Friday, November 21, 2008

Missio Dei & Pietism

Whatever ever else we might say about "missio Dei," it is I think an attempt to overcome the deep strains of pietism that have become the norm in American Christianity (including Orthodox Christianity). The Greek Orthodox ethicist Christos Yannaras has written extensively on pietism as an "ecclesiological heresy." In his book The Freedom of Morality, he writes that:

Pietism made its appearance as a distinct historical movement within Protestantism, at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, around 1690-1730. Its aim was to stress "practical piety," as distinct from the polemical dogmatic theology to which the Reformation had initially given a certain priority. Against the intellectualist and abstract understanding of God and of dogmatic truth, pietism set a practical, active piety (praxis pietatis): good works, daily self-examination for progress in virtues according to objective criteria, daily study of the Bible and practical application of its moral teaching, intense emotionalism in prayer, a clear break with the "world" and worldly practices (dancing, the theatre, non-religious reading); and tendencies towards separatism, with the movement holding private meetings and distinguishing itself from the "official" Church.

Rightly he points out that in pietism, "experience" (very narrowly defined as a particular kind of experience) becomes paramount. "For pietism, knowledge of God presupposes the "rebirth" of man [i.e., a "born again" experience --web ed.], and this rebirth is understood as living up to the moral law of the Gospel and as an emotional experience of authoritative truths. Pietism presents itself as a mystical piety, and ultimately as a form of opposition to knowledge; as "adogmatism," in the sense that it ignores or belittles theological truth, or even as pure agnosticism cloaked in morality."

Though pietism arose in Protestantism, it has had a great effect of "the spiritual life of other churches, to this day" including he argues the Orthodox Church. As a result, and in "combination with humanism, the Enlightenment and the 'practical' spirit of the modern era-- the spirit of 'productivity' and 'efficiency'-- pietism has cultivated throughout Europe [and the US] a largely 'social' understanding of the Church, involving practical activities of public benefit, and it has presented the message of salvation primarily as a necessity for individual and collective morality."

We see the consequences of this in the increasingly common "utilitarian institutional mentality" that has come to infect "has led many churches and Christian confessions" resulting in what Yannaras describes as "a fever of anxiety." Lost in all this is the "miracle of repentance," of even the remembrance that we can experience a "transfiguration of sin into loving desire for [a] personal communion with God." As a result the " Gospel message is 'made void'," having been "emptied of its ontological content" in our desire to honor "the principle of keeping up appearances." And when appearance matters most of all " the Church's faith in the resurrection of man is made to appear vacuous," and we no longer understand that the Church is the epiphany that makes manifest that in Christ we are offered salvation "from the anonymity of death."

For Yannaras, the symptom of what has been lost—not simply in Western Christianity but also (as his criticism make clear) also in the East—is that rather than being prophetic events that announce the victory of Christ not simply over death, but over death in me, "the sacraments takes on a conventional, ethical character." And so, for example, "Confession turns into a psychological means of setting individual guilt-feelings at rest" the reception of Holy Communion a "reward for good behavior-when it is not a scarcely conscious individual or family custom bordering on magic" And, as I can attest from my own pastoral experience, even Baptism is robbed of its eschatological and soteriological content becoming instead "a self-evident social obligation, and marriage [as Fr Alexander Schmemann never tired of point out simply] a legitimization of sexual relations without regard to any ascetic transfiguration of the conjugal union into an ecclesial event of personal intercourse or communion."

Missio Dei is an attempt, I think, to rediscover a living sense of what Yannaras calls the "ontological truth of Church unity and personal communion" that has become ever more elusive in Protestant Christianity. But again, pietism has also had an effect on the pastoral life of the Orthodox Church such that the three forms of "sectarian" Orthodoxy I summarized above are simply taken as the norm, and even a desirable way of forming the life of the parish.

I would wonder, by way of conclusion, if missio Dei might not be a fruitful avenue of ecumenical conversation between Protestant and Orthodox Christians?

As always, your comments, questions, and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Print this post