Thoughts on The Pietist Idea of a Christian College

Roger Olson
Roger E. Olson – Truett Seminary

As I mentioned in passing here, I spent last Wednesday and Thursday facilitating a workshop at Bethel University: “The Pietist Idea of a Christian College.” Twelve current Bethel colleagues, two former faculty back as guest speakers — theologian Roger Olson (Baylor University’s Truett Seminary) and philosopher David Williams (Azusa Pacific University’s High Sierra Program) — and I spent the time exploring the history of Pietism, how it has provided a “usable past” for certain Bethel leaders (and not so much for others), and how Pietism would distinctively shape teaching, scholarship, mentoring, service, community, etc. in the present day. We closed with most participants pitching ideas for chapters in a book that I hope to see come out next year, Whole and Holy Persons: A Pietist Approach to Christian Higher Education. (It should be fascinating: topics pitched included interfaith dialogue, civil discourse, epistemic virtues, capitalism and authenticity, and off-campus study, among others.)

But today let me just share a few things that caught my attention at the workshop:

While we talked about Spener, Francke, and other early modern German figures that pretty much everyone calls “Pietists,” we quickly started pushing the geographical, temporal, and other boundaries of “Pietism” — trying to see if we could maintain a recognizable core of concerns, emphases, attitudes, practices, and perhaps even beliefs (though most everyone agreed that Pietists of any age would stress orthopathy and orthopraxy over orthodoxy) even as things got fuzzier around the edges. In the process, we learned about Moravian wedding nights (thanks to my friend Christian Collins Winn for that) and a 19th century exorcism (again courtesy of Dr. Collins Winn, our resident Blumhardt expert), Roger proposed that Pietists and Pentecostals might be more similar than either group would admit (as he has also said of Pietists and Postmoderns), David tried out some non-causal links between Pietism and Romanticism and Pietism and American pragmatism, and our Reformed colleagues in attendance probably sat there bewildered or bemused by Pietists’ complete inability or unwillingness to achieve any cohesion

Three takeaways from this iteration of the never-ending debate about how to define Pietism:

1. It was suggested that Pietism has an inherent eclecticism and inclination to improvisation, even playfulness. This seems right: if Pietists are nothing else, they’re suspicious of closed systems and settled questions. (As I’ll explore in an oft-promised, much-delayed, but forthcoming post on this theme, any religious tradition that stresses new birth, new life, and renewal of church and society should probably value innovation.) Roger’s notion of Pietism having a (Christ-)centered- rather than (doctrine-)bounded-set approach to theology also seems to fit here.

2. Roger also proposed a distinction between Pietism as a “movement” and Pietism as an “ethos.” The former is an observable historical phenomenon that might even achieve some degree of organizational coherence (Francke’s Foundations in Halle, say) but is circumscribed by time, space, culture, etc. It  leaves behind artifacts (Pia Desideria, tons of hymns), but it no longer exists. But the ethos that animated the German Pietist movement can survive and be revived in other contexts. As the recently departed Virgil Olson once wrote, Pietism probably can’t be planned or perpetuated (so it’s remarkable when it produces any sustained movement), but its ethos will inevitably arise in reaction to any “superficial Christianity whether it be found in rotting formalism, a thinned-out evangelism or a misfired scholasticism, or anything else that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.”

3. What, then, is the Pietist “ethos” (or, as Christian and I have called it, “impulse“)? Before the workshop, I asked participants to send me the first 10-20 words that came to their minds when they thought of Pietism. Here’s the resulting word cloud, swirling around the workshop’s title:

Pietist Idea of a Christian College word cloud

There’s some stuff here that’s pretty specific to Bethel’s context (school founder John Alexis Edgren, longtime president Carl Lundquist, “Swedish”), and it might shift if I were to repeat the exercise now that the workshop is done. But at the core are terms that together seem to capture the Pietist ethos: a heart religion seeking conversion (or Roger’s convertive piety), holy living, and spiritual formation/growth more than certainty or cohesion; indeed, when theological or other controversies arise, Pietists will appeal to the Bible, not any doctrine or confession, and will even then avoid needless controversy and embrace an irenic, or peaceable, spirit.

And while personal was also close to the center, as we turned to the implications of Pietism for education, I was most intrigued by David’s creative rethinking of the Pietist community: the conventicle.

David Williams
David Williams – Azusa Pacific University

From his own experience as a student at the Oregon Extension and then as a faculty member in Azusa’s High Sierra program (which situates a semester-long Great Books curriculum in California’s Sierra National Forest), David (a Bethel alum as well as former professor) suggested that intentionally entering into a smaller community at a remove from the larger educational institutions with which he’d been involved helped him to recapture the joy of learning, to remember that the life of the mind a “heart-warming, emotionally satisfying enterprise.”

As soon as he started off down this path, I started thinking back to my experience leading a January term trip to Europe, taking twelve Bethel students to England, Belgium, France, and Germany to study the history of World War I. It was perhaps the most energizing educational experience I’ve had, and left me wondering just how I’d ever evoke a similar experience within Bethel’s cinder block classrooms. (And that’s the challenge of David’s conventicle model, since we can’t all repair to the Cascades or High Sierra, or across the Atlantic Ocean, with a small group of students whenever we feel the walls closing in at the main campus.)

That’s not to say that a university like Bethel or Azusa is inherently stifling, but the fact that it is an institution with structures, boundaries, laws, etc. should awaken the Pietist impulse to seek new life by recreating a new, smaller, less formal community (which can then renew the larger one — the ecclesiola in ecclesia ideal). If the university itself is to think of itself as Pietist, it seems imperative that it protect the freedom of its faculty, students, et al. to improvise, innovate, and create such communities. (Let me stress “seems” — of everything else that came out of this workshop, this notion is most intriguing and least settled for me…)

Look for much more to come of this workshop as we go along. But for now, let me think our guest speakers, our workshop participants, and the bodies that funded it: the Lilly Fellows Program National Network Board; and Bethel’s provost, Deb Harless, and college deans, Deb Sullivan-Trainor and Barrett Fisher.


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