Further Reflections on the Potential Influence of Pietism on Postmodernism

by Mike Langer

In a 2011 Pietisten article, the Rev. Ryan Eikenbary-Barber provided a wonderful summary of Roger Olson’s lecture series on the potential common ground between Pietism and Postmodernism. Olson proposed three specific areas in which one might find the possibility of convergences between these two important cultural movements: epistemology, spirituality and ethics. I want to offer a few complementary thoughts about what I have understood as potential common ground epistemologically.

In a forthcoming article in the Covenant Quarterly entitled “The Idolatry of Certainty: Kierkegaard and Evangelical Faith in a Postmodern World,” I have argued that Pietist epistemology, were it a formal field of study, has something important to offer evangelicals attempting to live their faith in our emerging late-modern or postmodern world. Referring to the work of C. John Weborg, I gave emphasis to the reciprocal relationship between a proposition declared and the life of the one declaring it. Consider Weborg’s words:

Theology, based on Scripture, does make truth-claims, but more than a hyphenated noun is here. Remove the hyphen, and one has both a noun and a verb: “Truth claims,” i.e., lays hold on a life and calls it into service. The subjective side of this process is the life and witness of one claimed by the truth.1

Here Weborg captures what is at the heart of the Pietist epistemology; for to know involves the convergence of cognition and behavior, of idea and life.

Kierkegaard, whether one wishes to consider him a Pietist or not, makes the same point. His notion of subjectivity, far from meaning “relativism,” requires that one appropriate that which he or she believes to be true. It is no surprise, therefore, that Dr. Weborg refers to Kierkegaard’s work in the area of subjectivity. In a paper he wrote during his doctoral studies, Weborg describes Kierkegaard’s notion of becoming a subjective thinker in this way: “the idea which has been apprehended in thought must be appropriated by inward passion to the point where idea and life are merged in the existing individual.”2

What does this look like? What does it look like, for example, when the idea that “Jesus is Lord” is apprehended in thought, then appropriated by inward passion to the point where idea and life are merged in the existing individual? To be sure, it will look differently for various people in various contexts. But it seems reasonable to say that there are some general qualities associated with one who lives under Jesus’ lordship: humility and reverence, peacefulness and a love for those whom Jesus loves, to name a few. What does it look like to appropriate the belief that “Jesus is risen!” existentially? Again, it will vary, but it probably involves qualities like hope and perseverance, and a deep commitment to participating in God’s work to bring new life — i.e. resurrection — to this world.

Please don’t misunderstand what is being said here. The appropriation of a given belief is not the belief’s warrant; it is not what makes the belief true. Rather, according to the Pietists, Kierkegaard, Weborg and, presumably, postmoderns, the purpose of a belief is that it be lived. I think this is a good starting point for conversation, for it requires that we take seriously the beliefs we hold. Perhaps it should cause us to reconsider how much we say we believe. And this brings me to another feature of the postmodern culture: the obsession with negation.

Like many words that are used to define the current state of things, “postmodern” consists of a word related to modernity and a prefix. Consider the language we use today to describe ourselves: neo-evangelical, non-foundationalist, post-colonial, anti-realist, unChristian. The list goes on. On the one hand, it is undeniable that the up-and-coming generations have trouble defining who they are; the Pietists, to my knowledge, didn’t have this problem. But it is equally important to recognize the opportunity this inclination to deconstruct presents. Kierkegaard explains it well when he describes a man whose mouth was so full of food that he would ironically die of starvation, because he was unable to chew. He goes on to say that the solution to the man’s problem is obviously not to put more food into his mouth, but to take some away. If there is an opportunity for Pietism to have an impact in the postmodern world, perhaps it is in the exercise of distilling our belief system down to the essentials and taking seriously the need to live those beliefs out in real ways. Enter the metaphysician, who asks, “What is real?”

1. C. John Weborg, “Pietism” in Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston, eds. The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1991), 176.

2. C. John Weborg, “The Grave Strenuousity of Faith: The Task of Becoming a Subjective Thinker”(paper submitted for Studies in Kierkegaard course, Northwestern University, 1977), 1.