Pietism: Eclectic and Playful?

In my introduction to our forthcoming book, I emphasize our desire to cast a vision for Christian higher education that is “Pietist not just in content, but tone.” At least in the present draft, that means four things:

  • A degree of autobiographical reflection unusual for such an academic book;
  • Extended meditation on scriptural passages (e.g., Rev 21:5 in my conclusion);
  • A prevailing “irenic spirit” — not Midwestern “niceness,” but a hopeful commitment to extend charity and live at peace with our neighbors, avoiding needless disputation;
  • Finally, the very decision to present the vision not as the work of one author, but as a conversation within a kind of conventicle.

It may not make the final draft (more than usual, today I’m using blogging as a kind of thinking aloud), but there’s one other theme running through the book that could mark it as distinctively Pietist in tone: it’s rather eclectic.

Hyemeyohsts Storm
Hyemeyhosts Storm, from whose book Seven Arrows my colleague Kathy Nevins learned the Cheyenne Medicine Wheel, a key influence on her approach to teaching, as she discusses in a chapter that reflects on the implications of Spener’s Pia Desideria for classroom community

Our contributors borrow from — or at least bounce ideas off of — a cast of characters that includes Socrates, Carl F. H. Henry, Albert Einstein, Miroslav Volf, Søren Kierkegaard, Charles Taylor, John Henry Newman, Brian McLaren, Milton Friedman, Parker Palmer, physicist William Phillips, nursing educator Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, anthropologist Kenneth Pike, biblical scholar John Walton, historian Harold Bender, philosopher John Hick, political consultant Mark DeMoss, business professor Youngme Moon, and the Native American writer Hyemeyohsts Storm(As the one who will develop an index for the project, my head is already hurting.) None of these are Pietists; some aren’t even Christians, or theists.

Maybe this is simply what you’d expect of authors who work at liberal arts colleges, but it’s also redolent of the eclecticism that Douglas Shantz observes repeatedly in his Introduction to German PietismWhile Shantz acknowledges the continuities between the Pietists and Lutherans like their “Orthodox” opponents, he finds important breaks as well, as Pietists drew on an eclectic mix of sources for their beliefs and practices, including not just Martin Luther and Puritan preachers, but those further to the margins of post-Reformation Christianity, like Caspar Schwenkfeld, Paracelsus, Jakob Böhme, and other mystics and spiritualists.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this for Pietists today. But at the very least, eclecticism may dovetail with some other pietistic impulses like ecumenism (in my introduction I quoted from C. O. Rosenius on this — see an earlier post on the “catholicity” of Pietism) and the practical bent they share with the Catholic reformer Erasmus, who advised readers never to refuse good advice, even from “a pagan.”

But more still with what one of my colleagues suggested at the workshop last summer that planted the seeds for our book: that Pietists approach theology with a kind of “playfulness.”

I do hint at this combination of eclecticism and playfulness in my conclusion, where I suggest that such attributes might make it even harder for Pietist colleges and universities than usual for such Christian institutions “to balance their commitments to academic freedom and orthodox witness.” But perhaps I’m too fearful, too prone to think of theology (and other disciplines) as a kind of boundary-policing.

Olson, Reformed and Always ReformingIt may help here to consider theology as, in the words of theologian Roger Olson (one of our contributors), “the church’s third-order speech, which reflects on Scripture [first-order] in light of testimony, praise, and proclamation [second-order] and comes back to testimony, praise, and proclamation with recommendations for correction and supplementation” (Reformed and Always Reforming, p. 163). Not to say that all attempts at the study of God are equally valid, but if the task of the theologian is to reflect creatively on the way that the Person at the center of our belief is revealed in Scripture (via “testimony, praise, and proclamation”), then a spirit of play seems like the right one in which to approach the work.

And if it’s true for the formal study of God, then it might also be true for those disciplines that study the work of God in this world, and for the practice of educating people who will love God and those made in his image.

Again, I’m doing little more than thinking aloud here, so I’d appreciate feedback… Are eclecticism and playfulness significant, distinctive enough attributes of Pietism that I should do more to emphasize them as I frame our book? (Are they as interconnected as I suspect?)

7 thoughts on “Pietism: Eclectic and Playful?

  1. Chris, on the subject of play you might want to check out the work of Robert K. Johnston, formerly at North Park Seminary, now at Fuller, e.g. The Christian at Play.

  2. This might not be what you’re looking for in terms of feedback, but it based on what these influences it seems right to say that Pietism has an eclectic and somewhat playful tone–as long as you do not say that one’s Pietism thus must have an eclecticism and playfulness in order to really be Pietist. I doubt you would make any such claim, but it seems an important distinction.

    Is it taking the passage (that I don’t really know the context for) too far out of context to make this idea remind of Micah 6:8? Most likely, but it still does. Pietism takes God very seriously, but does leave room for us to be humble in our approach to our beliefs and those of others – in this way Pietism allows us to not take ourselves too seriously.

    1. Sorry, should have proofread. After the comma in the first sentence should read: “but based on the influences mentioned above it seems right…”

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