Pietist Vision Previews: The Importance of Community

Precisely because of the tradition’s emphasis on the personal experience of conversion, the subject of our previous post, Pietism is sometimes critiqued for promoting religious individualism (cf. Karl Barth). However, there’s scarcely any chapter in our book that doesn’t emphasize the importance of community for the Pietist vision of Christian higher education.

1852 painting of a Haugean conventicle
1852 painting of a Haugean Pietist conventicle in Norway – Wikimedia

For example, while philosopher David Williams explores the implications for education of the Pietist emphasis on the individual experiencing “new birth” (Wiedergeburt), the second theme running through his chapter is the Pietist yearning for the closer, more authentically Christian community that one experiences within the conventicle. But for all the common appeals to “community” heard on evangelical campuses, David observes that the word is “primarily used in the context of Student Affairs” and challenges those in academics “to reclaim the notion of community, not as ‘extracurricular’ but as embedded deeply within the practice of teaching, learning and research. The conventicle form, so integral to evangelicalism’s usable past, is one means of forming academic community” (p. 48).

The following chapter, by psychologist Kathy Nevins, fleshes out how the community of a classroom conduces to teaching and learning (again, understood as the formation of “whole and holy persons”):

What Pietists advocated, and contemporary research and practice supports, is that cultivating Christian maturity is best done in community. In community, students (and faculty) are able to encounter the challenges necessary for growth and to receive the supports needed to meet those challenges. The classroom becomes what [Ray] Oldenburg called a “third place,” where one is known, feels safe and can engage with others in ways that expand one’s understanding of self, others, the world and God—that is, the pietistic pursuit of wholeness and holiness. (p. 53)

Kathy revisits Philipp Jakob Spener’s foundational text, Pia Desideria, and finds several themes that resonate with her understanding of the classroom as community, including Spener’s recovery of Luther’s notion of the “common priesthood” (which “encourages the creation of a classroom where all are needed and welcomed to participate, full members of the learning endeavor”) and the emphasis he placed on the virtues of love, humility, and openness to correction. While the professor becomes a partner with her students (rather than viewing them “as minions whose whole existence should be dedicated to my course”), she is also the “author and initiator” of the community:

Community in the classroom begins with me. Do I have agape love for my students as neighbors? Do I engaged in the “examined life,” choosing my words and conduct with some care so as to be a role model exemplifying Christian character? And do I challenge and encourage class members to do the same in their interactions with one another and with me? If so, then the fabric of a pietistic community is being woven, and all will sense the connections that convey the ethic of care and love for neighbor. (p. 63)

“Walls come down between students and faculty,” writes physicist Dick Peterson of his department’s commitment to pursuing research through faculty-student collaboration, “as problems are addressed that would be quite intractable within a traditional academic laboratory” (p. 155).

Kathy Nevins
Kathy Nevins – Bethel University

Incidentally, Kathy and Dick’s chapters exemplify two other themes of this book that I hadn’t intended, but was delighted to see emerge as the project took shape.

First, while we discuss research and scholarship, there’s a clear focus on teaching. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of Bethel’s finest teachers ended up contributing to this book. Kathy and Dick have both been recognized with Bethel’s Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching, as have fellow contributors Marion Larson, Nancy Olen, Sara Shady, and myself — and I suspect that several others would have won the award by now had they stayed at Bethel longer or not previously won the parallel award for scholarship.

Second, whatever else results from this book, I’m patting myself on the back for having got someone like Kathy to put her teaching philosophy in writing. Kathy has long been a teacher of teachers at Bethel, but as she nears the end of her career, I love the idea that another generation of Bethel professors will continue to learn from her. Likewise, I was happy to get contributions from professors who have already moved on to retirement (like Dick) or to other institutions (like David), and add them to our record.

Back to community…

Of course, within Pietism, the conventicle does not exist on its own for its own sake: it’s an ecclesiola (“little church”) within the larger ecclesia. As David puts it, the conventicle is a “less formal space where individuals can maintain their connection to the larger body of Protestantism yet critique it and preserve a vitality so easily lost in the larger operation” (p. 47). There are interesting implications here for the university itself, both for its internal functioning (in his chapter, Joel Ward wonders if the Pietist university can maintain “organizational coherency”) and for its relationship to communities beyond itself.

Above all, the ecclesia itself. This is one theme that I do wish more of our contributors had taken up, so I devoted two pages of my conclusion to asking how the college helps to renew the church. I suggested that “we might think of the Pietist college as an ecclesiola, more intimate and more specialized than the ecclesia to which it is connected but vital to the renewal of the larger body.” While it serves the church, “the college-as-ecclesiola must have sufficient autonomy to question, evaluate and even agitate.” Alluding to key themes in Pia Desideria, I concluded, “There is hardly hope for ‘better times’ for a renewed church if there’s no one free to draw attention to the ‘wretched conditions’ that exist” (pp. 230-31).

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationHere we should at least take seriously Kent Gerber’s suggestion that a school like Bethel collaborate with similar church-related schools, using the tools of a digital age to collectively curate our shared heritage in Pietism, to “both highlight the contributions of Pietism to evangelical identity and model its irenic spirit of ecumenical cooperation.” Noting how the Plowshares Digital Archive sustains a shared “peace church” identity for Earlham, Goshen, and Manchester, Kent suggests that their own digital collaboration “could provide more opportunities for Pietist institutions to tell their stories and seek a vital future together” (p. 208).

But our community must also serve other communities beyond the church, including those that don’t have Christ at their center. While we too often hear of conflict between science and religion, Dick celebrates how his Christian colleagues and students learn humility, through the sciences’

consensus-seeking openness to the correction of fellow workers. In this fashion the global science community traditionally seeks to function almost like a giant brain that is open to input and peer review from fellow workers as it seeks consensus. While sometimes failing to achieve such ideal openness to correction, the science enterprise may still come closer than many facets of society—including discussions within the church. (p. 155)

And here I’d also draw special attention to Sara Shady and Marion Larson’s chapter on “Christian responsibility in a pluralistic world.” Two of the leaders in Bethel’s commitment to interfaith dialogue (fairly unusual among evangelical colleges), Sara and Marion explore how serving other faith communities can deepen three distinctive outcomes of the Pietist approach of Christian higher education: that it seeks spiritual at least as much as intellectual formation; that it emphasizes love of neighbors as a central virtue; and that it has Christians approach conflict in an irenic, or peaceable, spirit.

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