The Problem With Pietism

I had said before that I’d be taking up the subject of religion again, and as I promised, here’s another segment in my litany of criticisms.

Two down, 93 more to go…

Despite Las Vegas’s image as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, it’s actually a relatively quiet town. In fact, ol’ Sin City is cited by a few sources as having the most churches per capita of any city in the US. My family once visited one church (we’ll leave out the full name) called “Grace ———-,” in what was perhaps the single greatest piece of religious sarcasm since Saul was told to go to a street called “straight.”

It’s not very straight…

At “Grace ——-” I had the pleasure of sitting on a butt-numbing pew and listening to an hour of the pastor passionately decry something called “Arminianism.” It was vitally important, it turned out, that we understand that these people were fundamentally wrong regarding predestination. Now I’ll freely admit that I’ve forgotten a lot the the pastor’s exact admonitions- just why it’s so essential to believe one over the other. That was about six or seven years ago- if there’s some awful, soul-rending disaster about to happen to me, I’m still waiting for it.

And that brings us to the topic for the day:

Theological “correctness.”

I’m talking about the reasons you go to one church and not the other: because they believe that you’re predestined to go to heaven, while we believe that’s it’s an individual choice. They believe that the holy spirit is an inherent part of the trinity, whereas we maintain that the trinity is the manifestation of the bond between the father and the son. They believe the soul goes directly to the afterlife, whereas we believe that the spirit rests until judgment day.

I gotta honestly ask.

Who. The ****. Cares?

For  the love of all that’s holy, people, the Spanish Inquisition was more reasonable than this. Don’t get me wrong- it was friggin’ evil, but at least there was a certain logic to it:


It went something like this: “Heretics threaten to corrupt the church, corruption is bad, therefore heretics are bad and must be removed.” Evil, ignorant, and intolerant, but there’s still  a rationale.

What do we have today? This mentality:

“I’m gonna take these handful of words written in another language nearly 2,000 years ago and interpret it to mean something about the nature of God that has no effect on my life or choices whatsoever. I have no way of proving anything I have concluded, or even offering the slightest shred of evidence to back ’em up, but if you disagree with any of ’em, then you might as well be a heathen.”

We’ve got no way of testing any of these hypotheses that get created, yet the entirety of people’s spiritual lives- who they associate with, what they recite, how they view the “role of women”- is predicated on what are pretty much just shots in the dark.

Other than separating people and giving Theology majors something to do, what effect do any of these allegedly fundamental conclusions have on anything?

Do Calvinists expect that they’ll get first boarding to paradise while the Wesleyans have to wait a few more minutes? Do the Southern Baptists expect that the First Baptists will be seated at a table near the bathroom during the wedding feast of Christ and the church?


Then why the **** does everyone define themselves by these rigid little codes? Why do people pass two churches of their supposed brethren to get to one fitting their denominational criteria? Who exactly is any of this for? Do your prayers become more sincere once you understand the correct nature of the trinity? And do you have to get it just right, or do they increase in power the closer you get? Does the good Lord smile upon the Calvinist more than the Methodist? Is the dancing in the pews Pentecostal more at risk of becoming an axe-murder than his dour (but theologically correct) Wesleyan counterpart?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the starving people in the world care less about transubstantiation/consubstantiation and more about eating any kind of bread.

“Look, I know you’re offering mosquito nets, but frankly, if you don’t accept Limited Atonement we’re just not interested.”

Limited atonement, if case you didn’t know, is the idea that if you’re saved once, you’re always saved, i.e., those who fall away from the faith were never true believers. Again, what possible relevance to anything you do in your daily life this has is beyond me.

And as much as I’m ragging on this system of pointless and petty exclusion, this whole “empty theology” thing extends beyond that. Let’s talk about “spiritual disciplines”- the idea that forgoing food for a day is more beneficial to the spirit than feeding someone who hasn’t eaten in a week.

I tried looking this term up in the Bible… and I couldn’t actually find the words “spiritual discipline” listed anywhere. ESV, NIV, King James- you name it. Yet there’s this whole movement based around adhering to the concepts of “frugality, meditation, solitude, and celebration” (among others). The late Dallas Willard, one of the key writers behind all this, describes the reason for his research and works on “spiritual disciplines”, stating “Many serious and thoughtful Christians are looking for ways into an intelligent and powerful Christlikeness that can inform their entire existence and not just produce special religious moments.

As I’ve complained before, this line of thought seems to be another product of a safe, comfortable world. Self-flagellation, minus the pain.

Ok, that’s a little harsh, but it’s again pretty hard not to view these (let’s face it) as pretty trifling. I mean, when Willard talks about relaxing alone as a means of spiritual growth…

“Lengthy solitude and silence, including rest, can make them very powerful.

Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation, and the Restoration of the Soul”

…it’s a little tough not to harbor some skepticism. It seems that unless you going without lunch is preparation for some hunger strike that’s going to lead to two bitter rival factions making peace with each other, I’m not exactly seeing what good it does.

This is more what I had in mind…

You can say that your fast is overcoming weakness and bringing you closer to God, but are you really going to be a fundamentally better person after that? If a cheeseburger is truly such a massive challenge to your faith, then we’ve probably got much bigger issues we gotta address here.

Doesn’t this all sound familiar? A collection of the pious, rigorously pouring over holy writ, debating each other for hours on how to fit the law to a T and adding a few rules of their own while they’re at it? Again, the term “pharisaical” seems to fit the situation perfectly, though the adherents of this mentality would probably prefer the terms “Pietist” or “Holiness movement”- two major lines of thought generally endorsing this fanaticism with theological accuracy (no matter how unprovable) and personal “cleanliness.”

So what does this all produce?

Well, as Evan and I hashed out a while ago, this obsession with legalistic perfectionism has more or less rendered it’s adherents incapable of producing any noteworthy art, music, or media. (And to the one person who wants to bring up Charles Wesley, I’ll have you know a hefty chunk of those hymns were based off of secular and bar songs back in the day). We get an ever increasingly insular, detached subculture, obsessed with it’s own importance and disdainful (or at best, patronizing) of anyone who fails to agree with them exactly. This need for “correctness” seems to continually splinter the church, rather than progress it toward the intended goal of perfection, and seems to be contributing to people abandoning the church in droves. Ultimately, for all the fanaticism about theological accuracy and the doctrine of “sola scriptura,” the entire movement seems to be succinctly contradicted by Jesus.

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

– Mark 10:17-21

So you’ve achieved absolute holiness and purity. Great. Now, go do something useful with it.

I don’t mean to bash people over the head with this- I truly don’t- but this isn’t just some bad habit- it’s a mentality that shapes and guides massive numbers of people across the world. So much time and effort is being placed in things which have absolutely no relevance to anything and offer no betterment to anyone– and on top of all, is serving to continually fracture an already splintered church.

It’s just ridiculous, people.


FINAL NOTES: Again, this is largely focused on Protestant Christianity in North America and Europe (to a certain extent). Obviously, religion as a whole is far, far more complex than is within the power of a blog post to capture, and again, this discussion is going to keep on developing. Be sure to stop in next Monday for my next installment.

11 responses to “The Problem With Pietism

  1. This is a pretty low point in CWR.

    Although I don’t practice the sort of “religious disciplines” you refer to, or know anyone who does, I’m gonna give them the benefit of the doubt and guess that they don’t actually think that starving themselves is better than feeding someone hungry. Go ahead. Ask anyone -EVERYone- you see if they believe that, and post the results. Or find me a written statement expressing that belief.
    And just because certain theological studies and disciplines are unimportant in many ways that you can conceive does not make them so irrelevant as to be erased. It also won’t affect your stance in Heaven, your day-to-day life on Earth, or the stomachs of those starving children in 3rd-world countries to know how to calculate the surface area of a 3-dimensional parabola, but that doesn’t mean it should be erased from human conversation.

    Finally, it’s sad that a blog which has fought so hard to educate people on the current state of world problems and societal inequalities has stooped to the practice I’ve only seen in the most nonintellectual detractors of the church: a non sequitur reference to human suffering. Saying something like “How can the church argue about homosexuality/abortion/politics/predestination when children are starving in Africa?!?!” is not an argument. It’s stating two unrelated things that exist in this world in such a way as to manipulate your audience into drawing a very false correlation. Believe it or not, people can do two things. “How can you sit at a computer and complain about the church in your blog when there are children starving in Africa?” It’s a strawman argument disguised as a humble complaint.

    There are a lot of things to do to improve the church, and even reasons to revisit the issues you present here (in two separate posts, as these topics are oddly unrelated), but not before a great deal of experience and research inside the culture and a more patient hand in expressing your concerns without hyperbole and strawman.

    • As editor of this blog I’d like to point out that not every opinion presented is shared by every writer [see: every post Gordon’s ever done about piracy].

      Upon my first read-through for typos I mostly paid attention to the fact that this was more or less a retread of what has been written before, essentially: “the Church [and Christians] should focus on feeding the poor, i.e. helping those who need it.” I found some issue with the idea that time spent furthering theological study was unimportant or trivial, but couldn’t place a finger on how to voice that.

      Which is why I’m glad you pointed out that, as is often the case, the existence of one thing does not negate the existence of another. You hit the nail on the head, and I’m sure you and I will catch up and talk about this sometime soon.

  2. I’d like to add, for Gordon, that I would love to read an article focused on either one of these two topics. I think the big problem was that you asked question after question (“Who. The ****. Cares?”) and either didn’t answer, implying that the answer is “no one” or giving a short answer based on your assumptions (“Other than separating people and giving Theology majors something to do”). There are answers to the questions of “Who cares?” and “How does it affect their/our lives” and those answers will lead you to a better understanding of these problems that you’re seeing in the church. There ARE problems there, and It’s a great task for you to study them.

    Quick apology to Gordon because I grew up in a small country Baptist church (and currently attend one very similar) where the community of believers had great purpose, where theology and philosophy to rival college courses were taught in Sunday school without fear of alienating the populace.

    And a quick apology to Evan too. I called out CWR a lot more than I should have. I guess you might take that personally as editor, but know that I don’t disagree with the fact that this article has a place on this blog.

    • I try to avoid commenting on posts, especially as a response to criticism, but since I’ve been specifically called upon to explain myself, I’ll give it a shot:

      I’m gonna go ahead and maintain what I’ve written.

      Firstly, in response to Orion’s comment about the hunger issue. No, I absolutely agree- if I were to ask everyone, I doubt very much that anyone- including those who truly do believe it- would state that self denial is better than feeding the hungry. My issue is with mentality. It seems that there’s a whole lot more out there on personal “purity” than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and protecting widows and orphans.

      Secondly (also a response to Orion- Imma go in order here), I actually can use a tracing of a 3D parabola for architecture (and other things), and the general principals we use to calculate that are all useful, in one way or another. I can’t say that about many (not all, but many) aspects of Theology.

      That kinda ties into the third point, in which Orion states “‘How can the church argue about homosexuality/abortion/politics/predestination when children are starving in Africa?!?!” is not an argument.”
      My issue here is that one of these things is not like the other- homosexuality is (depending on who you ask) relevant to your place in the afterlife and abortion and politics all factor very heavily into daily life. I can’t say that about predestination. Orion, you use the term “nonintellectual”, which I found interesting- I’d use the same term to describe much of Theology (again not all, but much) and predestination is a key example. Normally, to make a conclusion about something we have to have evidence for it. Even abstract stuff, like art and philosophy, works off of basic, universal premises, such as composition (for art) and logical soundness (for philosophy). We don’t get that with predestination. We can’t measure it. We have no possible way to study it. We have no basis for it or against it other than a couple of ancient verses which may or may not be metaphorical or poetic. Yet based upon these well-neigh basis assumptions, hundreds of thousands of people will shun on church for another, or use ‘em to define themselves, or argue with each other for hours, or build up entire institutions, and so on and so forth. THAT, more than anything, strikes me as “nonintellectual”. I’m interested in exploring all areas of knowledge- but this isn’t knowledge, just speculation.

      That’s the real root of my issue- this is religion separate from morality. It has no bearing on this life or the next, yet gets treated, very often, as important or more important than the struggle to combat evil and ignorance in this world.

      • You started to make a great point about fasting being more important than feeding starving children (I’m paraphrasing), and it’s one reason I really want to see you expand these two topics into full-fledged articles, Gordon. See, I was right that no one would declare these personal spiritual disciplines more important than charity.

        BUT, if a man fasts religiously (by this I mean, with regularity and devotion), but gives nothing to charity, he is “declaring” by his actions that the former is more important than the latter. And this is worthy of it’s own post, because this, right here, is RAMPANT in the church. Not fasting, specifically, but, you get the picture.

        And I still have to disagree with you on your view of conflicting theological issues, particularly predetermination. I spent a great deal of my free time in college studying concepts like predestination, but I never even thought of coming at them from a theological POV. Rather, I ended up there after a long trek through a personal study of compatibilism, incompatibilism, the importance, uniqueness, and eternality of the human soul, the nature of a Creator, the nature of time, and on and on and on.

        My point is, theology is an academic pursuit, not blind answers to questions using ancient texts. This is what I meant to point out when I mention the parabola. To me, studying the nature of God and the nature of our human souls is far more interesting and more important to my life than “architecture.” From the points you’re making, I bet you’d be VERY surprised at how much theology is based on philosophy, logic, and reason, and how little is directly based on Biblical texts. Read some Aquinas. Read some Bonhoeffer. Heck, read some Calvin! You started off the article complaining about a Calvinist preacher, so read up on the material before you dismiss it as unimportant.

        Again, I’m mostly talking about predetermination. Some theological debates are very Christian-specific (and fail to find any counterparts in logic and philosophy), so if you want to rant about the pettiness of a transubstantiation debate (for example), it’d be more apt to do so.

  3. Thanks, Orion and Evan for your thoughts. I wonder if we’ll ever get Gordon into the comments section of this publication. While I have plenty to say–especially about Gordon’s all-too-typical cynical tone–I will limit myself to a few remarks.

    “If a cheeseburger is truly such a massive challenge to your faith, then we’ve probably got much bigger issues we gotta address here.” Yes, absolutely–and that’s the point. You made this flippantly derisive remark in discussing spiritual disciplines, and I think my disagreement with your fundamental assumptions. You say, “You can say that your fast is overcoming weakness and bringing you closer to God, but are you really going to be a fundamentally better person after that?” And “yes, of course” is my answer. Being closer to God WILL make one a better person. A little bit at a time, over the course of several years. That’s the point of spiritual disciplines–denying the desires of the flesh so that you can be more attentive to the will of God.

    From reading what you have to say about it, it doesn’t seem like you’ve studied the field much, except for your cursory read-over to write this article. Fasting is always cited as the first, off-the-top-of-my-head example of spiritual disciplines. And it’s not the best one. You might have read, in Willard or elsewhere, that there are two categories (of abstinence [i.e. keeping yourself from things] and of engagements [being the most that you can–going out and doing things]), with 8 or 9 disciplines in each, and they are practices that Christians should make part of their day-to-day life. Fasting is on the last, but so is giving of your basic means and needs to others as a sacrifice.

    In fact, to call them practices is even a misnomer. Just like in getting to know a person, you can use various and creative means to get to know, trust and grow close to them, the disciplines are a schema, if you will, for how humans have managed to get to know God.

    I see your point that we argue and make too much of certain details (and maybe not at the best times)–that they are only important only in the context of heady theological debate, and that they should not supersede our duty to be a living, active part of the world–to be a light and a hope in the world, not an annoying burden. I suppose we do fail at that, but it’s not what we strive to be.

    The old argument of “how dare you not love everyone like Jesus says” is a bit hard to work with, because loving people is hard. Have you seen those guys? We have to keep working at it. One does not suddenly become excellent at her own principles by sheer force of will.

    That, I think, is the point of getting close to God, because it’s not of our own will that we will ultimately “become better people.” It’s in careful daily living–and that being close to God.

    Finally, details are important. Argument is important, and it’s not usually about arriving at the ultimate answer. We arrive at our understanding of how we live and how we might apply ourselves in this life by our arguments. In proving ourselves to others, are we also not proving our own mettle to ourselves?

    We argue–I argue theological points BECAUSE they have an immediate bearing on how we will live.

    Unless you’re going to assume that who God is and how we might interact with him has no bearing on each and every human life. That our relationship to him will not define or affect the possibility of our impact on everything that is or will one day be.

    Finally, Gordon, I agree with Orion on the point of your fantastical straw man and red herring analogies–they only distract from the argument you’re trying to make and do you no favors in proving your argument. I’d love to hear what you really think, more than just the lambasting of ideals you don’t care about.

    • Ok, Ben, in response to your stuff:

      First, let’s talk about the self-denial issue, which I think has two elements. The monks of old were probably the masters of self-denial, silence, self-imposed poverty, and the like. For all their brutal attempts at purification, I don’t them suddenly the champions of the poor and downtrodden (Franciscans and, to a certain extent, Jesuits being exceptions). For all their self-denial, these guys didn’t seem any more godly than anyone else- and I’m not going to argue you on that point; godliness, by definition, should result in the person being a better human being. I question whether or not self-denial really does that, heck, as Jesus says in Matthew 12:7, ” ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’”, specifically talking about his disciples eating on the Sabbath.

      Additionally, even if we assume that self-denial does lead to Godliness, I have to question whether or not a day without food, or a day without talking (etc.) is truly sacrificial. I’d return to my statement that this is a mentality that seems bred out of comfort. “Sacrifice” is a devaluated term, too often substituting “giving up” for “giving to”. I’m not saying true sacrifice doesn’t exist- just that it doesn’t seem to common, and gets cheapened by stuff like this.

      You also state “We argue–I argue theological points BECAUSE they have an immediate bearing on how we will live.” And I agree completely. If that were the universal case, I’d have no problem. However, as I stated in the post, issues of predestination, the exact nature of the trinity, transubstantiation vs consubstantiation- these issues have no bearing on how we live, shy of us alienating each other or burning Jan Hus at the stake (which is my problem in the first place)

      • Gordo, thanks for the honest response.
        I believe I agree with the overall point you’re making, and will even agree with Orion’s on encouraging you to make it. The trouble is, I have a real hard time with how you argue it, because you tend to simplify (for the sake of argument, I think) and skim over the parts that are important to others (here, read “me”).

        You seem to argue, “if I can argue the minutest minutiae about the existence of God, and go weeks without eating, but don’t devote my life to the needy, I am nothing, my pursuits are worthless;” whereas I would agree more with the statement, “If I do [all the things that seem religious, from fasting to giving all I have to the poor or making amazing art], but have not love [for God and fellow man] I am nothing.”

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  5. Wow. Way to get some good discussion going Gordon! I do have to agree with Orion that you set up a bit of a straw man in the way your argument was presented, but at the same time I think it’s a really important topic that does need to be discussed. We sometime get so caught up in our theology that we miss the physical. That being said, I personally view theology like any other branch of academia, it is the fascinating study of ancient texts (pretty much what I am doing as an English major) so if you are going to say that it is not worthwhile for someone to pursue their interest in the nuance of ancient text you may as well extend it to all areas of academia (the Humanities in particular). I’m assuming what you are wanting to focus on is actually the impracticality of the focus of many sermons. Which can sometimes be (as a good friend once said) kinda like taking the same class over and over and over, people rarely care except they are doing a masters of PhD on the subject. Maybe your question should be “why are we focusing on the many nuanced differences between every one of the infinite denominations when we could be out there doing something awesome as a group, regardless of denomination” and that, I think, would be a question everyone needs to hear.

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