The Promise (and Problems) of “Usable Pasts”

I’ve been busy this morning packing up for our gradual trip back home, so I’ll have to catch up later and watch video of the 2016 Bethel Colloquium on Pietism. But I did manage to catch the opening remarks by Bethel provost Deb Harless and theology professor Christian Collins Winn, my friend and co-coordinator. Both spoke of the importance of communities like Bethel finding a “usable past” in the history of Pietism.

Deb mentioned how attention to Bethel’s roots in Pietism consciously informed a 2013-14 strategic planning process, with the university’s new vision statement including this rather pietistic line: “Ours is a living orthodoxy that engages the world’s most challenging problems, to God’s glory and for our neighbors’ good.” (I may have written that.)

And then from the text of Christian’s introduction:

Christian Collins Winn
Christian Collins Winn – Bethel University

…in keeping with the overarching thematic and intention that shaped both our 2009 Conference, and the subsequent 2012 Colloquium, this Colloquium is interested in what we might call “a usable past.” In other words, we are not just gathered here to reminisce about the past, or even to celebrate the tradition and heritages that we will discuss today—not that such would be a bad thing. Rather, we are interested in understanding the underlying spiritual, religious, and theological dynamics that shaped these movements in the hopes of translating some of that into the present. What does the Pietist tradition have to say to the challenges that we find ourselves dealing with today? Perhaps more specifically, I can’t help but wonder if Pietism might not provide a different way of conceiving what it might mean to be a Christian, one that describes a deep commitment to the living and risen Christ whose presence not only enlivens and changes the heart, but also the head and the hands (and the feet), sending us out into the world as witnesses to the reign of God, which is good news to the poor and the dispossessed. Thus, a great reason to engage the various Pietist traditions is because of what it might have to offer for thinking about some of the problems that vex contemporary Christian communities today.

Of course, Christian’s central question — “What does the Pietist tradition have to say to the challenges that we find ourselves dealing with today?” — is also the one animating the book that Mark Pattie and I are writing. Ours is not a history text; instead, it looks to the past to see (again, in Christian’s words) “if Pietism might not provide a different way of conceiving what it might mean to be a Christian….”

Two years ago, in introducing The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education, I acknowledged that “Historians tend to be uneasy with the notion of a ‘usable past,’ a phrase that originated with an essay [by Van Wyck Brooks] asking, ‘If we need another past so badly, is it inconceivable that we might discover one, that we might even invent one?'” I felt twinges of the same uneasiness writing the book with Mark. Not that I thought we were making things up, but attempting to draw on history to cast a vision for the present certainly tempts us to distort the past.

Fea, Why Study HistoryJohn Fea describes one version of the problem in Why Study History? He warns of a type of “usable past” that we might call “heritage”: “It is a way of approaching the past that is fundamentally different than the discipline of history. History explores and explains the past in all its fullness and complexity. Heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point; it is rarely concerned with nuance or paradox.” John is most attentive to the political uses of the past, but surely the same pitfall awaits people trying to make a theological or spiritual point.

But I’ve long since made my peace with this problem. First, I’m convinced that seeking a “usable past” is indispensable if individuals or communities are to understand their own identities. In the same chapter that warns against heritage, John quotes David Lowenthal’s maxim that “The sureness of ‘I was’ is a necessary component of the sureness of ‘I am.'” John adds that the same theme applies to groups: “The past can also help us understand our place in the communities and nations we call home.”

And the churches, denominations, religious colleges, and wider religious traditions we call home. Here’s how I continued the introduction to our book on Pietism and higher education: “But like nations, families and other groups, learning communities would have little sense of collective identity if they made no attempt to make meaning of their pasts.”

To be sure, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of engaging in such meaning-making. But I think it’s possible to evoke a “usable past” that does not gloss over “nuance or paradox.” For example, Mark and I note again and again the tensions inherent in Pietism. While the style and length of our book doesn’t let us dwell at length on historical examples of, say, Pietist legalism or anti-intellectualism, we note their existence and then recommend further reading.

Deb Harless
Deb Harless – Bethel University

One of the best ways to ensure this kind of search for a “usable past” is to integrate multiple, even divergent perspectives. So I’m glad that Christian’s introduction emphasized the notion of today’s colloquium continuing “to expand the conversation about Pietism.” As in 2009 and 2012, we consciously sought “a broad array of conversation partners” with the speakers including “both experts and non-experts [who could] speak on Pietism and its historical and contemporary significance for the church today…. It makes for a fruitful dialogue, and is in keeping with the invitational spirit of Pietism, allowing the broader church to explore the rich heritage of the Pietist tradition, with the hope that together we might find a way to further witness to the living reality of Jesus Christ in today’s world.”

Of course, people like Christian, me, and our late colleague GW Carlson could only engage in such conversations and seek the “usable past” of Pietism because of the longstanding, steadfast support of Deb Harless and Bethel president Jay Barnes. I thank them, and hope that the fruit of labors like this colloquium and my forthcoming book will reward the faith they’ve placed in us.


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