Questions for my Norwegian Grandfather

“Questions for my Norwegian Grandfather”

Since Pietism is about Christian experience, I’m grateful that Christopher Gehrz has shared this tradition with a narrative describing the typical experience of a practicing pietist. Immediately I was reminded vividly of how my own Christian heritage was shaped so strongly by this tradition. My grandfather was an immigrant from Norway who carried strongly such pietism. It led him, among other things, to be a prime founder of the Evangelical Free Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and to support that emerging denomination. His spiritual experience reflected the life described by Gehrz.

Most notable was my grandfather’s Scripture memorization. Though possessing only high school education and then going into business, he memorized vast portions of the Bible, including entire books of the New Testament. At his summer cottage in Wisconsin where the extended family would gather, it was not uncommon for me to join with others in hearing him recite the book of Ephesians, for instance, by heart. The pietist tradition shaped the crucible of my faith.

That legacy continued when my wife and I were part of an Evangelical Covenant Church in Missoula, Montana, and did some adjunct teaching at North Park Seminary. When our first child was born, we sang “Children of the Heavenly Father” in the delivery room. And to this day, we have never understood how it is possible to “do church” without being in some form of a small group meeting regularly for fellowship and support, deepening relationships with others.

Yet, as I became a young adult, the specific forms of pietistic spirituality, language, and practice began to wane. No longer could I naturally sing about walking and talking with Jesus in the garden while the dew was still on the roses. The evangelical and pietistic forms of expression which had shaped my Christian faith couldn’t continue to sustain it. Often, I’ve pondered how and why that happened, and have heard and shared the stories of countless other Christians (often in small fellowship groups) who had a similar experience, including other participants in this Respectful Conversation.

I adopted the Reformed tradition in part because it brought a healthy counterbalance to how I experienced my early Christian formation with its strong pietistic influences. As shared previously, in my new-found tradition, faith was about more than just Jesus and me; it also focused on God and the world. This faith was sustained by grace, held together by convictions, and not dependent upon emotions.

Yet, I wasn’t fully content. The edifice of Reformed faith, and its engagement with the world, needed to be undergirded by practices of personal spirituality to keep that tradition from veering into logically consistent but sterile forms of theological rationalism. In my journey, and that of many others, those resources were discovered in expressions of contemplative spirituality, often originally present in streams of the Catholic tradition. I first discovered these through the Church of the Saviour, in Washington, D.C., an innovative ecumenical church community founded by Gordon Cosby, originally a Baptist pastor.

In this way, journal writing, contemplative prayer, silent retreats, pilgrimages, spiritual direction, mission groups, discerning call, liturgical prayer, the eucharist, lectio divina, and much more shaped a vocabulary and discipline for the experience of what it means to live “in Christ,” and to more fully know, and be known, by God. My pietism was deconstructed, but eventually an inward journey of faith formation was reconstructed. It’s from the background of this personal journey that I want to respond to Christopher Gehrz’s insightful portrayal of pietism.

First, it’s hard for me to understand Pietism (with a capital ‘P’) as a distinct Christian tradition. That may be because I do not understand enough about church history. I’ve always tended to regard pietism as a quality, or a collection of particular habits and spiritual practices, which in varying degrees are found in many Christian traditions, as Roger Olson suggests. And I also wonder what characterizes pietism from American evangelicalism. That still isn’t clear to me. My grandfather, for instance, proudly identified himself as an evangelical, but his heritage and spiritual practices were shaped deeply by what Gehrz and other historians identify as pietism. Is there a distinction here that is important to maintain? If so, I’d want to honor that, but I find it difficult to describe.

My second question is this. Does pietism have the depth and texture of spiritual practice to sustain it in the life of believers when specific experiences are episodic, or become routine, or seem far too predictable? It’s hard to ask this question without sounding judgmental. And I truly do honor and respect this tradition for it is what gave birth to my faith in Jesus Christ. But I eventually found the forms of pietism to seem shallow, and unable to withstand the questions and life experiences which tended to deconstruct its spiritual efficacy in my life. And I know this is true for tens, and probably even hundreds of thousands of other believers. How do those within pietism today respond when its system seems to falter in previously faithful adherents? How resilient is pietism within the context and pressures of contemporary culture? How would one contrast it with other forms of Christian spirituality which seek to carefully and patiently shape one’s soul?

The third question comes directly from my Reformed tradition. I am very grateful that historic figures like August Hermann Francke stress that the encounter with Christ leads to love for others, and for the practical examples of charitable action which are cited. But does this result simply—but admirably—in only charity? Or does it lead to work for God’s justice in the world? Is there an integrated world and life view which acknowledges the systems of power in the world—what can be called structural sin—that perpetuate injustice and oppression, defying our Lord’s prayer the God’s will be done on earth? Does pietism provide the theological framework and understanding of Christian public witness which can undergird such a response?

Don Frisk’s quotation at the end of Gehrz essay hold forth that hope. “To be converted to Christ is always, in a sense, to be converted (turned) to the world.” How effectively is that being lived out by those infused with the pietist tradition?

After my grandfather died, my brother and I took to trip to Norway and visited the home where he was born. I continue to love my grandfather and the pietism that formed his faith in Christ, transmitted eventually to me. But I can only wonder how he might answer the questions which now are on my heart and mind. I suspect the Christopher Gehrz could be helpful.