Reflections on “Pietism and Postmodernity”

by Ryan Eikenbary-Barber

Julius Caesar had good reason to beware the Ides of March. That was the day he was stabbed in the back by his friends and colleagues in the Roman Senate. Things were much more peaceful this March 15th when Lutherans, Covenanters, “Convergers” (the denomination formerly known as the Baptist General Conference) and maybe even a few Evangelical Free folk gathered for the Aus Memorial Lecture at Luther Theological Seminary. No daggers were drawn and the questions were generally friendly after Roger E. Olson finished speaking about Pietism and Postmodernity. The spirit of the chapel was appropriately irenic, which is a good thing because the Covenant pastors were assigned the honored (and exposed) seats in the front row.

Olson spent the first half of the Aus Memorial Lecture defining and defending Pietism. It’s not so easy to define Pietism. Some theologians would limit Pietism strictly to the 17th and 18th centuries while other scholars broadly treat Pietism as the sum of Protestantism over the past three centuries. In his first lecture Olson suggested that rather than a definition, that he preferred to focus on two defining characteristics of all Pietists. The first of these is what Olson calls “conversional piety,” by which he means a conversion experience where one repents and makes a faith decision. The second defining characteristic of Pietism according to Olson is the “inner man,” which is genuinely transformed so that works of piety are not just good works, but evidence that the inner being has been transformed by God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Olson then moved to defend Pietism against mostly (but not completely) unfair stereotypes of anti-intellectualism, subjectivism, and legalism. Olson closed his first lecture by suggesting that Pietism might be the very thing to bring revitalization to mainline congregations because of its focus on personal transformation, religious experience, holy living, the practical transformation of society, and the possible attraction to young “postmoderns,” who are looking for more than just dogmatic orthodoxy.

After a brief lunch break, we reconvened for Olson’s second lecture concerning Pietism and Postmodernism. Several years ago I wrote an article for this journal on Pietism’s potential appeal to a younger generation. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that there is an affinity between the first Pietists, who reacted against lifeless scholastic orthodoxy, and the emerging culture, which is reacting against the dying rationalistic orthodoxy of modernism. I was intrigued to hear the connections that Roger Olson drew between Pietism and Postmodernism.

While Olson is not convinced that these disparate movements can ever totally embrace one another, he suggested in his second lecture that there are three areas where Pietists and Postmoderns can find common ground. The first area is epistemology; how it is that we come to know. Pietists and Postmoderns alike have no confidence in detached rationalism, but instead in the personal appropriation of truth. Secondly, Olson sees spirituality as potentially shared territory for the Pietists and Postmoderns. While there is a vast divide between the Pietists’ heartfelt devotion to God and the emerging postmodern spirituality, they share a common trait of prioritizing “right living” over having all the right answers. The third area of common ground that Olson suggests is ethics. While Pietists and Postmoderns differ wildly in matters of ethics they both emphasize internal transformation that leads to an external change in behavior that is greater than just playing by the rules. Olson hinted at the end of his lectures that there is also further exploration in matters of community and theology, but he lacked the time to explore them fully. This was unfortunate, as I have often wondered if the search for authentic community might offer common ground for both Pietists and Postmoderns.

Roger Olson declares there is no “secret friendship” or unorthodox conspiracy between the Pietists and Postmoderns, but there are some commonalities. Perhaps this is what congregations need to hear to embrace a bright future of mission and evangelism with the emerging culture. Rather than ignore or abandon our history, Olson encourages us to rediscover Pietism. Our heritage has a few lingering landmines such as anti-intellectualism and legalism to sidestep, but it is also loaded with buried treasures, such as a personal relationship with God and the transformation of our inner life through Word and Spirit. If we dig into our inheritance we just might find what we need to communicate the Gospel in a fresh way to a younger generation.