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)
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?
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!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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!
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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