A Slice of Pie for the Pietists

In his essay “Democracy and Industrial Society”, Eric Voegelin (alluding to Ernest Renan) speaks of three foundational elements in Western society: Hellenistic Philosophy, Jewish-Christian Religion and Roman Administrative Order.  In shorthand, this means our society has the constituitive elements of

 

  • Reason (studium, the School)
  • Revelation (sacerdotium, the Church, priests)
  • Power (imperium, the administration of justice and the maintenance of order)
I would say that there are two more elements that make up who we are as a people …
  • The Family (ecclesia domestica, including agriculture: home life)
  • The Market (production, buying and selling, the economic sphere)
Voegelin points out that there are Disruptive forces that have opposed these elementary units of our society.  He calls these simply the “anti’s”
  • Anti-Reason is the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy, which began with the Reformation, and which Hilaire Belloc says has climaxed in a modern hatred of reason and an assertion of the Irrational.  Anyone who spends any time arguing on the internet understands that the Cult of the Irrational is a nearly demonic influence in our society, and is even dear to some of my fellow Catholics.
  • Anti-Revelation is the rather obvious rejection of the Church and all it stands for. The apparent irrelevance of the Church to modern men, as well as the Church’s modern focus on sentiment rather than reason, has contributed to this.
  • Anti-Power is the Quietist or Pietist reaction to the Wars of Religion.
Belloc explains all three of these very concisely …

 

By the year 1700, it became apparent that Europe was permanently divided into two camps, Catholic and anti-Catholic.  In the only department that counts, in the mind of man, the effect of the religious wars and their ending in a drawn battle was that religion as a whole was weakened. More and more, men began to think in their hearts, “Since all this tremendous fight has had no result, the causes which led to the conflict were probably exaggerated.  It seems, then, that one cannot arrive at the truth in these matters, but we do know what worldly prosperity is and what poverty is, and what political power and political weakness are.  Religious doctrine belongs to an unseen world which we do not know as thoroughly or in the same way.”

… except he is emphasizing the more typical reactions, which are the first two of the bullet points above, the anti-religious attitude, coupled with the anti-rational attitude that rejects the role of reason in seeking right order, reason’s role in approaching the transcendent and its role in ordering our lives toward it, especially as seen in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.

But the flipside of this rejection of the School and the Church (the rejection of philosophy and religion) is the rejection of the World and of Power.  Voegelin is especially critical of Pietism, which he says was especially prominent in Germany and laid the groundwork for the Nazis.

Pietism was a Protestant movement that began as a desire to re-emphasize sanctificiation – holiness – in a Christian faith that had become worldly and indistinguishable from mere secularism.  I am very much in sympathy with such an impetus, for, as you may notice, I spend much of my time complaining about inane suburban parishes and the modern fad of preaching Christ without the Cross.

But Pietism rather quickly became a Gnostic movement that rejected all contact with the messy life-of-the-world as something that was evil.  Voegelin quotes a common German saying, die Macht is bose, “power is evil”.  The Pietist attitude eventually becomes one in which an “anti-world orientation gets expressed.”  The Pietist lives “in expectation of redemption, which requires one to withdraw from the filth of the world and especially of politics.”

This may sound odd to most people who live among the secularists who make up the majority of our neighbors (and who are all quite worldly), but those of us who travel in what I call “Super Catholic” circles see a form of Pietism all around us.  It typically takes a more “Quietist” form: “Oh, well.  It’s all God’s will.  Everything happens for the best.  I’ll just sit here until God drops in my lap what I want.  And he if doesn’t drop it, oh well.  It was not meant to be.  Oh, well.” 

But it also takes the form of disdaining things like getting a job that excites you, and taking the risks of going to a college that challenges you, or (heaven forbid) dating someone who may entice you to move out of your parent’s basement and put down the video game joy stick.  These things are all scary, and when a young person sees them not only as anxiety provoking, but also as inherently evil, then the Christian faith becomes not a sacramental approach to living life, but a sanctimonious way of avoiding it.

Either way, Voegelin’s point is that the Distortions or Derailments, the “anti’s”, have this in common: they reject the transcendent as having any bearing on life: either because reason and revelation are despised, or (in the case of the Pietists) power and politics are despised: in both cases the Incarnation is cut off: the transcendent is divorced from the immanent.

Included in the Pietistic rejection of power and politics are the rejection of things like prudential decisions on how to make a living, taking responsibility for your passions and desires, reasonably exercising your authority as a spouse or parent, etc. – the kinds of real life issues that we never hear addressed in homilies that simply say, “God loves you just as you are,” or “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too,” or “Be enthused!  Isn’t it great?  Yeah, it’s really great!  Hey, Lent is half over!  That’s why I’m in pink.  Ha ha.  Hey!  It’s Easter!  We can eat chocolate again.  Ha ha.”    In all of these cases, the True Order that should be guiding our messy lives in this muddled existence is rejected or even treated with contempt.

Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien is the founder and artistic director of the Theater of the Word Incorporated, which tours the world evangelizing through drama. He and his actors appear on several EWTN television programs, with video clips featured on O'Brien's website, www.stgenesius.net. Kevin teaches many online classes for Homeschool Connections and writes a regular column for the St. Austin Review. His autobiography, A Bad Actor's Guide to the Meaning of Life, will be published soon by ACS Press.

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  1. Joseph, I suspect that this topic cannot be skimmed so lightly, just as a response to Voegelin’s essay. Any discussion of “quietism” must be carefully outlined if one is to avoid an appearance of condemnation/criticism of cloistered contemplatives, consecrated hermits–and the many great saints among them–and the acceptance of God’s will should not be seen as an “oh, well” attitude, when in fact it often takes great spiritual courage and humility. Lest we contradict the author of Romans, or even the one who said, “Be ye in the world but not of it”–not to mention holy martyrs.

    Participation in public affairs is a duty of citizenship. Beyond that, it’s a matter of choice, calling, or even simple temperament.

  2. Really is an intellectual pride…if it is hatred for the world.