Pietism and Civil Discourse (Christian Collins Winn)

I’m very pleased to welcome this guest post from my colleague Christian Collins Winn: the text of his address yesterday morning in Bethel University‘s year-opening chapel service, in which he appealed to Bethel’s roots in Pietism to help us start a year-long conversation about what church historian Martin Marty has called “convicted civility.”

Collins Winn, "Jesus Is Victor!"Christian is associate professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Bethel, and the new chairperson of its Biblical and Theological Studies department. An expert on the Württemberg Pietists Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son Christoph Friedrich (1842-1919), Christian is the author of “Jesus is Victor!”: The Significance of the Blumhardts for the Theology of Karl Barth and co-editor of the English edition of Friedrich Zündel’s biography of the elder Blumhardt. He is also editor of From the Margins: A Celebration of the Theological Work of Donald W. Dayton and one of my co-editors on The Pietist Impulse in Christianity.

On January 3, 2011, media consultant Mark DeMoss, a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, announced that he was shutting down the “Civility Project.”  DeMoss, who had served as an advisor on Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, launched the project with Lanny Davis, a liberal Democrat who is also Jewish, with the hope of promoting a “more civil exchange of ideas.” In the letter announcing the closure, DeMoss said that “our only aim in launching this project two years ago was to call people from all races, walks of life, and religious and political persuasions to graciousness, kindness, common decency and respect—civility—toward all people, and particularly those with whom we may disagree.”

The keystone of the “civility project” was the 32-word civility pledge: “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.”  Though DeMoss and Davis were able to get thousands of signatures from people across the United States, they were only able to secure three signatures from the 585 sitting members of Congress, and no sitting governors. This left DeMoss perplexed, noting, “I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar.” The dismissive tone with which the project was treated by politicians and pundits alike, coupled with the personal attacks against DeMoss and Davis, ultimately led to the project’s demise.

Crime scene after shooting of Gabby Giffords
Police on the scene after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords – Creative Commons (Steve Karp)

The significance of the closure of the Civility Project is magnified when it is placed next to the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, which happened a mere five days after DeMoss’ letter. In the wake of Ms. Giffords’ shooting, politicians and leaders from across the political spectrum called for a more concerted effort to “usher in more civility in our public discourse.” With the 2012 election looming, it is fair to say that the jury is still out on how successful those efforts have been.

Of course we live in a democratic republic where deliberation and argument have a rightful place. And we must be honest and face the fact we are indeed different, and that our differences have sometimes divided us. We come from different walks of life, have different stories and experiences, and have different commitments. And let us be clear, this holds true not only outside the church, but also inside, where political and theological differences abound. Followers of Jesus can be found across the political and theological spectrum. In distinction from the broader culture, however, it is legitimate to ask whether our differences really ought to divide us. Does Scripture not call us to be one, even as Jesus was one with his Father? If we answer this question in the affirmative—that enfolded in the call of Christ is a call to unity—then we must also acknowledge that the unity of which the Bible speaks is not mere uniformity. Unity in Christ does not mean sameness; it can and does mean legitimate difference. But, of course, this leaves us with the challenge of how to live together in such a way that we make space for real and legitimate differences, without severing the bond of faith that holds us together.

It is here that the notion of “civility” might be useful. But what is “civility”, and what should “civility” look like in the context of a Christian university? This morning I want to offer a four-fold way of thinking about “civility”—or what we might also call “civil discourse”—through a consideration of one of the key traditions responsible for shaping Bethel: the theological tradition of Pietism.

Pietism is a renewal tradition born in German-speaking lands in the late 17th century that came to have a substantial influence on most of the Protestant world in Europe, North America, and, by extension, Asia and Africa. The Pietists emphasized a living relationship with Jesus Christ, a transformed life lived out in service to the neighbor, the importance of communal and individual engagement with Scripture through conventicles or small groups, and the cultivation of an irenic or peaceable spirit. Their vision quickly spread into Scandinavia by the early 18th century and, along with the Baptist and holiness traditions, became a key impulse in the formation of the Baptist General Conference, which founded Bethel in the late nineteenth century.

Aside from this historical connection, however, the Pietist tradition is especially germane to the question of “civil discourse” because it was born and came of age in the midst of conflict. The period in which Pietism was born was marked by social, religious, and political division. The Thirty Years’ War, fought largely in German-speaking lands from 1618-1648, had managed to pit Christian against Christian, and the cultural aftermath in the life of the church was nothing short of disastrous. As Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), a Lutheran theologian and the key figure in the early development of Pietism, lamented in 1675:

…not a few stake almost everything on polemics. They think that everything has turned out very well if only they know how to give answer to the errors of the papists, the Reformed, the Anabaptists, etc. (Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. Theodore G. Tappert, p. 49)

From the start, Spener called for a more careful, loving, and irenic tone in the life of the church and the broader culture, and he developed a program of reform that offered practical suggestions for the revitalization of the Christian community.

Philipp Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener – Wikimedia

For these reforming efforts Spener was often attacked and vilified by his opponents and was drawn into numerous theological controversies over the course of his career. In one year alone, 1695, no less than fifteen separate works were published against Spener (K. James Stein, Philipp Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch, p. 136). Nevertheless, by all accounts Spener acquitted himself well, putting his theoretical call for a different approach to controversy to the test time and time again. Thankfully we are not dealing with that level of rancor in our common life together, but in light of the history and emphases of Pietism, I would like to suggest four overlapping practices or themes that can be helpful as we consider what it means for us to be civil in our differences.

The first is what we might call a spirit of good faith. In all of the many controversies in which Spener was embroiled, he consistently exhibited good faith. He did not back away from conflict, but nor did he fail to take seriously the arguments of his opponents. He wanted to be understood and he wanted to understand, even if his opponents did not always grant him the same kindness. Spener could be described as coming to the debate committed to being what one recent commentator has called a “sincere arguer”, that is one committed to the reasonable exchange of ideas. This notion captures well the fact that from a Pietist point of view, civility should not be understood as the avoidance of conflict, or the absence of argument. It is, rather, a genuine commitment to dialogue and argument because at base the Pietist is concerned with understanding not only him or herself, and not only the opposing side, but the truth of the matter. In this search for the truth, one must make every effort to think through one’s own position, to express it clearly, and to listen to one’s dialogue partner in good faith, trying to understand where they are coming from. If, after this, disagreement remains—which is entirely possible since sincerity in argument is no guarantee of truthfulness—nonetheless, the bonds of community and goodwill will remain and the possibility of future fruitful exchanges will be more likely.

By extension, the second element of a Pietist approach to civil discourse is a genuine openness to being taught, or what one might call humility. Spener said that he was “willing to yield to anybody, no matter how simple-minded, who will show me something better and more advantageous for the discharge of my pastoral duties and whatever else has to do with edification…. [for] All of this is God’s cause, not ours….” (Pia Desideria, p. 86) As Martin Brecht has pointed out, this humility comes through especially in Spener’s personal correspondence, where one sees a person committed to finding the truth without the prior assumption that he is already in total possession of it (Geschichte des Pietismus, vol. 1, pp. 368-70). Engagement of any kind, but especially in the fields of theological and political discourse, requires the humility to realize that we are not God, that we ourselves are also pilgrims on the way. Perhaps another way of saying this is that we need each other, that the pursuit of truth is a fundamentally communal endeavor. The Pietist twist on this, which was certainly novel in its day, was the willingness to countenance the possibility that God speaks the truth not only through my friends, but also through my adversaries, and that therefore I must be willing to be taught even by those with whom I disagree.

The third element that marks a Pietist approach to civil discourse is the overarching concern of love for one’s neighbor. For the Pietists love of neighbor undergirded the practices of good faith and humility, and Spener stressed the intimate connection of truth and love, arguing the following:

From all this it becomes apparent that disputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary. If only we Evangelicals would make it our serious business to offer God the fruits of his truth in fervent love, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our calling, and show this in recognizable and unalloyed love of our neighbors…. There is no doubt that God would then allow us to grow more and more in our knowledge of the truth…. (Pia Desideria, p. 102)

Progress in the truth is made possible only in and through genuine love, and therefore a civil discourse marked by a concern for truth will only be made possible through love, and for the Pietists “love” was no mere emotion, but the practice of real and genuine care through acts of service. From the Pietist point of view, to practice good faith and humility when engaged in controversy or argument is itself the practice of love of neighbor. For in both the practioner assumes, affirms, and embraces the humanity of the other, and sees their adversary as loved by God, and deserving of respect, care and hospitality.

Christian Collins WinnThe fourth and final element refers to the larger framework within which our first three aspects are placed. We might call it the hopeful commitment to God’s peace. You will often hear us speak about the “irenic spirit of Pietism” here at Bethel, by which we mean to denote a commitment to peace or peaceableness. Unfortunately, this has led some to assume that being a Pietist is simply being nice to one another; which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nonetheless, this is a misunderstanding and is corrected when we view the notion of “the irenic spirit” within its proper and original eschatological context, or what we might call the Pietist theology of hope. Pietistic work for the revitalization of Christianity was not rooted in optimism, but in the conviction and hope that the work of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was continuing to unfold in history in the power of the Spirit, and that this work was a work of healing. More specifically, it was the work of the healing of the nations, or what the Bible calls God’s peace or shalom. And though the final appearing of God’s shalom was in the future, through our participation here and now penultimate appearances of shalom could emerge. Spener’s own hope was that through the practical act of loving the neighbor, with whom one might intensely disagree, God would act to bring about some measure of that shalom that will someday renovate the cosmos itself.

When seen from this perspective, the “irenic spirit of Pietism” is really more of a challenge than a possession. It asks us: Are we committed to God’s peace, God’s shalom? We all know only too well, and some of us perhaps more than others, that the practice of good faith, humility, and genuine neighbor-love is hard work, at which we fail daily and in which we are often afflicted by the failures of others. What hope does, is to call us to begin again at the beginning. To turn around, and to start over once more—to practice good faith, humility, and love—in the hope that God’s peace may break into our common life now.

In the coming days, as the ties that bind our common life together are stretched, my prayer is that in and through the Spirit we find ways to inhabit these aspects of our tradition by engaging one another in good faith, humility, and genuine love, in the hope that God’s shalom will not only break into our common life, but into the whole world as well. Let us commit ourselves to this task, in the name of the prince of peace who gave himself for us while we were still his enemies. Amen.


9 thoughts on “Pietism and Civil Discourse (Christian Collins Winn)

  1. I appreciated very much hear Christian speak yesterday. I would agree with a friend, though, who commented that addressing students as he did calls for either more examples or more specific suggestive application of these well-stated points. For instance, “the hopeful commitment to God’s peace” might be more specifically articulated–for instance, echoing C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity observation that believers need to realize that they are going to spend eternity together, so that the theme of “shalom” has immediate practical application and long-term ones as well.

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.”

  2. Thank you, Chris, for a very fine address. I’m at work as a professor and preacher in a tradition committed to blending Anabaptism and Pietism: the German Baptist Brethren movement or the Church of the Brethren. In other words, we ask how to invite a “Pietist poetics” and an “Anabaptist prophetics” to embrace and kiss in faith and practice. However, I have suggested that too often in our heritage the Anabaptist prophetic word made strange and radically other trumps the Pietist poetic word of mystical connection. Your piece is very suggestive of how a Pietist heart can serve as a welcome corrective or supplement to the muscular will of both Anabaptists and Evangelicals.

    Scott Holland is Professor of Theology & Culture and Director of Peace Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary in partnership with the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Scott! Though let me stress that, as much as I’d love to take credit for it (and as strongly as I agree with it), this isn’t “my piece.” It comes from my colleague Christian Collins Winn.

    1. Ask Christian for a more thorough answer to this question, Bill, but I’ll take a shot… I guess it first depends on how you define “evangelicalism.” In one of the passages Christian quoted, Spener calls himself an “Evangelical,” since that’s what German Lutherans called themselves in the 1600s (and still do). Or, if we’re using “evangelical” as David Bebbington or Mark Noll do in their histories of the movement, I think there’s also clear compatibility and companionship: several of Bebbington’s evangelical distinctives are included or hinted at in Christian’s capsule definition of Pietism (conversionism, biblicism, activism) and the other (crucicentrism) isn’t necessarily foreign to the tradition; and Noll (and W.R. Ward) describe German Pietism as one of the chief sources of evangelicalism in the 18th century. But once we get into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, it gets trickier — partly because very few people call themselves “Pietists” anymore and partly because “Evangelical” becomes ever more complicated and controversial. (And, as I’ve written about a fair amount on this blog, some evangelicals start to employ “pietistic” as a pejorative term.)

      I think there’s a lot of overlap to this day, just so long as your definition of evangelicalism isn’t bounded by an extensive list of doctrines shaped by Reformed theology, or dispensationalism. (Not that you can’t be a Reformed evangelical and also describe yourself as “pietistic,” as John Piper did earlier this year: https://pietistschoolman.com/2012/03/30/john-piper-i-think-im-a-pietistic-calvinist).

      In other words, I think there’s plenty of room for Pietists in a “big tent” evangelicalism. (Though there are also plenty of self-described Pietists who wouldn’t find evangelicalism all that compatible or companionable — e.g., some in traditions rooted in the intersection of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, or among the Moravians; some mainline Protestants.) Roger Olson makes this case much better than I — e.g., in his writings on “postconservative” evangelicalism.

  3. Christian gave an excellent introduction to what should be a series on civil discourse. It reminded me of my thoughts following Roger Olson’s 1995 convocation address at Bethel titled “A Place for Truth” (http://cas.bethel.edu/faculty/projects/olson/). Olson argued for truth, but did not clearly state what is (he considers to be) theological “truth.” It’s kind of like making an assertion–there is truth–from a modernist position all while knowing that what any given group considers to be theologically (or economically, sociologically) true leads to a post-modern argument. I asked him about this and my very faulty memory recall him saying something like truth is a function of a number of inputs, including the Bible, work of the Holy Spirit, historical Christianity (in practice and thought) and the local community of believers with whom you associate. In other words, it is not fixed.

    My main thought, while listening to Christian’s address was that “civil discourse” is culturally situated and without giving examples of this, from different cultural perspectives, the unintended assumption is that we all know what civil discourse looks like.

    For example, some consider civil discourse to preclude passionate disagreement. Some may find pushing for clarity, transparency and acknowledgment part of civil discourse while others do not. Where there are different notions of what constitutes civility in dialogue, discussion and debate, communication is difficult. And when cultural differences are not acknowledged and part of the communication, frequently the dominant group defines the style of civility as “right” for all times and places. And the non-dominant group shakes its collective head is puzzlement, dismay or anger.

  4. This chapel address was awesome. I wish this voice/view was more present everywhere at Bethel. Thankfully, it still underlies the institution as a whole it seems (President Barnes preaches it after all). However, for example, I wish that The Pietism Colloquium would have been institution wide, complete with one or two chapel addresses. There was so much good stuff being said there! Anyway, thanks for this blog, Professor Gehrz, and thanks to Professor Collins-Winn for the message a couple weeks ago. (As a non-BTS major, I wouldn’t be opposed to a few more chapel messages from BTS professors!)

    1. Thanks for the comment! Our original plan for the April colloquium had included a chapel talk by Scot McKnight; unfortunately, the scheduling just didn’t work out. But we do expect to offer similar events in the coming years and will continue to seek ways to open them to the Bethel community and beyond. Hope you have a good school year!

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