Roger Olson on Pietism and Postmodernism

Roger OlsonFor once, it was easy this week to know where to start my post-vacation ritual of sifting through stacks of new publications requiring some reading attention: with Roger Olson’s article in the Summer 2012 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review, “Pietism and Postmodernism: Points of Congeniality.”

A refined version of the second of two lectures he gave last year at Luther Seminary here in the Twin Cities (part one of that talk, “Reclaiming Pietism,” is available on Roger’s blog), “Pietism and Postmodernism” contends that the “basic impulses” of two “Ps” (so long as they are understood rightly and not as caricatures) are “congenial.” As Roger acknowledges, this thesis (a) has already been suggested by the late Stanley Grenz though (b) it would surprise self-proclaimed proponents of each “P,” who “may think they have nothing in common….”

Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?Roger is an ideal guide to navigate the space between Pietism and Postmodernism. (Already this year he attempted to make the case for commonality between Pietism and Pentecostalism, which may strike you as a harder or easier quest.) In our Pietist Impulse book, he contributed a fine rebuttal to some of the harder-to-shake myths surrounding Pietism, and I regularly suggest the chapter on Pietism in his historical theology text to those seeking a concise introduction. He confesses himself newer to Postmodernism (and relies heavily on a 1996 article by Alan Padgett, plus the work of John Caputo and Peter Rollins, for models of Christian engagement with postmodernity), but as his recent review of D.A. Carson‘s more hostile The Intolerance of Tolerance shows, he exemplifies Padgett’s model of the Christian scholar as a “critical dialogue partner” with Postmodernism.

I’d encourage you to read the whole article, but knowing that Christian Scholar’s Review doesn’t make its issues available online, let me offer an outline summary as an encouragement to subscribe or befriend someone who does, buy the issue, or at least find a library that has a copy. (Well beyond this particular article, CSR is always well worth reading — and I don’t just say that because its editors were kind enough to publish an article of mine last year, also on Pietism.)

Accepting that Pietism has historically been associated with modernity and that “Postmodernists will be somewhat suspicious of Pietism because of its religious enthusiasm,” Roger suggests five “areas of life [in which] these two movements can find common ground” (Christian Scholar’s Review, vol. 41, p. 370). There isn’t space for two (community and theology), but he does cover:

Epistemology: Arguing that “experiential fideism is the alternative to Enlightenment foundationalist rationalism” for “those Postmodern thinkers who have any taste for religion,” Roger then suggests that “The spirit of Pietism resonates with this inward, fideistic approach to religious knowledge whole-heartedly” (p. 371). If this sounds like anti-intellectualism, Roger has already addressed that myth in his Pietist Impulse chapter, but here he clarifies that historical Pietists regarded reason as “a servant of faith but not its master”; nor did they treat feelings as the source of truth, so much as “its true mode of reception and ground of certainty” (372). One Pietist distinctive that wouldn’t be as congenial for some Postmoderns: the “emphasis on conversion as necessary to knowing God truly” (373).

Spirituality: Placing the “heart religion” and intimacy of mysticism “within the framework of the historical church tradition” (including sacraments and intellectual work), the Pietists promoted — in contrast to a Protestant scholasticism “that emphasized right thinking and right worshiping” — a “spirituality of inward transformation that leads to outward action” — what Roger has elsewhere called (and here again calls) “conversional piety” (373-74). Seeking to allay fears of Postmoderns who “would cringe at some of the Pietist language about spirituality that sounds romantic and sentimental,” Roger suggests that Postmodernism does share with Pietism the centering of action and experience rather than belief. (Roger’s Pietism would add the adjective “right” in front of those three categories — privileging orthopraxy and orthopathy while not denying orthodoxy — but acknowledges that some Postmodernists won’t want that particular modifier.)

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysEthics: Drawing on Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s description of Pietist ethics as seeking “the union of character and action” (likewise Richard Gawthrop’s: a “mysticism of action”), Roger finds it lining up nicely with what he reads as a Postmodern reconception of ethics as centered on obligation to others (particularly the powerless) — not enforced by rules, but “[arising] from inward transformation by the ‘miracle of faith'” (377). Again, a key point of divergence is noted: Pietism’s insistence on “the complete divine presence in Jesus and his indwelling of the believer” against “Postmodernism’s consistent rejection of any metaphysics of presence” (378).

“…what is the point,” asks Roger in conclusion, “of this somewhat Quixotic experiment in discovering common ground between Pietism and Postmodernism?” He suggests its relevance to churches, to assist them

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. (380)

And this resonates strongly with several posts that have showed up here in recent months:

  • Baptist theologian Glen Scorgie’s argument for the relevance of a “religion of the heart” like Pietism, as meeting a longing of seekers and unbelievers who don’t find in most Christian churches the “authentic, genuine spirituality” they thirst for.
  • Evangelical Covenant pastor Ryan Eikenbary-Barber’s affirmation of the value of Pietism in Covenant churches today (as part of our roundtable discussion at the close of Bethel’s recent colloquium on Pietism studies). Ryan particularly stressed Pietism’s devotional emphasis on spiritual practices as having great appeal for a postmodern generation. (I should add that here he quoted from the 2011 lecture that inspired Roger’s CSR article — you can find Ryan’s response to that talk on the Pietisten website.)
  • My own post musing about how “a Pietist vision” would come to have the same influence as the “Anabaptist vision” that shaped so much of Mennonite and Brethren thought in the second half of the 20th century. I closed that post by suggesting groups to whom such a vision of Christianity would most strongly appeal: I think that the Emergent and “postconservative evangelical” Christians I mentioned would overlap considerably with the Postmodern group Roger has in mind.

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