2018 Conference Talk
Make Men Pious Again
by C. R. Wiley
The word piety appears to have fallen out of circulation. In some circles, the thing that it once referred to is now known as "a personal relationship with Jesus."
I'm old enough to remember the transition. When I was young, old preachers promoted piety, particularly those whose vocabulary had been formed by reading John Wesley or George Whitfield. I suppose the word sounded sanctimonious to younger men; that's probably why they used more youthful-sounding terms, such as "devotions," or even "quiet time" ("QT" for short). You may be able to detect a downgrade here. Piety was something that carried you through life. QT is something for your to-do list.
But I think it's safe to say we have arrived at a nadir. A few years ago there was a push to get the last vestiges of sanctimony out of Christianity. I'm thinking of the slogan, "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship."
I miss religion. I miss piety, too. I'd like to have them back. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, piety could have been included in a list of things that made you a manly man. I don't think QT could have made such a list.
What I'm thinking of goes much further back than Wesley and Whitfield. Even in the eighteenth century, piety's sphere had already contracted. It's a story that I'm sure is familiar to many of you, but I think I can sum it up succinctly: What was once public truth, by the eighteenth century had been reduced to private conviction.
Ecclesial authority had already been downgraded by then. Authority in general had eroded, due to revolutions in politics, science, and industry. To meet the challenge, evangelists like Wesley and Whitfield were forced to stress direct, very personal experience of the supernatural by everyone. Catechisms and Confessions were no longer enough. Then came Romanticism in the nineteenth century, and before you knew it, you had Cane Ridge.
This is a broad, sweeping generalization, I know. But I am only trying to describe the Zeitgeist here, not the path of every leaf on the wind.
What we have been left with is heart-religion, because now the heart is the only place Jesus can be publically acknowledged to live. Ironically, many people think that this is the very essence of Christianity. The notion that the faith once stood for more is inconceivable.
Now, what does this heart-religion look like?
C. R. Wiley is a member of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters and has written for numerous periodicals. He is the author of The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Canon Press, 2019) and Man of the House (Wipf and Stock, 2017), as well as short fiction and the first book in a young-adult fantasy series, The Purloined Boy, which was republished by Canon Press in 2017.
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