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Plaster Sanctification


I have called pietism a scab, a suppuration of the best juices of the spirit... Pietism is ... the born and sworn enemy of true scientific thinking... The madness of pietism lies in the peculiarity of its interest in religion... The pietist is religious as if religion is his trade, the pietist is he who goes around professing his religion, the pietist is the man who smells for religion... A pietist must be a hypocrite... (Friedrich Theodor Vischer)


What's wrong with pietism? And is it the same thing as piety? I suspect maybe it is not, and this would help explain something otherwise highly ironic about this passage. For Vischer himself no doubt had a pious attachment of sorts to the scholarly tradition of the Tübingen School to which he belonged. And so do I. Was he, then, a hypocrite, as he says a pietist must be?

First, what exactly is offensive about pietism? About pietists? The ones Vischer ran afoul of? Well, they must have sought in some way to stymie the critical study of scripture. They always do, and it is not hard to see why. "We must not criticize the scripture. We must allow it to criticize us! We dare not sit in judgment on the Word of God!"

Pietism is all about self-improvement by reference to a Higher Power. AA has direct roots in the Pietist movement and is a barely disguised version of it, precisely as TM is a barely secularized version of Vedanta Hinduism. If you laugh at Stuart Smalley, it is his sickening pietism you are laughing at. And that implies that pietism is a religiosity that lifts itself aloft, though that may not be very far off the ground, by means of slogans substituting for thought. And why? Because thought seems not to get you very far. So maybe chanting mantras will do it by self-hypnosis. For AA it may be "That's stinkin' thinkin'" or some such. For ecologists it's talk about "the planet, man." For Protestant pietists the slogans, the mantras, in short, the magic formulae are biblical "promises" of sanctification.

The Bible tells you you had better repent and improve yourself or face judgment. Christianity promises salvation from this prospect. Not by mere human effort, but by the grace of God. To effect this salvation, you must still do one crucial thing: you must call upon these promises. You must click on the icon. Because it is your faith in God's power that will let that power loose.

But then, if it is God's grace and your faith, where does the improvement of your life come in? What or who makes you better than you were, so your resume will pass muster at the last judgment? That is where the kindred doctrine of sanctification by faith comes in. There are "promises," i.e., Bible verses taken to mean that God will make you righteous and saintly despite your natural inclination to be a sinner. Again, he will not overwhelm you. You have to let him do it. You must "claim the promises," chant the formulae, for sanctification to occur.

And this is why the earnest pietist becomes a vicious opponent of the biblical critic. He sniffs with an unerring instinct that someone is at work devaluing the currency he needs to keep him afloat in the sin-free zone. "What? You mean these passages are mere opinions of mere mortals like me? They are not dictated from the Hestonian mouth of the Almighty? Then I cannot rely upon them in faith and trust, any more than I would the dubious preachments of some self-help paperback, and I am back to square one. And then any placebo effect the Bible references might once have had disappears. The jig is up. This is the single and sufficient rationale of the fundamentalist opposition to biblical criticism.

And in the course of that vehement opposition fundamentalists suddenly drop the mask of piety. At least no one else can see its features. They assume the role of sanhedrin inquisitors as if born to the role. "Nail some sense into 'em!" The sad fates of Strauss, Wellhausen, Bauer, Lüdemann, and others illustrate the wrath of the pious once aroused.

Why, do you suppose, the pious can slide so easily from the mode of devout to devourer? I venture to say it is because their sanctification, as it must be under the circumstances, was an illusion. We should have spotted the clue when we heard the news that they were sanctified by magical means, by faith and despite the evidence. The believer's virtue is to claim salvation in the absence of concrete evidence for salvation. And he equally claims sanctification despite the lack of worldly evidence. This may put him in the position of the failed believer in divine healing. He asked the deity to heal him, claimed the appropriate promise, and nothing seemed to happen. But it must have happened. And so it did happen: Satan must be counterfeiting the symptoms!! And if you seem unsanctified, that, too, must be a trick of the light!

Harry Ironside, himself a pietist, saw the problem here in a book called Holiness: The False and the True. Only he should have called it The False and the False, for his own alternative was little better, just less obviously fallacious. He attacked the belief in "entire sanctification," "Christian perfection." This is the teaching of the Holiness denominations originating with Charles Wesley, the belief that by an act of faith one might unleash the sanctifying power of Christ to such a degree that the sinful inclination would be forever eliminated, at least stultified. Wesley was not about to claim this had happened to him personally, but he thought he might know one old lady to whom it had happened. Later, once the Holiness Revival blossomed within and without the borders of staid Methodism, every Holiness member and his brother were claiming to have been sanctified and fire-baptized unto holiness, "the Second Blessing."

Ironside pointed out the insidious deception involved. If one thought God had promised perfect holiness already in this life, and one claimed it, and it didn't happen (because there had been a misunderstanding, no such promise having been made), what had to happen? One could not afford to admit those sins that kept unexpectedly cropping up again and again were in fact sins. No, that would mean God had neglected his promise. So they must not be sins!

The result could be a kind of Tantric libertinism. One believes one has exorcised from one's being all sinful motivation, so what remains simply cannot be sinful! "By the same acts that cause some men to boil in hell for one hundred thousand eons, the yogi gains his eternal salvation." One might keep one's actions a secret so as not to frighten the poor "weaker brethren," but that's all. Of course most do not go this far, though I know of some personally who have: Nazarene wife-swapping groups, etc. Nor is this kind of thing hypocritical. It has a peculiar and radical consistency.

But usually it doesn't go this far, we do have classical hypocrisy, precisely as Vischer said. We rationalize away what we once would have confessed. Spite becomes sanctified as "righteous indignation," and so on. The sins themselves are sanctified, no longer the sinner. There is a self-blindedness inculcated simply because to see sharply would be to see that the promises of God had failed, or equally fatal, that by mere scriptural exegesis one could never be sure one had the promise of God after all. And then what happens to that variety of religion which centers essentially upon "claiming the promises of God?"

What was Ironside's alternative? If I'm not mistaken, he was only a single niche over on the spectrum of pietism. He would have believed in Keswick spirituality, the cultivation of the "Deeper Life," by "letting go and letting God" live the Christian life through you. It was not so much destroying the evil inclination within you but rather just playing Taoist, stepping aside to allow the power of God to do its thing. But tall claims were made for this approach, too, claims that lead fundamentalists who embrace it to live in quiet self-condemnation. The Deeper Life approach is different from Christian Perfection in precisely the same way as James Frazer said religion differs from magic. Magic promised results and did not deliver them. Religion was superior only in that, while it did not improve the batting average, it made failure less embarassing since its claims were more modest.

But in the end, the result's all pretty much the same. There can be no magical sanctification. Improvement of character is always the result of hard work and always ambiguous in result. To claim sanctification by means of some therapy or miracle is an invitation to self-deception--self-deception like that of the pious inquisitor Vischer was talking about.

But there is a whole different sort of piety from this. It might be described, analyzed, mapped out as a respect or veneration of some great tradition which one dares and rejoices to embody by becoming a link in its chain. We can speak of a pious attachment to intellectual traditions, fraternal societies, to business concerns, to the military. One speaks appreciatively of this greater entity to which one belongs. Piety should not disallow fun-poking or criticism, and if it does, piety has become idolatry, as when a fan can brook no criticism of his idol, no suggestion that his favorite author has written both masterpieces and mediocrities. And it is evident that Vischer‘s ire had been roused by some who were too brittle in their idolatry.

Piety knows that the object of its veneration is so great that it does not require one's own efforts to defend or to promote it. If it needs you, it cannot be very great after all. But if you take such a patronizing and promotional stance, you become obnoxious, like those who offended Vischer. You devalue whatever it is you seek to sell like a product. It takes on the tinge of sleaze because you are trying to sell it, like a candidate or Amway products.

Piety is properly private. Because your veneration is precious to you, you do not expose it to the corrosive air. Because to you it is a pearl of great price, you will not eagerly cast it before the swinish leer of outsiders who perhaps are ill-prepared to appreciate it. It is you who will have made it a laughingstock by expecting others to affirm what they may not recognize as great. So much for the tastelessness of pietism.

Whence the arrogance of the thing? The hinted sense of the pietist as Grand Inquisitor in Vischer's quote? The pietist feels he has a proprietary interest in religion, and that the Higher Critic is violating his copyright. But he feels also the Olympian authority of the Word of God which he imagines himself humbly to serve. Whence this confusion of humility and arrogance? This confusion between fire and water?

Eric Hoffer explained it well in The True Believer. The pietist practices self-abnegation. In fact, what attracts him to a movement greater than himself in the first place is a kind of self-hatred. He sees in the recruiting call of the cause-evangelist an opportunity to lay aside the hated burden of selfhood, and to yield to what is greater. In this first stage, there is some humility: "He (or it) must increase and as for me, I must decrease." But the second moment in the process is insidious; one assumes the mask and the mantle of that greater entity one serves. Having hollowed out a skull cavity for it to live in inside your head, you have now installed it where your self used to be.

Or so you think. In fact you could not eliminate the self, so you have merely invested your self with the grandiose delusion of your idol's greatness. You have become it in your own eyes! "I said it! God believes it! That settles it!" No wonder the pietist knows how severely God disapproves of your action or opinion. It is not so much that he imagines God has told him so, though that would be bad, that would be mad, enough. No, he knows God's opinion because it is his opinion because he is God! How else can he be so quick with the thunderbolt? "Friend, it's not my opinion; it's God's opinion!" "The Gospel’s not good views--it's good news!"

It is not only the religious pietist who can fall victim to this identity confusion, as you well know. A professor, a scholar, can come down like a ton of bricks because he has identified himself implicitly with the weight of learning that constitutes his field, as when one poses as an expert so as to settle a question. But in this as so many other matters, Socrates must be our guide. Socrates knew how vast a vista was wisdom, and he knew how little of it he had mastered, or allowed to master him. He did not think to pose as a living avalanche of authority. Socrates himself became an object of piety, but he tried to temper it. On his deathbed he told his disciples, "Think not of Socrates, but think of the truth." Just as Jesus warned, "Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in him who sent me." Here are two idols who warned against idolatry. If our piety toward them gets out of hand, out of line, we become like the pietists Vischer scorned, a man who seemingly just wanted to be left alone to do his work.

But that is just what the pietist will not let you do. For in his naiveté, in his lack of distance and perspective, he can see the rightness of no other cause than his own, Yours must be a distraction. It is not yours to choose what will occupy your hours. He will set your agenda as well as his own, since he cannot conceive that his cause may not be ultimate in importance. No nukes, political reform, solar energy, animal rights--his cause sets the agenda for the age. Can't you see it? He means to make you feel ashamed for not seeing it.

The pietist can use the language of mission and crusade without irony because he has not yet put away childish things. It is not that you can no longer take things seriously once you have matured. You just learn that even the salt of the earth must take things with a grain of salt. That there are no categorical imperatives, only hypothetical imperatives. Someone like Vischer, by contrast, whom I have described as pious toward the great tradition that he embodied, is perhaps all the more dedicated to that tradition, their heritage, precisely because he fears the well-meaning blundering of crusaders, those who believe the world can be sanctified as they imagine themselves to have been. The one who is pious toward the past is pious partly from pessimism about do-gooders whose ideals may be as airy and insubstantial as their estimate of themselves. The uncritical idealism is the enemy of any old order, because any old order has been seasoned and has come to terms with the realities the idealist does not see and doesn't want to see.

It may be that the opposite of pietism is cynicism, but at least one may say Socratic humility is on the latter's side. The cynic can be cynical about his cynicism, while the pietist cannot be cynical about his pietism. That, I think, is a significant clue.


Robert M. Price

July 26, 2000 




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