Working recently on some issues in Mariology and Christology, I was struck by how little about Mary and Jesus Christ I’m hearing nowadays from Catholics, whether from ranking clergy through the media, or on the ground in my circles. We’re preoccupied with politics in Church and State and cultural issues as well. Seldom am I hearing straight talk about God and his economy of salvation (the homilies the priests at my parish deliver being a good exception). Maybe it’s my inner Augustinian, but it seems our souls are being weighed down by the concerns of earth when they ought to be focused on the things of heaven.
Orthodoxy, pietism, and liberalism
This is not a new phenomenon. It’s as if contemporary Catholic concerns for the things of earth—establishing a just order; advocating for peace and the dignity of the person; being the leaven and salt that makes life in this valley of tears a little more bearable for our fellow men and women; but sometimes also the skulduggery of ecclesial politics and our relationship to political and economic power—is following a pattern other Christian bodies progressed through in modernity: the pattern of orthodoxy, pietism, and liberalism.
Coming out of the confessional struggles of the Reformation, many bodies focused on doctrine and defined themselves by orthodoxy, here understood as right beliefs about God. Religion was thought to concern right doctrine, and so Confessions were written (like the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Reformed First and Second Helvetic Confessions, or the Schleitheim Confession of the radical wing of the Reformation—“Anabaptist” is now a term out of favor) and catechisms issued (like Luther’s Shorter Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Roman Catechism). Various bodies proclaimed their doctrines in Confessions, and taught that doctrine to their people (especially children) in catechisms.
The effect was to make religion a matter of the head, as doctrine-as-cognitive-propositional-content defined western European versions of the Christian faith. The risk is that the faith becomes a mere matter of intellectual assent to verbal formulations of Christian teaching, and if one simply assents to doctrines as statements divorced from the rest of life, one can be left in the position of the demons, who also assent to the proposition that God is one (James 2:19).
Are there people who affirm the truths of some version of Christian faith but for whom those truths make little difference? In my experience, yes. Some extreme examples would include some of my Christian friends in high school who engaged in immoral and dissolute acts and told me it was OK because they believed Jesus was Lord, and that’s all it took to be a Christian. In a less extreme manner, we could think about how our actions and interior lives may not perfectly reflect what we affirm each week by our participation in Holy Mass and our recitation of the Nicene Creed.
Back to history: another effect of orthodoxy was interconfessional polemics and, all too frequently, violence. Often we think of the post-Reformation period in a binary way, with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other, but those who study the history know that Lutherans, Calvinists, and members of the Radical Reformation also defined themselves over and against each other with extreme polemical vigor. Luther had no time for those, like Ulrich Zwingli, who disagreed with him on important matters like the Lord’s Supper. (Upon hearing of Zwingli’s death, Luther opined that he was likely in Hell.) Later Lutherans in Calvinist Geneva weren’t permitted to have a church building there until 1766 (apparently German Lutheran merchants’ love of dancing, drinking, and cards proved a serious issue in the eyes of then-sober Calvinists). And Christians of the Radical Reformation were often drowned by Protestant Christian authorities in mockery of their practice of adult baptism.
The Pietist movement
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a reaction against this view of religion as confessional orthodoxy in the Lutheran world in the form of the Pietist movement. Led by Philipp Jakob Spener, the “Father of Pietism,” author of Pia desideria (“Pious Desires”), and founder of the University of Halle, the Pietists emphasized personal devotion, morality, and religious experience. Whereas orthodox Lutheranism followed Luther’s lead in severing justification and sanctification, with the result that efforts at personal prayer and morality are seen as efforts and thus vain attempts at the self-justification of works-righteousness, the pietists originally sought unity of doctrine and practice, head and heart.
The Pietists were no fringe fundamentalists, but real players in European life, from religion to politics to culture (and given how European societies generally don’t operate with a separation of Church and State, it’s not surprising). And they have left an enduring legacy in biblical studies, in education, in the practice of the Christian religion, and in history in general, as many credit their focus on the individual (with its roots in Luther) for generating and furthering the Enlightenment—Immanuel Kant was raised a strict pietist, after all.
It’s hard to hold head and heart together, however, and reactions often lose the center they’re trying to hold as they overcorrect. And so pietism devolved into liberalism; the recovery of the heart came at the expense of the head—or, better, the focus on experience came to dominate doctrine, and in the situation of the Enlightenment that meant later Protestant theologians felt free to use the category of experience and new critical methods of biblical studies to recast historic Christian doctrine. The truth became flexible.
The great example of this is the pietist theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, an intellectual luminary of the early nineteenth century. Schleiermacher (whose name means “veil-maker,” something Nietzsche thought rather funny) famously relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendix and questioned its relevance for modern Christians. Why? For Schleiermacher, the essence of religion consists in God-consciousness, a “feeling of absolute dependence” on God, and Jesus differed from us only in degree, not kind: he had the highest amount of God-consciousness and dependence ever found among mortals. Whereas St. Augustine speculated the Trinity might be traced in the human mind, Schleiermacher maintained that the Trinity, even if it were the truth of God’s nature, would not have any point of purchase in consciousness.
From pietism to liberalism
And so pietism paves the way for liberalism. Once doctrine becomes secondary and malleable, experience and culture come to the fore as categories for grounding theological reflection. Liberal theology is grounded in human experience and seeks accommodation to the dominant culture. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries liberal theology was happy to present a Jesus teaching ethics congenial to modern European interests, hence Albert Schweitzer’s famous line that when writing books on Jesus a lot of scholars and historians were merely looking down the well of history and seeing their own reflection there. In our own day liberal theology constructs an image of God based on the experiences and cultures of various identity groups (as womanist, queer, and postcolonialist theologians happily affirm).
I think American fundamentalists progressed through this pattern in the twentieth century. In the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the fundamentalists doubled down on cognitive propositional doctrine and used the Bible as their catechism, while being largely estranged from the dominant American culture and the halls of power. But during the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, many fundamentalists morphed into evangelicals as they sought to engage culture and sought more experiential expressions of faith, such as in the charismatic and pentecostal movements. Bible studies became youth groups, and Scripture was often replaced with good times.
In short, fundamentalists who became evangelicals became pietists. Jimmy Carter, an evangelical, got elected president, while politically conservative evangelicals rallied to pro-life, pro-family causes with the Moral Majority and similar movements. In either case came a major reengagement with politics and culture. Here too, however, pietism can be seen devolving into liberalism in our own day, as surveys and stories reveal younger evangelicals are much more progressive than their parents on issues of sexual morality and social justice with little knowledge of or concern for historic doctrine.
Something similar happens in the Catholic world, as the prewar Catholic Church took its cues from Trent, and as American Catholics were taught from the Baltimore Catechism. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, experience came to the fore, as much religious education surrendered traditional catechetics for engagement of students’ experiences of their particular encounters with what might be divine. And of course many Catholic theologians are proud progressives, rooting their work not in objective revelation mediated in Scripture and Tradition but in culture and experience.
Now pietism isn’t merely a historical movement, but also now a philosophy of religion. And it is a problem. In starting from experience, it can sell short the objective truths of the Catholic Faith, and at best estranges pastoral practice from doctrine while at worst seeing even God as subject to change. That’s why we are encountering calls in the Western Church to change our understanding and practice regarding holy orders, of human sexuality, and myriad other things. (Exhibit A, from Germany.)
As such, pietism can be overly utilitarian and pragmatic. In seeking accommodation to culture—that is, to the ways and wisdom of the world—it loses sight of God’s Truth and sees other truths as determinant. Having determined its goods and goals on contemporary grounds, it then seeks the most practical, useful ways to meet those goals. Pietism becomes liberalism: a matter of process seeking change in the churches in accord with the changing goods of society.
Another problem is that Christians have different personalities. Not all are given over to outward expressions of heartfelt piety even while they have deep faith and knowledge of God. Karl Rahner—who I suppose could be considered a pietist, even though he regarded pietism as exclusively Protestant—once said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or simply will not be.” That’s certainly within the spirit of pietism, but the problem is that mysticism is difficult for many. We should all attempt to engage in meditative and contemplative prayer, but different personalities gravitate towards different spiritualities. Carmelites are not Benedictines, and Dominicans are not Jesuits, and Franciscans are not Augustinians. Mysticism, above all, is a divine gift, and as such shouldn’t be expected of all.
The inadequacy of pietism
Pietism, then, is too truncated to serve as an adequate philosophy of religion for Catholics. The solution is to recover the Catholic Faith and the unity of the Faith and Catholic practice, to have a more adequate, more capacious philosophy of religion. Put another way, Catholicism itself determines our philosophy of religion. That means overcoming an overemphasis on religion as orthodoxy assenting to true doctrines (where that still exists), but it also means resisting the reduction of our religion to feelings and activism and instead rooting it in the Triune God. Here we might note that it’s ironic that liberals who would distance doctrine and pastoral practice have the same crabbed checkbox mentality as the caricature of the orthodox they disdain.
As head of the CDF, in 1998 Joseph Ratzinger published a piece concerning the situation of the divorced and remarried. He closed with these words: “A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth. In the end, only the truth can be pastoral. ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32).” Those who would separate doctrine and pastoral care or somehow subvert orthodoxy to orthopraxy have an impoverished view of each. For in Catholicism, knowledge and love are intrinsically related, as the God who is love is to be known and loved. The Prologue to the Catechism (25) draws on the old Roman Catechism in putting it this way:
The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.
Later, the Catechism (356) returns to the pairing of knowledge and love:
Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator” [Gaudiem et spes 12.3]. He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” [Gaudiem et spes 24.3], and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity[.]
Our love of God will drive us to know him better, and our knowledge of God will drive us to love him better. Rooted head and heart in the Triune God, we will then be in a proper position to do what the Church is called to do: to love and serve our neighbors, truly, in Truth.
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