The evangelical Idolatry of Pragmatic Pietism: Why Are We Afraid to Believe that we Can Know?

In regard to my last post, it was long; but I wanted to put something out there for chutzpahpersonal reference for the future, and also identify the kind of theology I am responding to when referencing the classical Calvinist complex. But in the end; so what, who cares, why does this even really matter, isn’t it all really about just loving on Jesus and loving on others?

In this post I want to address the movement from academic Christian theology to practical (so called) or pastoral Christian reality that takes place in the body life (or is supposed to) of the local evangelical church. The rest of this post will speak from my personal experience and observations that I have made over the years.

Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall write, in their book The Mystery of God, “… Those who do not love The Lord deeply will never be much concerned with the details of his truth.” Ouch! I think this cuts to the chase of where I want to head. But I also want to nuance this a little further; I don’t think the lack of ‘zeal’, shall we say, among evangelicals for pursuing the ‘details of his truth’ can totally be reduced to a lack of love for The Lord, per se—instead, I think another layer to the problem is the imbibing of the cultural psychology by the evangelical church that is also at least a symptom of the problem (and if I think about it, this would come back to a lack of love for the Lord and to a love for the world instead). We live in a Postmodern culture, the culture who operates with a hermeneutic of suspicion, and an incredulity towards any claims of meta-narratives (pace Lyotard). In short, we inhabit a culture that has embraced (even evangelicals and Fundamentalists) a mood of normative relativism, and a theory of truth based upon coherentism and pragmatism (if it “works” for me it is true for me). And even less concrete, we inhabit the information overload technology age; and so trying to nail down concrete correlative reality and truth in our age seems as slippery, for some, as it did when the printing press was invented and the age of the written word and mass production of books began to shape the pre-critical (becoming critical) world.

So how does the above sketched scenario have any relation to that long article I wrote on ‘Mullerian classical Covenant Theology’? Considering the above; I think our attention spans for things has been largely fragmented by the way that we receive information, and try to interpret it–which can make us feel overwhelmed and defeated before we ever even start the process of trying to critically engage with ideas; and so we just don’t. I think that many of us think that the nuts and bolts of the varied theological constructs and biblical interpretations that we encounter either 1) all have elements or components of truth in them, or 2) are so idiosyncratic to said theologian (or school of thought), or biblical exegete that it makes it rather obtuse to presume that one “Pope” has any more authority than another “Pope” (so the conciliar age all over again). And so given the kind of uncritical acceptance of the relativistic mode that we all have imbibed to one degree or another, it makes it almost an inane prospect to consider that one theological truth claim or interpretation (even as a project) has any more luster to it than the next one. So we end up taking a rather passive approach to things (or its polar opposite), and given the more “important” things, like loving on Jesus and loving on others, the ideas that fund what in fact that actually means (i.e. getting beyond the pragmatism of pietism) have very loose shrift in our lives with the rationalization that ‘I don’t really need to know how the nuts and bolts come together, I just need to know that they do, and I am happy to live in the oblivion of my own piety.’

Do I think, then, that everybody (who is “able”) needs to be a Christian scholar? Actually, yes! I know that it is a sacrifice, but to me, the alternative is actually idolatry (and that’s not just because I am wired the way that I am—I hate when people say that!). And the posture the Christian ought to adopt is one of critical realism; that is that we should operate with the attitude and principled  chutzpah that we can know the truth, we can have a growing grasp of the ‘nuts & bolts’, as we continually engage in the kind of repentant and ever growing thinking that we have been called to as Christians. And the reason we can operate with this kind of audacity of thought and life as Christians is because we have a God who knows how to communicate, and has done so through the accommodation and humiliation of his own life for us in Christ, that we might know him. So instead of being relativistic, passivistic, or pragmatistic in regard to our approach of engaging in thinking theologically and Christianly; we need to be bold and think, and in that process, be humble enough to be wrong, and grow that way.

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4 thoughts on “The evangelical Idolatry of Pragmatic Pietism: Why Are We Afraid to Believe that we Can Know?

  1. Awesome post, Bobby.
    I couldn’t agree more with you.

    “Do I think, then, that everybody (who is “able”) needs to be a Christian scholar? Actually, yes!”
    >>I am doing my best to be a lay theologian.

    “Those who do not love The Lord deeply will never be much concerned with the details of his truth”
    >> I think there’s so much truth to this. It’s crazy how passionate we become about things that don’t really matter and how little of our minds and hearts we give to the things to matter most.

    It’s all about the gospel. It’s all about Jesus and his vicarious humanity:)

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  2. Bobby, here you go from the facebook thread, as you suggested.

    I agree with most of what you say here even if I nuance things differently. Especially on the evangelical cultural psychology you mention – I saw this at work both ministry and Christian retail in strikingly similar ways. But I would content its not an outworking of Pietism per se (and Pietism tends to be a whipping post for Reformed types even despite the fact that modern Reformed and especially underestimate their own internalized effects of romantic existentialism), but a particularly (de)formed version of pietism. Not all Pietisms are created equal and there are thick pietisms that withstand rigorous scrutiny. Stan Grenz was even fond of calling himself a Pietist with a PhD.

    Now the response here may be that you specified that the Pietism you critiqued was ‘pragmatic’ in nature and concerned the ‘normative relativism’ found in postmodernism. However, there is need for nuance even here. I just list some basic point briefly:

    1) Postmodernism is not a monolith and the ‘postmodernism’ linked to relativism by most always seems to me to be more like a ‘most’ modernism than properly ‘post’ modern.

    2) The issue of metanarratives you mention is misunderstood by most I think. Metanarratives aren’t the only ‘grand narratives’. The distinguishing feature of metanarratives are that they are epistemically justified in a rationalistic manner. There may be some merit in using the language of mega-narrative (justified for instance narratively) that is still a grand narrative but not subject to rationalism. See for example the chapters by James K.A. Smith and Merold Westphal in ‘Christianity and the Postmodern Turn’ (linked below). [I should add here that interestingly enough postmodern literature was one of my introductions to Reformed thought. Smith, Westphal, and John Franke all embrace what they call ‘Reformed epistemology’. I am sure this must drive Piper and the gang nuts.]

    3) I like your call to a critical realism. Such a posture and the epistemic humility inherent fit well with Ricoeur’s hermeneutics and Stan Grenz’s post-foundationalism. Its just a) Ricoeur is a Continental philosopher or what most stateside would call ‘postmodern’ and b) in line with my major theology prof in seminary (who is a Ricoeur scholar) I would place critical realism itself as a form of postmodernism (which is, from above, not a monolith).

    4) In reference to pragmatism and relativism, I too have been a strong critic, and still am as they are worked out in the most moderism of contemporary evangelicalism. But if James K.A. Smith’s upcoming book in the ‘Church and Postmodern Culture’ series (‘Whose Afraid of Relativism?’) is any indication, we’re gonna have to rethink and nuance this as well (linked below).

    Its bedtime now here. Peace and blessings to you.

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  3. Thank you Russell, and here’s how I responded to you on FB:

    Hi Russell, thanks for the response.

    Yeah, the blog post was bloggy and quickly written as a reflection.

    I agree with your nuances. I have no problem with being a “relativist” within a properly construed Christian doctrine of God and the epistemic realities that that grounds by way of order of knowing; like in TFT’s epistemological inversion.

    And yes, it cannot be rationalist justification for meta narrative, but personalist, in and through Christ and an analogy of faith/relation that way.

    The more I read Jamie Smith, the less of a fan I become–and I haven’t much of him (just his two books on Kingdom and his little one on Calvinism–which is not technical).

    You should have left your comment on my post at the blog; it would have helped future readers understand the depth of this conversation better.

    Sleep well!

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  4. Juan,

    amen.

    I am going to expand on what I mean by being a “scholar” in a future post. I don’t necessarily mean that a person needs to be a professional scholar writing papers al the time, presenting papers, writing books, etc.

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