An Archbishop and the Pietists: A Delayed Rapprochement

by Tom Tredway

Pietists and the archbishops of the Church of Sweden have not always gotten along. That was certainly true in the 19th century, when the troubled relationship between the “readers” and ecclesiastical authority resulted in many of the former leaving the national and ecclesiastic confines dominated by the latter. The Conventicle Act, promulgated in the eighteenth century, was in force in Sweden until 1858. It prohibited meeting outside the state church to sing, read scripture, pray and testify. They met anyway. And in 1878 they formed the Mission Covenant, which, in spite of their avowed intention to remain within the Church of Sweden, eventually became a separate denomination. Karl Olsson’s definitive history, By One Spirit, has an excellent account of those developments, forerunners of the departure in America of the Mission Friends from the Augustana Synod.

But over a century later the Church of Sweden got a new archbishop, the last to be appointed formally by the nation’s government. Karl Gustav Hammar was named by the social democratic government to the episcopacy of the Diocese of Uppsala in 1997 and thus (like the Archbishop of Canterbury in England) became the titular head of the national church. “K.G.,” as he was frequently addressed (even on state radio), remained in his office for a decade, and then resigned for “personal reasons” which he did not explain. Many wondered if the heat had driven him out of the church kitchen, for his had been a controversial archiepiscopacy. Hammar, ordained in 1965, held a Ph.D. from Lund University, taught there and in Singapore, and had been Bishop of the Diocese of Lund for five years until he moved to Sweden’s other ancient university town, Uppsala, to become Archbishop. In that role he presided over the disestablishment of the Church of Sweden in 2000, a millennium after Christianity had first come to the North.

Hammar’s political views were left-leaning, and he was not shy about expressing them. A critic of global capitalism, champion of asylum seekers’ and of homosexuals’ rights, opponent of the Iraq war, and advocate of the Palestinians (against Israel), “K.G.” profoundly irritated the Swedish right, both political and ecclesiastical. One Christian Democrat said he was really a “leftist populist,” and another conservative suggested Hammar resign the archiepiscopacy and run for election in parliament, the Riksdag, where he might more appropriately advocate his radical views. Religious conservatives were put off by Hammar’s questions concerning the Virgin Birth (as “a poetic” expression of a deeper truth) and Biblical historicity (asserting that most of the Gospels were written after the Resurrection and thus cannot be treated as simple reports), and his declaration that no particular beliefs were necessary to belong to the church (it was enough to want to belong).

But “lefty” or not, one of the many controversial ideas Hammar spoke and wrote about seems to me to be particularly meaningful, both in itself and because it is related in some sense to pietism. That is his distinction between GUD and “Gud”— GOD and “God.” It is discussed most clearly in a small book, Samtal om Gud (“Conversation about God”), published in the same year that he was appointed Archbishop. By “God” (always written in quotation marks) Hammar means all human ideas and language about the divine. That includes doctrines, dogmas, and creeds, liturgies and images—apparently the whole of theology and religious art from the Christian tradition as well as from other religions and individuals—used to represent human ideas and feelings about God. In contrast GOD (all three letters capitalized, not in quotes) is “the reality to which ‘God’ refers.”

Hammar writes that ‘God’ is always metaphor or sign language, pointing to something that is “more, greater, and mysterious.” GOD is always beyond ‘God.’ The language of belief is a symbolic language. “The reality GOD is never the same as the concept ‘God.’ GOD is never contained in ‘God.’” That is what is meant by transcendence, “a bridge to infinity, eternity, the great mystery, where words must be silent and the spirit fill the empty space.” Those who identify their version of “God” with GOD are sliding into idolatry and in danger of keeping GOD from breaking into their lives, as the reality which underlies life and is yet beyond all human thought and expression.

Of course the implications of Hammar’s distinction are nearly endless, some of them creative and disturbing at the same time. They are some of the reasons that he—as professor and as bishop—has been so provocative. I mention only a couple of these qualities in his work. One is the strength of K.G. Hammar’s faith in the reality of GOD. He cannot, I think, be written off as a crypto-atheist in archbishop’s robes. Much contemporary Swedish hostility to religion, he writes, is due to the confusion of “God” with GOD. Many Swedes watch religious people (the few left in their country) defending their own creeds as though, were they to fail, GOD himself would be denied. Often modern Swedes decide that between atheism and this kind of dogmatism, the former is to be preferred, says Hammar. The seeming irreligion of contemporary Swedish life is, of course, what troubles many Swedish-American Covenanters or Lutherans when they visit the fosterland today.

But the longing for connection, meaning, and belonging—in relation to other people and to nature—is an essential human quality, Hammar says, one which at its core every religion addresses. And it is still as present in Swedes as in other peoples. GOD is both the source and the response to our deepest longing (den ende...som kan svara mot vår djupaste längtan). Dissatisfaction with the cold and dogmatic formality of mid-19th century Swedish church life is what led so many of the fathers and mothers of pietism to meet with each other, the Conventicle Act notwithstanding, to read the scriptures, pray, sing, and exchange life stories. Reading Hammar, one thinks of the Minnesota historian George Malcom Stephenson’s comment about the irenic Olof Olsson, one time professor and president at Augustana College and Seminary: if Olsson’s more open spirit had prevailed in the Augustana Synod at the end of the 19th century, its history might have been quite different as regarded the Mission Friends who left its ranks. And one wonders if, in contradiction of historical reality, K.G. had been Archbishop of the Church of Sweden in the nineteenth century, the Swedish pietists might have remained in the state church.

Most historians are warned early in graduate school against this kind of “Iffy-History.” But it is no violation of that warning to note that K.G. Hammar is certainly a child of the Reformation. We can look for historical antecedents of his work, and that touches a second of its aspects. The Protestant Reformers, Luther included, held that ecclesia semper reformanda est, the church must always be reforming. For Hammar it is the church’s thought and language which must always be re-formed. And that re-forming needs to take place in the context of one’s own and others’ experiences in the search for meaning and connection. Hammar is a long way from the insistence upon adherence to creeds and confessions that was so pronounced among 19th century Swedish Lutherans on both sides of the ocean, and that alienated many of their pietistic countrymen.

Hammar writes that many of these doctrines are based upon a concept of a three-storied universe that has long since been abandoned. So they (including some biblical ideas) must be reconsidered in the light of contemporary thought and experience.

He does recognize that all ideas and actions are not equally valid responses to GOD’s reality; that is clear from his discussion of testing the spirits (Second Epistle of John) in another of his small books, Ecce Homo—efter två tusen år (“Ecce Homo—after Two Thousand Years”), published in 2000. Here Hammar argues that Christian theology must be a constant dialog between love (kärlek – both the result and the sign of one’s relationship to God) and the effort to understand and talk about that love in disciplined intellectual reflection. “Maybe we need another church council to consider the subject of love!”

Well, Hammar is gone from the Diocese of Uppsala and is now again at Lund University, so he will not be chairing any church councils. Much of his work remains debatable and will likely be troubling to many pietists. Perhaps it raises as many questions as it settles. But one does get the sense that, even taking into account all the controversy that attended his years as Sveriges ärkebiskop, the original editors and readers of Pietisten would have found K.G. more eager to listen to their stories and ideas, as well as to explain his to them. His faith in GUD and his willingness to listen as well as to speak would make for an interesting ecumenical dialog.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway