Books, Christianity, Education

“You say pietism, I say Pietism”

Smith, Desiring the KingdomProbably the best comment I ever got back from a peer reviewing one of my manuscripts was the one suggesting that I should put the educational philosophies of Karl Olsson and Carl Lundquist in conversation with the one articulated by philosopher James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom. I was familiar with DtK before getting the peer review, but reading it more intently brought new focus to my line of thought and enormously improved the article that ended up being published in Christian Scholar’s Review last January.

More than that, Desiring the Kingdom remains the most thought-provoking work on education that I’ve read in the last five years; I ended up leading a couple of discussions on it at Bethel, and I’m eager to see Smith realize his hopes to develop further volumes suggesting practical steps to improve pedagogy (p. 217, n. 3) and faculty development (p. 230, n. 31) at Christian colleges.

But in it Smith did something that absolutely grated on me. No, not ending the acknowledgments section of a scholarly work with a “sound track” of albums that the reader might “hear… in the background.” (Anything that gets even one more person to listen to Uncle Tupelo’s austere March 16-20, 1992 can’t be that bad.)

What bothered me was the way he tosses around the term “pietism.” And, judging by a post on his blog last week, the way he still tosses it around.

First, Smith laments (on p. 190) that many in his own tradition (Reformed), because they are leery of the “language of antithesis, which feels dualistic and otherworldly,” seem to “forget” the renunciations of the baptismal liturgy (“Do you renounce Satan…? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world…?”). In a footnote, he promises to return to political theology in a later volume, but does provide this brief addendum:

…I think Kuyperians who are fixated on common grace mistakenly hear talk of “antithesis” as a kind of pietism. I think this is a mistake: pietism, as I would define it, is characterized by being not only anti-direction but also anti-structure; that is, it is marked by a rejection of culture as such. (n. 82)

To understand what he’s getting at, flip back two pages to his discussion of Scripture’s multivocal use of the term “the world”:

…on the one hand, the Scriptures affirm that the world as structure (as a given reality) is created by God and, as such, is fundamentally good. On the other hand, world is sometimes a sort of name given to human society that has taken the world (as structure) in the wrong direction. (p. 188)

James K. A. SmithSo Pietists are not only concerned that sin has misdirected the passions of humans as they live in society, but they reject the “given reality” of the world, though it be “fundamentally good.” In practice, then, Pietists reject culture and withdraw into themselves. (This should sound more than a little like a crucial piece of the “Friedmann Thesis” long since revised in Anabaptist historiography.)

Second, Smith concludes the book by calling for a rethinking of Christian higher education: rather than seeking to inform a “Christian perspective” or worldview that fills the mind but leaves the heart unchanged, Christian colleges should engage in the formation of desires. In a footnote, he acknowledges that there are multiple reasons that such institutions have resisted the language of formation. Here’s reason #1:

…for some, it is because such talk seems to come with the baggage of fundamentalist pietism. It seems to make the Christian college an extension of Sunday school. (p. 219, n. 6)

Now, these are just footnotes, and nothing in them detracts from (or adds to) his larger argument. (Though, as I intimated in my CSR piece, I think that if he cared to investigate non-fundamentalist Pietism, he might find support for key elements of his project.) But it irked me on two levels: as a Pietist, and as a historian.

As a Christian who identifies most closely with evangelical Pietism and is largely happy to see his denomination and employer increasingly espouse the same identity, it’s hard to watch a public intellectual of no mean influence casually perpetuating false stereotypes about that tradition: Pietism=quietism, Pietism=anti-intellectualism. I guess it would be one thing if this happened only in the footnotes of one book, but they’re not isolated instances.

In an interview posted on the blog of Calvin’s Institute of Christian Worship, Smith was asked about the concern expressed in the second footnote from DtK, that his emphasis on education as formation could lead Christian colleges back into the “anti-intellectual pietism” they had spent years putting behind them. While seeking to allay the fear, he accepted the premise:

I’m very sympathetic to this concern, since I know what it means to emerge from that sort of anti-intellectual pietism (I was converted to Christian faith through the Plymouth Brethren and had a long sojourn in the Assemblies of God). And I’ve heard this sort of worry in response to Desiring the Kingdom.

I guess you could read that and conclude that Smith knows that there exists a kind of Pietism that’s not anti-intellectual, but given that he refers to the Plymouth Brethren and AG in describing Pietism of any “sort,” I’m not so sure. At the very least, I think we’re running into substantial problems of definition. More on that soon…

Boyd, Myth of a Christian NationAnd his idea that Pietists reject the world (as direction and structure) pops up in other contexts. In a 2006 response to Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation published on the Christianity Today website, Smith likened American evangelicals’ historical involvement in politics to a pendulum, swinging “from a kind of pietistic stance of withdrawal and suspicion to a strident, triumphalistic program for ‘taking America back for God.'” As the piece progresses, Smith accuses Boyd of swinging the pendulum back: to a dualistic rejection of culture, or “simply pietism resurrected.” In Smith’s reading of Myth of a Christian Nation, Boyd promotes a “de-emphasis on systemic injustice and a renewed emphasis on conversion as the solution to social ills,” an invitation “back to pietism” that leaves Christians inclined to ignore injustice. (Here’s Greg’s response to the charge of advocating pietism — note that he’s responding to Chuck Colson, not Jamie Smith, but he touches on the points made by the latter.)

Or, in a similar vein, here’s Smith last week on his blog, Fors Clavigera, arguing that doubt is not the creation of “emergent” Christianity:

It seems that those who think permission to doubt is some radically new possibility for Christians are the same people who think that a concern for justice is some “secret message” of Jesus heretofore hidden from Christianity–when, in fact, it just means that it was hidden from them in the pietistic enclaves of their early formation.

On the one hand, yes; it’s tedious to listen to some Emergents pat themselves on the back for breaking ground on which Christians have been building for centuries. On the other hand, boo; as I’ve been touching on in a variety of posts, the notion that Pietists are deaf to Jesus’ call for justice has been pretty well dismantled by a generation or two of historical research.

And I hope I would respond in that way even if I were a historian without personal ties to Pietism. Mennonite historian Steven Nolt seemed to. In an otherwise positive response to Desiring the Kingdom published as part of a 2010 review symposium in CSR, he used one of his own footnotes to gently chastise Smith on one “minor point”:

As a historian I was also puzzled by Smith’s odd employment of the term pietism, which seemed simply to be a pejorative caricature for the worst of American Christianity and bore no connection to historical pietism (save perhaps a negative reading of Jung-Stillung). (Christian Scholar’s Review, vol. 39, p. 225, n. 15)

Here’s Smith’s response to that mild critique:

A few words about a couple of terms are in order. First, about “pietism,” a term with a wide lexical range: with apologies to my Anabaptist colleagues, my use of this term is generally in accordance with some insider Reformed jargon. In that context, “pietism” is a shorthand term for naming a tendency to treat Christianity as private, personal, and a-political. I do not mean to make any particular historical claims in this regard, and would happily concede that some historical capital-P Pietists (such as the Blumhardts) would resonate deeply with the core themes of Desiring the Kingdom. On the other hand, there continue to be wide swaths of North American Christianity that evince the characteristics I mean to describe by the term. (p. 231)

Johann Christoph Blumhardt

Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880)

And that’s kind of helpful. Now, I happen to think that non-Radical Pietists like Spener, Francke, and lots of my Swedish forebears would also describe education as formation, and they might even convince you that conversion of the individual and restoration of the world go hand in hand. But I’ll readily agree that there’s a “wide lexical range” for the term, as noted in our series previewing The Pietist Impulse in Christianity. And I appreciate that Smith is employing lowercase-p pietism, a category that for decades (as my colleague Tim Essenburg has been explaining to me) has been used by Reformed Christians in the way Smith describes.

And that’s why I’ve tried to stick with the capital-P version throughout this post unless quoting Smith or others: to underscore that the “pietism” that exists in Smith’s mind and Reformed vernacular contrasts with the Pietism of Christians who actually existed within time and space. Not that there’s no overlap—some Pietists are guilty of the “pietistic” tendencies Smith decries—but like Roger Olson, I find it better to define “movements by their origins and not by their often deviant derivations” (from his essay in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, p. 6). I’m sure Smith knows that in the “insider jargon” of other Christian traditions, “reformed” is used as shorthand for some tendencies he’d view as “deviant derivations” from Reformed Christianity.

In the end, it’s unfortunate that someone of Smith’s obvious brilliance and substantial influence persists in an avowedly ahistorical use of the term “pietism” when communicating with an audience that probably doesn’t realize that he’s speaking in code (unless they track down one paragraph in a journal whose back issues are not yet accessible to the kind of Google searches I’ve employed to research parts of this post), with readers (let alone listeners) who might not draw a distinction between “p” and “P” and so might then assume that Pietists “evince the characteristics” of “private, personal, and a-political” pietism.

As a philosopher well-versed in postmodern thought, including the “linguistic turn,” surely Smith has reflected often on the power of language. I wish he would wield that power, in this one small respect, a bit more carefully.


3 thoughts on ““You say pietism, I say Pietism”

  1. This is a very fair concern and critique. “Pietism” is a very specific shorthand in my Reformed tradition, and I lapse into that “in-house” use of the term too easily when I’m in wider conversations, which creates the mis-impressions you recognize. You’re right that, in fact, there would be a lot of resonance between my project and what we’d find in Spener or the Blumhardts. So I’m going to try to work on rehabituating myself to be more careful with the word “pietism.” But it’s going to take practice! ;-)

    Posted by James K.A. Smith | September 6, 2011, 8:14 AM


  1. Pingback: How many links does it take to get to the center of a Tera-pop? - Links - hackers James K.A. Smith Patrick Deneen Petabytes preaching - The Christian Humanist Blog - September 9, 2011

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