Pietist Vision Previews: “Pietist not just in content but tone”

Some of the endorsements on the back cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationI’m still a bit staggered that scholars as gifted as John Fea, Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen, John Schmalzbauer, and Amos Yong would think highly enough of our book on Pietism and Christian higher education to endorse it. But my heart was specially warmed that Houghton College president Shirley Mullen focused so much of her endorsement on how the book was written:

The book actually embodies the richness and distinctiveness of the Pietist tradition’s approach to higher education: first, the humility reflected in the careful, exploratory tone of the individual essays; second, the relational element exhibited in the collective wisdom of the entire group; finally, the impact on the heart as well as the mind, as readers are inspired to pursue a deeper understanding of their own theological roots.

I trust that the essays make a valuable contribution to a growing body of literature, that they convince readers that Pietism does offer a distinctive vision for education. But more than that, I wrote in our introduction, “Our goal is to present an approach to Christian higher education that is Pietist not just in content but tone.”

Or to paraphrase something I just wrote in a forthcoming review of another exciting new book, we wanted to write about Pietism as Pietists.

What’s pietistic about our approach? I certainly hope that Shirley is not alone in perceiving humility, since that seems to be one of the prime intellectual virtues for Pietists (according to several of our contributors). And a Pietist book — even one about higher education — should be more formative than informative, engaging hearts and spirits as much as minds.

But let me pull out a couple of other themes that I stressed in the introduction, plus one more that’s come to mind now that I’ve had some distance from the project.

The importance of autobiography
The Life of Lady Johanna Elenora Petersen
One of the most important Pietist autobiographies, by Johanna Eleonora Petersen (edited here by Barbara Becker-Cantarino)

Karl Olsson once observed that “the first relevant thing that pietism says is that personal time is important,” with spiritual autobiographies having been staples of Pietist reading and writing since the days of Johanna Eleonora Petersen and A. H. Francke. So I encouraged our contributors to extend that tradition by sharing their own stories. (pp. 30-31)

If our model of education is “person-centered” (Roger Olson) and mediated primarily through friendly, helpful relationships within tightly-knit communities (Kathy Nevins), then it’s only fitting that we leaven the more historical and theoretical content with our contributors’ own stories. Of course, this also hints at the subjectivity of Pietism — a major problem that Joel Ward grapples with in his chapter on organizational coherency.

But I’m glad that Roger was willing to hearken back to his experience on Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture team (including him and me, seven of our contributors have taught in CWC) and that Kathy would illustrate her approach to teaching (much more on this later in the week) by telling of her experiences with students. That Christian Collins Winn would reflect on teaching about peacemaking in Northern Ireland, while his colleague Dale Durie recalled learning about Pietism as a Bethel student himself.

Indeed, it’s why I shared so much intellectual autobiography in yesterday’s post. But I’m glad that this particular tone is struck before the reader sees anything from me in the book. Janel Curry’s preface is a two-and-a-half page memoir that begins with her undergraduate experience at Bethel:

…both my spiritual and my intellectual life were enriched and shaped by being introduced to a broad range of Christian scholars and Christian intellectual streams of thought. It was the beginning of a journey that demanded both my heart and my head—my whole person. (p. 11)

So autobiographical a tone is quite unusual for so academic a volume, but I pray that it renders us more approachable, even vulnerable. Writing about Petersen in her book on Pietist ethics, Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom noted that spiritual autobiographies united Pietists “around the common theme of loving God” and created “a sense of membership and ecclesial belonging” (Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, pp. 57, 59). So I hope that our readers — as our stories evoke their own — begin to feel a part of the community that offers this collective reflection. Speaking of…

The ecclesiola in ecclesia

I’ll have much more to say about the importance of communities in Friday’s preview post, but let me revisit something I wrote at the end of yesterday’s post: my realization that a book like this,

Title page from a 1676 edition of Spener, Pia Desideriaif it were to reflect the ethos that inspired it [again, Pietist in tone, not just content], should not come in the form of a sermon but a conversation. If we are casting a “Pietist vision” for higher education, it does not belong to one person but to a community whose members worship, pray, study, serve, rejoice and lament together—people who have a common purpose, even if they’re rarely of one mind. (p. 31)

It’s a Pietist distinctive as old as Spener’s Pia Desideria, quoted here by Dale in explaining how conventicles helped German Pietists live out Luther’s ideal of a “common priesthood”: “One person would not rise to preach… but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as the avoid discord and strife” (quoted on pp. 117-18).

“So think of yourself,” I suggested at the end of my introduction, “as listening in as members of one learning community—a conventicle or ecclesiola, if you will—discuss how Pietism has shaped what they do as teachers, scholars, mentors, curators, colleagues and neighbors to Christians and non-Christians alike” (pp. 31-32). It’s easiest to see in those instances when contributors explicitly respond to someone else in the “conventicle.” But even when it’s more implicit, I think you’ll get the sense of “listening in” on a conversation. (I tried to encourage people to read each other’s drafts, and remember that all of this started in the context of a two-day workshop.)

But the Pietist conventicle was not (at least, not for Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, Bengel, and other leaders) a sect — it existed in relation to a larger faith community. And so our book’s community functions as a kind of ecclesiola in ecclesia, a “little church within the Church.”

This is not meant to be the final word on Pietism and Christian higher education but the beginning of a conversation that is both specific to one institution and widely resonant with sisters and brothers in Christ serving at an array of other colleges and universities—especially those that might yet recover their own “usable pasts” from Pietism. (p. 32)

Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind
Incidentally, a recent summary by Scot McKnight has me eager to read Mouw’s newest book…

While what we have to say is rooted to a significant extent in our shared experience of one university, I hope that it rings true with many having no connection to Bethel. I’m aspiring, I think, to the “ecumenical particularity” that Douglas Jacobsen has described as being characteristic of the late Rodney Sawatsky’s vision for Messiah College.

I hope that we are willing both to teach the wider ecclesia and to learn from it.

To be sure, we are writing out of the conviction that Pietism, for all its reputed anti-intellectualism, has something distinctive to say about Christian higher education. But we also drink from many other streams: Kent Gerber (raised a Mennonite) turns to the “Anabaptist vision” of Harold Bender; Jenell Paris learns of the virtue of love from John Wesley; and Joel Ward reflects on John Henry Newman’s Catholic vision of higher education. And for all the reservations that many of us have about the Reformed influence on prevailing models of Christian scholarship, I’m glad not only that Reformed thinkers like Richard Mouw and Alvin Plantinga are quoted and praised, but that one of our own Calvin College grads, philosopher Ray VanArragon, shared a thoughtful warning about the dangers of the Pietist enthusiasm for the virtue of open-mindedness.

Indeed, I’d be thrilled if Shirley is right that our “readers are inspired and motivated to pursue a deeper understanding of their own theological roots.”

Hope for better times

Finally, and briefly, I’m struck that we sound so hopeful. It would be easy to do otherwise: this book was written as Bethel went through a financial crisis, and we’ve all become more aware that what we do is inevitably shaped by forces beyond our control. (Our book’s final section, on the practical challenges facing Pietist colleges and universities, closes with sociologist Samuel Zalanga’s response to the implications of “neoliberal” economics for higher education.)

And yet I think we largely write like Spener did in Pia Desideria. Like him, when we consider the present status of our corner of Christianity, “we cannot turn our eyes upon it without having quickly to cast them down again in shame and distress” (p. 40). But also like him, we have “hope for better times”; we are also certain that “It is the same Holy Spirit who is bestowed on us by God who once effected all things in the early Christians, and he is neither less able nor less active today to accomplish the work of sanctification in us” (p. 85).

I think that’s why I was so drawn to Revelation 21:1-5 as the inspiration for my conclusion:

“See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5) heralds the most disruptive innovation in history, as God brings into being not just a new heaven but a new earth. For his good reasons, God chooses to accomplish that renewal of the world through renewed persons gather together as a renewed church. May Pietist colleges and universities—finding new life in their usable pasts—continue to take up their share of that mission in hope and with joy. (p. 233)

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