The Impietist Tradition: a Theology for Degenerate Christians

Today I will tell a little more about what I want with this blog. It is my hope to initiate an impietist tradition. As you can perhaps guess, impietism is something like the opposite of pietism, the well-known movement of personal devotion and sincerity of faith within 18th century Lutheranism. In truth, the difference is actually more subtle, since the Pietists got a couple things right. My impietism is intended for the degenerate, for those who feel like they are un-born-again. So let’s have a little impietist talk.

Ultimate Concern

Paul Tillich, the famous and famously impious theologian, discusses the Pietists and their insistence that real theology can only be done by the regenerate. Only those who have been born again are able to know God and speak rightly about God. The task of theology can only be left to them. Tillich doesn’t like this too much because nobody can say of himself that he is regenerated. That is something only God knows. But Tillich agrees with the existential aspect of theology that the Pietists insist on. You need to be able to speak on matters of life, death, and God from the heart, with existential involvement, or else it produces only dry and withered statements.

In line with his own theological jargon, Tillich proposes the following solution in his systematic theology: “I have said that only he who experiences the Christian message as his ultimate concern is able to be a theologian, but after this nothing else is demanded. And it might be that he who is in doubt about every special doctrine is a better theologian as long as this doubt about doctrine is his ultimate concern. So you don’t need to be converted in order to be a theologian – whatever this term may mean.”

Tillich means that as long as you consider the subject matter you write about a matter of life and death for you (a matter of ultimate concern), you can be a good theologian, whether you believe in God or not, whether you are an orthodox theist or a radical atheist, whether you are regenerated or a degenerate.

The Existential Engagement

I think Tillich is right. Some of the best insights about Christ have come from non-Christians, and some of the most important observations about God have come from those who do not accept God’s existence. All God-talk and anti- or non-God-talk is produced by human beings who at their best moments attempt to make sense of the world, God, and the God-world relationship. Such sense only comes about when people are involved from their existence, when they courageously live out their lives amidst the suffering, pain, and anxieties this world brings.

The Pietists were wrong about setting up a human standard for who belongs to God. They thought they knew who could do theology and who couldn’t. Wrong! But they were right about the importance of existential involvement. Therefore, Impietist theology is not simply against the Pietists, just as I’m ultimately not against evangelicals either. The point is that things have to be done differently in an age that is post-Christian and in an age that has exposed many Christian teachings as unwarranted wishful thinking. Wrong ideas have to be abandoned and wrong practices must be exposed. The goal is a positive one in which theological language is shown to be relevant for today.

Theology has to come from our existence and only then will we know if it is meaningful. What is this existential context? It is a secular world, in which hardly anybody believes in God, where church buildings are sold because believers no longer gather there, and where increasing numbers of those who still believe find themselves in a position of doubt concerning the doctrines and tenets that once were handed over from generation to generation.

Therefore, these are the hallmarks of my Impietism for the Degenerate:

It is For the Degenerate 

The theology I propose is for the degenerate. I use the term “degenerate” to include two groups of people. One group is degenerate in the sense of not-regenerated, or not-born again. Theology should always be for those who are not born again, but in this particular case the theology I propose is not just there in order to reach the degenerate but to involve them as discussion partners. The degenerate are theological performers themselves.

A second group of degenerates consists of those who were once considered born again but are no longer willing or able to carry that label. The born again-ness rejected here is the cultural form of American evangelical Christianity. It was once a useful term but is now merely a cultural signifier that one belongs to a movement that has lost all moral credibility.

Besides, the term born again—remember Paul Tillich’s problem with the Pietists—cannot be used as a measuring rod to determine who is in or out. The term is used by Jesus in a passage in John 3 precisely to make clear that the work of God’s Spirit is hidden. Today, more than ever, many born-againies are reassessing their “moment of decision” and questioning that moment’s measurability and date-ability.

We have degenerates, both believers and non-believers, as actors in the theological drama. There are people in both camps who think hard about the ultimate questions in life. All of them know they are addressed by the teachings of Christ, whether those teachings are rejected or not. With this, my theology is equally for the regenerates as long as they don’t operate from a standpoint of moral and dogmatic superiority.

It is Impious 

If pietism has come to denote a world-eschewing attitude and a turn to the private quarters to devote oneself to God, the theology I propose is entirely impious. To be sure lots of pietists were active in what we now would call social justice and charity, so my beef is not primarily with them. Yet my proposed theology presents something very different for which “impietism” is an excellent name.

In the first place, my theology is not pious, i.e. seeking to glorify God, or center one’s life around God by earnestly seeking the Scriptures. Rather, this theology calls God out, questions God, wonders why there is such a discrepancy between divine promises in the Bible and actual lived reality. Many people think such an approach blasphemous. It isn’t. Let’s get real with God.

Secondly, my theology does not run from the world, but to it. It concludes, on the basis of the incarnation, that if God has revealed God’s self in Christ we will find God in the world, not in monasteries, chapels, mission compounds, or conference centers. We find God in the face of the other. We see God suffer in the eyes of those who are being exploited, are in a state of mourning, or are feeling depressed. We see God in the selfless love expressed from one individual to another. Sanctification is not found in becoming unlike the world, but becoming as the world the way God intended it.

Thirdly, this theology is not intended to walk peacefully and obediently in the paths of our foremothers and forefathers. On the contrary, our times demand that we critically examine the old ways and reject what no longer holds up to the tests of plausibility and authenticity. Traditional Christianity is over in the West. After the End of God we must think God anew and we need agnostics, unbelievers, and atheists to get the conversation going.

How Do We Develop a New Tradition?

We must move from tradition to the deconstruction of that tradition. The demise of Christianity demands that we do this earnestly and thoroughly. Everything we held dear and considered to be true must be examined. From deconstruction we need to move to reconstruction, for a theology that only breaks down has nothing to offer. What and how may we speak of God and follow Jesus into the world? And from reconstruction a new tradition may issue: the Impietist Tradition.

This Impietist may at times proceed in a way that has affinity with methodological atheism. We live as though God is not given in this world. We do so because we realize we are responsible for our own lives and our own thoughts, especially our God-constructs. But ultimately we proceed this way precisely in order to allow God-talk to become possible again. Because, even though all our God-talk is human talk, we always need to be ready for an address from outside ourselves that demands we live our lives no longer for ourselves. That would be the voice of God. On these terms we know that God-talk is of ultimate concern.

This is my Impietist Theology for Degenerates.


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Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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