Reclaiming Piety

Olson and Collins Winn, Reclaiming PietismI’m convinced that one of the main reasons that those of us who appreciate Pietism face an uphill struggle in reclaiming its contemporary value is that Pietism is often equated with piety.

For some, piety connotes an intensely private kind of religiosity that detaches the Christian from concern for this world, leaving them “too heavenly minded to be earthly good.”

But probably for more, piety connotes an intensely public kind of religiosity that is likely legalistic, hypocritical, and/or exceedingly emotional. To practice piety, in this view, is to do exactly what Jesus warned against in the Sermon on the Mount: “…whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Mt 6:5, NRSV). To be pious in this way is to be pharisaical, to be “like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Mt 23:27).

It’s a piety that sets “being religious” above “following Christ.”

If either (or both) is truly at the heart of piety, then I’m not interested in reclaiming that word — and probably need to rethink my use of Pietism and Pietist. (Keep in mind that those terms were originally pejoratives applied by the movement’s critics.)

But perhaps there’s more to piety than other-worldly withdrawal or public hypocrisy… On a day in the Christian calendar when millions of Christians actually engage in a religious ritual that draws a great deal of public attention, it was interesting to see On Faith publish this call for “reclaiming piety“:

The word has become synonymous hypocrite and sanctimonious — and if we were to look the word up, we might find a picture of Tartuffe or a politician who thunders family values but spends the night with someone else’s spouse. Most of us would likely use it in a sentence more or less like this: “Look at him! He is so pious!” or “Don’t be so pious.”

This is a huge shame. The wordy [sic] piety comes from the Latin word pietas, which meant a duty toward your family, your neighbor, your country, and the gods. It was one of the chief virtues of the ancient Romans. The one who possessed pietas “performed all his duties towards the deity and his fellow human beings fully and in every respect”…

Rev. Kazimierz BemIn response to the “other-worldly” concern, UCC minister Kazimierz Bem points out that pietas is the stem for pity — “which originally did not carry with it a condescending tone, but meant ‘concerned, loving compassion.'” And to the second objection, Bem notes that Jesus, like others who address this subject in Scripture, “commend piety, when done properly. ‘Beware of practicing your piety so that others might see you,’ Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount [Mt 6:1]. His problem is not with piety as such, but with piety done ostentatiously for the public image — and not to glorify God.”

So Bem defines piety as “a joyful and sweet fulfilling of our duty to God and to our fellow human beings because of what God has done freely, lavishly and lovingly for us in Jesus Christ…. not… an empty ritual, but a way of living — an attitude.” I have no reason to think he would intend this outcome, but such a redefinition of piety would do much to help us reclaim Pietism as a source for renewal in 21st century Christianity.

(See also Bem’s January 2015 post on the importance of worship, and its connections to service and social justice.)


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