around relationship with God more than outward rituals and ceremonies. Their main difference from mysticism was their emphasis on intimacy with Jesus Christ over ontological union with God. Especially the churchly Pietists sought to retain the subject-object relationship between the believer and God while at the same time overcoming distance.
Pietism arose in an ecclesiastical and cultural context dominated by Protestant scholastic orthodoxy that emphasized right thinking and right worshiping. K. James Stein comments that “the Scholastic spirit cast a pall of intellectualism over the Christian faith. . . . It was stated that with few exceptions, pastors avoided any stress upon [sic] inwardness.”23 In reaction, Pietism did stress inwardness with Spener and others drawing a bold line between merely “historical, dead faith” and “true, living, divine, saving faith.”24 And by “true, living, divine, saving faith,” Spener and the other early Pietists most definitely meant a vital, vibrant, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Stoeffler reports that they “regarded the essence of Christianity to be a personal relationship to God expressed in a life lived according to his will.”25 Again, Zinzendorf expressed this Christ mysticism of early Pietism most vividly by preaching that “a soul most tenderly in love with the Savior may be ignorant of a hundred truths and only concentrate on Jesus’ wounds and death.”26 Yet even Zinzendorf did not reject doctrinal confession; he simply refused to separate confession and experience as if a Christian could have one without the other.27 And none of the early churchly Pietists rejected sacraments; Spener affirmed baptism and the Lord’s Supper as essential to vital Christian life, but he criticized the belief in the ex opera operatum idea of sacramental grace into which he thought the established churches of his day had fallen.
One scholar of historical Pietism has labeled its spirituality a “mysticism of action.”28 I prefer to describe it as a spirituality of inward transformation that leads to outward action. This Pietist spirituality may properly be labeled “conversional piety” because it begins with a personal experience of the transforming power of God in the inner person and works itself out in a life of obedience to God’s will fueled by love for God and neighbor. This spirituality is born out of conversion which Pietist leader August Hermann Francke described as “awakening from a dream.”29 Through repentance and faith in response to the divine initiative of the Word and Spirit, the individual enters into a dynamic relationship with God now present in his or her life. This initiation experience involves a “complete existential reorientation”30 that ushers in a “joyful, affective, unutterably satisfying personal relationship with the ‘Savior,’”31 the result of which is a life of self-sacrificing service. The point of conversional piety is not simply to have warm, fuzzy feelings and a sense of God’s personal presence; it is more importantly to be transformed into a person whose delight it is to please God by serving others.
Contemporary Pietist theologian Bloesch calls this Pietist spiritual ethos “Christ-mysticism” and “Christocentric mysticism.”32 However, he says, it is rooted not in a neo-Platonic worldview like much Christian mysticism, especially in the Catholic tradition, but in what he calls “biblical personalism.”33 The difference, as noted earlier, is between union with God and personal relationship with God. Bloesch distances his Pietist vision of spirituality from Catholic mysticism and Protestant focus on forensic salvation. “We must affirm,” he avers, “faith as a living experience as well as decision and trust.”34 But he also distances this “living experience” from any kind of quietism or otherworldliness: “What we propose is a holiness in the world”35 that is not of this world. For Bloesch, as for all true Pietists, this spirituality of transformation leading to love activism is supernatural; it is not something that can simply be willed. It has to come from the power of God. But it has to be received; the transforming power of God can be resisted. The instrument of the spiritual life on the human side is simply non-resistance to transforming power of grace in one’s life. Hear Zinzendorf regarding the passive role of the human person in this transformative spirituality:
There is no active condition at all, no, nothing to which a man is to contribute a grain of reason, skill, or his own power, for then he would always have an excuse. On the contrary, the condition is passive and presupposes only that something which is completely in our power be avoided. If we only abstain in fact from all action, contrary resolution and op-position, if we only are passive and gladly passive to let good be done to us, then there is no difficulty in obtaining salvation. What then at last is the condition? None other than believing in Him; not looking upon the Savior as an imposter and upon His teaching as a fable; honoring His suffering and death as a divine truth.36
But when one does that, and does it daily, according to Zinzendorf, his whole life is transformed and works of love flow forth automatically.
Where lies the point of congeniality between this Pietist account of spirituality and Postmodernism? To be sure, many, if not most, self-consciously Postmodern people would cringe at some of the Pietist language about spirituality that sounds romantic and sentimental—especially as it focuses on feelings. But, as important as feelings are to Pietists, I do not think it is right to inflate that dimension of Pietist spirituality too much. The emphasis is rather on personal, inward transformation through the reception of an “event” and consequent action on behalf of God’s glory and neighbor’s good. This Postmodernists can relate to.
Allow me to go out on a limb and suggest that two words best express the common spiritual ground shared by Pietism and Postmodernism: orthopathy and orthopraxy (or orthopraxis). Without denigrating or denying the value of orthodoxy, Pietism elevates to greater importance, especially for spiritual vitality, right experience and right action. Postmodernists may cringe a bit at the adjective “right,” but they can relate to experience and action as lying at the center of spirituality.
John Caputo’s little book On Religion emphasizes the dimension of experience Pietism and Postmodernism: Points of Congeniality as centrally crucial for authentic religious life. For him, Augustine’s conversion experience is paradigmatic for true spirituality; it was, he insists, experience of the “impossible” that is life- and earth-shattering. Some might question whether Caputo has anything like Pietist conversion in mind, but I hear echoes of Francke and Zinzendorf in statements such as this: “Experience is really experience, something that really happens, something to write (home) about, only when we are pushed to the limit of the possible, to the edge of the impossible, driven to an extreme, which forces us to be at our best.”37 This experience of the impossible, love, transforms one’s identity and opens him or her up to a life of ethical activism for the Kingdom of God.38
Peter Rollins is a person rooted in the evangelical tradition of Protestant Christianity who has been deeply influenced by Caputo. In How (Not) to Speak of God, Rollins distinguishes between the ideas of “Truth” and” truth” with the latter designating a Greek, metaphysical understanding and the former describing a more Hebraic and biblical understanding. According to Rollins, the correct biblical understanding of Truth is never simply acquiring and understanding facts; it is a relationship. “The Judeo-Christian view of truth,” Rollins writes,
is concerned with having a relationship with the Real (God) that results in us transforming reality. The emphasis is thus not on description but on transformation. This perspective completely short-circuits the long-redundant debate as to whether truth is subjective or objective, for here Truth is the ungraspable Real (objective) that transforms the individual (subjective.)39
Rollins categorizes Truth, with a capital “T,” as “soteriological truth.”40 “The Truth in Christianity,” he says, “is not described but experienced”41 and it always takes the form of a transforming relationship that results in a life of love “rather than the affirmation of a theoretical, dogmatic system.”42 I can only imagine that Zinzendorf would beam at this statement of Christian spirituality. Whether Rollins would beam at Zinzendorf’s or other early Pietists’ emphasis on emotions and feelings is another matter; perhaps he would not. But my claim here is not that Pietism and Postmodernism are the same with regard to spirituality, only that they share some significant common ground. For both, insofar as Postmodernists talk about spirituality at all, the emphasis is on transformation, relationship, and activism. Both tend to downplay or minimize the importance of assent to propositions or participation in ceremonies and rituals. For both, the keynote is inwardness with outward behavior flowing naturally from an inward transformation.
A third area of congeniality between Pietism and Postmodernism is ethics. In his controversial book Against Ethics (Indiana University Press, 1993), John Caputo talks about a “poetics of obligation” that replaces traditional ethics as casuistry. His main thesis is that ethics—as knowing what action is right in abstraction from an ethical situation—is dangerous because it makes ethics safe. Obligation to the other, Caputo argues, following Emmanuel Levinas, is never safe; it always involves risk and demands what is impossible. Ethics deals with what is possible; obligation deals with what is impossible. The relevant point here is that Caputo views ethics, rightly understood, as functioning primarily in the vertical dimen-sion. That is, the call of the transcendent is absolutely crucial whereas rules and laws can actually serve to undermine right action. What is needed for right ac-tion, Postmodernists argue, is not rules so much as character—virtuous character defined as openness to risk in absolute obligation to the other.
Rollins borrows a page from Caputo and Levinas in rejecting ethical systems in favor of transformation of subjectivity by the “event” of the undeconstructible power of love. “We need to rediscover Christianity,” he avers,
as a religion without religion [and I might add “without ethics”] that focuses upon [sic] the miracle of faith as that which transforms our subjectivity to such an extent that we do not need law (which causes us to move toward sin), but which overcomes the law with love. For love fulfills the law by transcending it. Here everything is permissible even though not everything is beneficial.43
Rollins does not leave “love” lying there as a vague, abstract feeling of benevo-lence but fills it with specific content. For him, as also for Caputo and Levinas and many Postmodernists, “love” means obligation to the excluded, the powerless, the nobodies, the nothings.44 But this obligation cannot come from a system imposed; it has to arise from inward transformation by the “miracle of faith.”
So where is the congeniality between this Postmodern approach to ethics and Pietism? It should be obvious. For all Pietists, the horizontal dimension of religion arises from the vertical dimension. And the vertical, if it touches and transforms the “inner man,” inexorably gives rise to the horizontal. Stein notes that for Spener “reborn persons emulate their divine parent in manifesting pure holiness and righteousness, especially a pure love and desire for everything that is right and good”45 – especially for the neighbor. The same was true for Francke for whom “Following Christ begins in an interior way and . . . moves into the exterior.”46 Pietism scholar Richard Gawthrop labels Pietist ethics a “mysticism of action”47 because of its emphasis on inwardness giving rise to outward works of love. Stoeffler writes about the “anti-legalistic ethic” of Pietism that stresses “doing what comes naturally in an intimate union with Christ.”48 Clearly, Pietism’s approach to ethics foreshadowed Postmodern “virtue ethics” with its focus on inward transformation of subjectivity resulting in character formation focused on love.
Pietist scholar Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom labels Pietism an “ethic of convergence”49 by which she means the union of character and action.50 She skillfully surveys the ethics of the early Pietists, especially Spener, Francke and Johanna Eleonora Peterson, and demonstrates that together they taught and lived “an embodied Christian ethic that transformed the church and world around them in ways far beyond following a set of principles or list of rules for faithful living.”51 The early Pietists believed in and practiced spiritual transformation for character formation for right action.52 Francke’s curriculum at his Armen-Schule in Halle focused completely on character development and sought to transform the social order through producing converted, transformed young men and women possessed of strong Christian character that would go forth from the orphanage to “rebuild the earthly with an eye toward the New Jerusalem.”53 Few critics of Pietism are aware of how central concern for the poor was to Francke’s ministry in Halle and beyond. In his famous sermon “The Duty to the Poor,” he “framed all material goods by saying that God gives them to us so that we might use them to help our poor, suffering neighbor.”54 According to Clifton-Soderstrom, “everything Christians do, Francke preached, is to be motivated by sincere love for the poor.”55 But his preaching was not aimed at manipulating or coercing his hearers into caring for the poor; it was aimed at facilitating divine transformation of their character so that they would want to help the poor. Clifton-Soderstrom concludes that “at the heart of Pietist ethics are a practice-centered ethic that finds its source in the formation of Christian character”56 that “enacted justice, compassion, mercy and evangelism.”57
It would be a stretch, and going out on a limb too far, to claim that Pietism and Postmodernism actually converge in ethics; there are stark differences. One that should be mentioned is between Pietism’s implicit metaphysic of presence – the complete divine presence in Jesus and his indwelling of the believer – and Postmodernism’s consistent rejection of any metaphysics of presence. Connected to that is Postmodernism’s emphasis on the category of the “impossible” and its use of deconstruction that challenges every achievement that has the potential to become absolute or idolatrous. On the other hand, Zinzendorf may have been the first Christian deconstructionist insofar as he frequently announced that every attempt to put Christianity into a system kills it. One has to wonder if Rollins read Zinzendorf when he says that “Christianity . . . undermines every system.”58 In spite of clear differences, however, the congeniality of Pietist and Postmodern ethics stands out insofar as both place the emphasis on inward transformation resulting in outward, voluntary obligation that transcends mere ethics.
There are two more areas of congeniality I could talk about, but that would take me beyond the limits of this article. They are community and theology. Contrary to the claims of many critics of both Pietism and Postmodernism, they are not essentially individualistic even if both stress the importance of the individual. Pietism scholar Peter Vogt, writing about Zinzendorf, says that for him and other early Pietists, “there is no Christianity without community.”59 Rollins devotes a section of The Fidelity of Betrayal to “Forging Faith Communities.” Following his mentor Jacques Derrida, Caputo is wary of communities because of their tendency to suppress individuality and otherness, but even he affirms an irreducible com-munity orientation to human existence and Christian faith.
Finally, with regard to theology, while secular Postmodernists are, of course, either indifferent or hostile, religious Postmodernists like Caputo and Rollins share a common suspicion of traditional systematic theology that defends dogmatic confessions and involves metaphysical speculation. Caputo reminds Christians that
loving God in spirit and in truth is not like having the right scientific theory that covers all the facts and makes all the alternative explanations look bad. . . . The faithful [and he clearly means theologians!] need to concede that they do not cognitively know what they believe in any epistemologically rigorous way.60
Rollins criticizes theological systems as “human abstractions, which can so eas-ily draw us into a conceptual prison” and he warns against theology that even inadvertently reduces the encounter with God to “an idolatrous understanding.”61
Again, it would be foolish to claim that Pietism and Postmodernism converge at this point. However, they share a common concern that theology be concrete, not abstract; practical, not speculative; and modest, not absolute or totalizing. According to Pietism scholar Brown, “Instead of charging that Pietism developed no theology because of its emphasis on practice and life, it is more accurate to maintain that it fostered a different theology: namely, a theology of experience, of regeneration, or of devotion.”62 The original Pietists, including Zinzendorf, did not eschew theology or confessions altogether, although they did eschew speculative theology and rigid orthodoxy. For them, theology ought to edify believers; what did not edify should be shunned.63 Theology and doctrine, for them, was second order language with a ministerial and not a magisterial purpose. It was valuable only insofar as it aided in the church’s main task of transformation.
By way of conclusion, then, what is the point of this somewhat Quixotic experiment in discovering common ground between Pietism and Postmodernism? It certainly has not been to demonstrate some hidden identity or even secret friendship between them as if they had a hidden handshake and all apparent conflicts are just a disguise to cover up their mutual conspiracy to destroy orthodoxy and modernity. Rather, it has been to explore possible facets of Pietism and Postmodernism that might show some congeniality between them. The purpose of that is to aid the churches in their efforts to reach Postmodernists in mission and evangelism. Rediscovering a Pietist heritage, purified of the dubious accretions it has acquired over the centuries, may help the church speak to Postmodern people who are searching for authenticity and inward transformation.
Cite this article
- See my chapter “Pietism: Myths and Realities” in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, eds. Christian Collins Winn, et al. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).
- For a brief synopsis of Pietism, see Dale Brown, Understanding Pietism (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 1996). For a fuller and more scholarly critical summary, see F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (Leiden, Netherlands and Boston, MA: Brill Academic, 1965).
- Alan Padgett, “Christianity and Postmodernity,” Christian Scholar’s Review 26.2 (Winter 1996): 129-132.
Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
- Padgett, “Christianity and Postmodernity,” 129.
- F. Ernest Stoeffler, German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 23.
- Quoted in Carter Lindberg, The Pietist Theologians (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 13.
- Caputo’s interpretation of Anselm’s so-called ontological proof of the existence of God is similar to Barth’s: it is not meant to be a foundationalist inquiry into whether God exists or not but a rational justification of what is already believed by faith. Credo utintelligam.
- John Caputo, On Religion (London & New York: Routledge, 2001), 46.
- Peter Vogt, “Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760)” in The Pietist Theologians, 213.
- Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008), 69.
- Ibid., 111.
- Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth and the Pietsts, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 192.
- Brown, 118-119.
- Gary Sattler, Nobler than the Angels, Lower than a Worm: The Pietist View of the Individual in the Writings of Heinrich Müller and August Hermann Francke (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1989), 67.
- Quoted in Stoeffler, German Pietism, 143.
- 8Ibid., 146.
- Donald G. Bloesch, The Ground of Certainty (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 76. Of course, Bloesch did not consider himself “postmodern” as he thought it meant cognitive nihilism. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find similarities and congeniality between his epistemology and Postmodern non-foundationalism.
- Carl Raschke, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 19.
- Brown, 109.
- K. James Stein, PhilippJakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch (Chicago, IL: Covenant Press, 1986), 171.
- Ibid., 171.
- Stoeffler, Rise, 235.
- Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf, Nine Public Lectures, trans. and ed. George W. Forell (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1973), 31.
- Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth Century Prussia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 142.
- Ibid., 40.
- Stoeffler, German Pietism, 18.
- Ibid., 153.
- Donald G. Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety: Essays Towards a Theology of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 113, 146.
- Ibid., 48.
- Zinzendorf, 70.
- Caputo, On Religion, 109.
- Caputo’s book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007) is his most explicitly Christian book and revolves around the theme of the Kingdom of God as the impossible possibility that breaks into people’s lives and drives them to prophetic, ethical action.
- Peter Rollins, How [Not] to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 56.
- Rollins, Fidelity, 168.
- Ibid., 169.
- Stein, 193.
Peter Erb, ed., Pietists: Selected Writings (New York, Ramsey, Toronto: Paulist Press, 1983), 138.
- Gawthrop, 142.
- Stoeffler, German Pietism, 154.
- Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 100.
- Ibid., 99.
- Ibid., 85.
- Ibid., 73.
- Ibid., 80.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 17.
- Rollins, Fidelity, 170.
- Vogt, “Zinzendorf,” 215.
- Caputo, On Religion, 111; italics in original.
- Rollins, How [Not] to Speak of God, 116.
- Brown, 87.
- Stoeffler, Rise, 237.