Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
January 29th, 2015 by Joel Watts

Book Notes: The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons

Note, Book Notes is an abbreviated Book Review.

Christian education, liberal arts, and the humanities are all considered, usually, a dead field. Indeed, the concept of a whole person, much less a holy person, does not fit into the spectrum of higher education any longer, finding a whole person replaced with a better cog. Yes, there are some higher education institutions practicing certain ideological viewpoints, such as the Reformed (as the editor and several contributors point out), but what about the Pietist view? Does the Pietist theological tradition, underpinning whole denominations and contributing significantly to many of the Wesleyan ones, have such a vision and if so, what is it? This is the aim of Christopher Gehrz’s anthology, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education.

Gehrz easily separates the Pietist from the Reformed vision as one separates the mind (correct doctrine, i.e., Reformed) from the heart (transformation, i.e., Pietist) (p12). Perhaps this may rankle some Reformed Christians, but this separation is not new to Gehrz, and is quite familiar to Wesleyans (of which I am a part). This is the point of the book, to take the heart and mind and from there create a holy whole person. A historian who is a Christian. A Christian who is a scientist. The pietist view focuses on intellectualism, but does not forget the transformation of the heart.

Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) known as the ...

Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) known as the “Father of Pietism”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to focus on one essay, “Pietism and the Practice of Civil Discourse,” (123–33) written by Christian T. Collins Winn (PhD, Drew University). After recounting what has now become a familiar modern parable of the Civility Project, Winn addresses the interconnection between Pietism and civility. He begins with Philipp Jakob Spener who, in 1675, called for civility in the answering of others, namely Christians. This immediately won him the scorn of friends and foes alike. It is not that the argument, or conflict, that is to be avoided, only that one has a commitment to real dialogue, focusing on the topic rather than on the person. This means a practice of listening in good faith. One listens to listen, not to simply counter. Spener also included humility and love in discerning what civility looked like as well as a hopeful commitment to God’s peace. How does higher education fit into this? Because higher education should require “formal and informal interaction via a variety of actors” with those things that challenge us. Winn then presents several workable solutions as to how Christian institutions of higher learning can aid in forming the whole person to discourse civility.

If you separate Christian institutions of higher learning into four different streams, you get a pretty good idea of why the Pietist is often thought not to have a particular viewpoint. When one thinks of a Reformed college, or a Catholic school, or even a pentecostal university, immediately images spring to mind. But what about a liberal arts college founded by Pietists (or Wesleyans)? What usually springs to mind is a school remaining Christian in history only. But, these contributors aim to change that and to show why a Pietist vision of Christian higher education goes further than secular preparation, but has in its goal a personal transformation serving but the Church and the world. Overall, a book deserved to be read by deans and professors, secular and sectarian.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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