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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright©2007 by Robert
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