A Future for Classic Pietism?

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

Christianity After Religion

Diana Butler Bass

Harper One, 2012

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012

Recently I was commissioned to write an article for US Catholic magazine, as they had seen a column of mine in the Covenant Companion and asked me to expand it. The article argued that concern for the environment was as much a prolife concern as war, capital punishment or abortion. Our ongoing pillaging and spoliation of the planet risks the lives of billions of yet unborn children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I expanded the argument and sent the article on. They liked it, except that they wanted me to let people know what they should do in the face of such a challenging crisis. They were looking, it seemed to me, for big solutions, big programs, dramatic actions. I wrote back and told them that I had been reading Wendell Berry far too long to believe there were big programs, congressional legislation, or religious mandates that could turn the tide. Only small, invisible acts of renunciation and stewardship will make any difference. Only a slow, thoughtful, bottom-up cultural transformation can save us. They, perhaps grudgingly, accepted the piece for the most part as it was.

Diana Butler Bass has faced the same criticism and confusion when lecturing about the challenges for the church in the 21st century. Her mostly mainline audiences frequently ask her what program she recommends for their churches to face the current crisis. She insists the church will not be transformed by a program you can buy from Amazon.com or at Willow Creek. No denominational program, advertising campaign, or change in denominational hierarchy will make any difference. Something much more foundational is needed. Bass is clear that something does need to change. The first decade of the 21st century was a disastrous one for American Christianity. After the initial flurry of church attendance following the 9/11 attacks, all religions, not just Islam, were blamed for the world’s violence. The so-called “New Atheists” published a series of popular, if sophomoric, books on the crudities and cruelties of religion. This was bad enough but the decade also saw the rapid and ugly expansion of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, constant, bitter squabbling, condemnation and division in the Mainline church over homosexuality and gay marriage. Evangelicalism was not spared. According to the most recent polls, its over identification with the Republican party and the Bush White House lost it many younger adherents. By the end of the decade the fastest growing category of religious affiliation in the United States was “none.”

Bass sees hope in an oft-despised category of Americans: the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Many on both the left and the right have sneered at this group. They are often seen as self-indulgent, individualistic, and syncretistic. Bass argues that such sweeping categorizations are not fair. Many of these folks are genuinely interested in God and even in a community. They are skeptical, not so much about God, but about “organized religion.” Their involvement in religious institutions has been disillusioning and frustrating. They, for the most part rightly, think that religious institutions are frequently more about institutional survival than about good news. Institutions worry about offending constituencies, especially constituencies who give. Bass cites the normal process of becoming part of a Christian community as believing, behaving, belonging. Churches and denominations are concerned that you believe the right things and do the right things before you can belong. Bass insists that for this generation belonging must precede both believing and behaving. But this is hard for institutions: shouldn’t the sinner give up her sin before she becomes one of us? Should he be able to affirm the creed and give a testimony before we let him in? Bass argues these are exactly the wrong questions for this generation of seekers.

She argues that for its health the church in the future must be committed to communities of practice. Such communities will invite all seekers, lovers, and sinners into the community. They will read scriptures together, pray together, worship together, serve the poor together, sustain and love the sick and hurting together, and look for God’s renewing kingdom together. Reading Bass’ book I was struck with how many of these practices she recommends are characteristics of classic Pietism. The original Mission Friends met together in small groups to pray, read Scripture, sing and serve one another. They were outside of the state church. They had no hierarchy. They were non-confessional and open to all who wanted to follow Jesus. They had a long history going back to August Hermann Francke’s “Halle Institutes,” of caring for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. They were more concerned that you were on a spiritual quest (to use contemporary language) than whether you were Lutheran or Calvinist: “Are you alive yet in Jesus?” (Lever du än i Jesus?) But classic Pietism is not flashy. It is not a finely-honed program or fully developed theology. It involves loving God together and serving his people. It cannot be directed from Rome or Geneva or Chicago. It is grass roots, generous, compassionate, and messy. And this, I am convinced, is exactly what we need for the future health of the church in America and elsewhere.

At first blush it may appear odd to pair Marlynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books with Bass’ volume. Robinson is perhaps best known to Pietisten readers as the author of the highly regarded novels Gilead and Home. But Robinson is also an accomplished essayist and cultural critic, and this volume covers some of the same ground as Bass. The threads that interweave are community, democracy and faith. She argues, in an essay early in the book, that aggressive, libertarian advocates of austerity and unfettered capitalism are unraveling the social contract that has been uniquely American. In two brilliant later essays, entitled “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” she argues that the God of the Bible and his oft-despised law are actually the basis of our best and most generous social policies. She excoriates the sneering critics from the left who see the God of Israel as a narrow-minded, violent, hateful tribal deity. She forcefully argues that the law of the Israelites was more compassionate, generous and visionary than anything seen in Europe and America until the 19th and 20th centuries—and perhaps not even then. She even manages a thoughtful defense of John Calvin, which can also be difficult.

The Good Society, Robinson argues, is not a collection of individuals free to pursue their most selfish and violent goals, but a community formed around a commitment to sustain the health, wholeness and fruitfulness of every aspect of human life. This Good Society is under attack from people who misunderstand and misrepresent its most productive sources and commitments—both religious and economic. The devotees of Ayn Rand and the politicians who follow them, on the one hand, and the New Atheists and religiously liberated scoffers, on the other, have joined forces to convince many of us that our most treasured resources of community and hope are passé and even dangerous. Robinson, like Bass, calls us back to treasures of Scripture, the Christian community, and our cultural heritage of learning, compassion, and hope. This is a heritage of quietly committed communal investment, love, and generosity and it is enriched from the ground up, not manufactured institutionally from the top down.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

See all articles by John E. Phelan, Jr.