Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Devil is a Pietist: Reflections on False Dilemmas

There are some interesting links between the Halle Pietists of the mid-18th century, the campaigns for Morality in England in the late 17th century, the Great Awakenings in North America in the mid/late 18th century and early 19th century, and Schliermacher and the rise of liberal theology in the 19th century. There are, of course, genealogical links. German Pietists left a residue on those men (namely, Wesley and Whitfield) who became the great preachers of the Great Awakening. And these Great Awakening Preachers were offspring of the Morality drives of the Church of England, viz. the SPG and SPCK, from the early 18th century. And one familiar with Schliermacher knows he grew up among the Moravians, distinct, but cut from the same cloth, as the Hallesian Pietists.

But besides this, there is something interesting in terms of politics. Zinzendorf, the heart and soul of the Moravian Church, was a prince who studied at Halle. He was a count of great pedigree, having his title from one of the old Holy Roman Imperial families. He studied at Halle and, following his zeal, circuited the courts of Europe to encourage missionary efforts. The courts of England, Prussia, and Denmark, among others, welcome the prince. The Danish were the first to start the wave of Protestant missionary efforts, sending Lutheran pastors to the Tamil of Sri Lanka. The commonsense theme here is that Zinzendorf, nor any of his preacher friends, were alien or despised at court. The states of Europe, many beginning the expanse for their long or short lived colonial experiments, were very much open to the Pietists and Evangelicals.

Schliermacher was an avid, I might say even rabid, proponent for German nationalism and Prussian superiority. The British Empire was flush full of Evangelicals, and even though the Church of England was slow to accommodate the whirlwind of Whitfields and Methodists, they soon adapted. The Second Great Awakening created a drive, mingling and mixing, towards the growth of an American continental empire. All of this inspired a broad and generous Protestantism that is the foundation of our common-sense of religiosity. This is the heart and soul of our appreciation for the broadly Christian and, now, the vaguely numinous. Major industrialists, like Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Pullman, were all religious men, promoting, from their deep and charitable souls, a broad sense for the Christian religion, or just religion in general. Of course we know these men to have transformed the American factory system into a nightmare and flay the soul of American labor through the monotony and agony of Industrial capitalism.

What do all of these diverse phenomena, all intersected and (intentionally) jumbled, have to do with one another? All of them emphasized the sense of morality and pious devotion while bracketing questions of social ethics. All of these assumed the place of the Church as the crook of whichever national dream or imperial vision. All of them ignored questions of theological power and rigor.

Again, my fascination with the Puritan continues to grow. Here was a societal mood among many English Christians to turn to the Word of God to speak. I'm not assessing whether they did this successfully or not, but they turned the world upside down in their pursuit. They toppled a king and tried to re-imagine a godly commonwealth. They tried to reinvent society, involving social relations between husband and wife, magistrate and subjects, Christian to Christian etc etc. This produced the regicide and Roger Williams' Rhode Island; this created Cromwell's tolerance of the Jews and the massacre of Indians in King Philip's War. These stories are more complex than simply the mood of Puritanism. However, it's interesting to see the death of this mood in England, at the end of the 17th century, involved a transition towards proto-Evangelicalism. Theological disputes were discouraged and hissed at, calls for moral reform and devotional literature applauded.

What does this mean? I think there is something inherently destabilizing and uneasy about considering whether the Bible can speak to the pillars of the Earth, that is the foundations of created reality. I don't mean this in terms of science or physics, rather metaphysics and Human telos. The common refrain from the Pietist of the 18th century, the Moralist of the 17th, and the Evangelical even of today is to sneer at these questions. These are divisive, they say; they are too speculative. Can we not put aside questions of form and turns our eyes towards God? The Spirit, they say, is what matters. But, it seems too often the Devil is quite content with this form of religion.

While many have rightly critiqued the Social Gospel as a relapse into the kind of moralism that merely tries to scrub the pillars of the Imperial dominion, Pietism is shutting one's eyes to the questions of reality. It's a turn towards emotion and internalizing of reality. It tries to banish the social demands of the Gospel from the lives of Christians. It proscribes practices that basically allow us to be Sunday-Only Christians in a highly refined sense. Rather than merely occupy a bench one day a week and return to "reality", this has created a gloss for our economic and social actions. We pray, read a devotional, and get back to work. It's basically a form of Buddhism, in that we treat the material world as merely an immaterial wasteland. Our internal actions become more real, and thus we can participate in abusive social phenomena and keep our hands clean.

Moralism and Pietism go together quite well because neither asks fundamental questions about what we end up doing with our lives. They hand over our bodies as tools for the principalities and powers of darkness. Is it not strange that certain Christians, ranging from Antony to Peter Waldo, when hearing the call of the Gospel, radically restructured their lives and how they integrated (or didn't) into society? Do we not think it odd that it was theological dogmas that stood to challenge the very sovereigns of realms?

In some ways, it's worth burning your devotionals and opening the Scripture. Take off the blinders and wake up to the possibility the World as not as you think it is. Maybe you're knee deep in tides of blood, and you've been told to worry about "spending time with Jesus" or working on your "relationship with God". Do you even know your God? How would you know?

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