Religion of the heart – part I


Augustine and his symbol of a heart, in a Victorian stained glass window

What is “the religion of the heart”? Where did it come from among Christians? And why have there been Christians of this sort ever since the earliest days of the church? 

I had the pleasure this past weekend of talking about this topic with a group of senior saints who are committed to the history of the Swedish Baptist Pietists; this is the denomination of my seminary, Bethel, in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you’re interested in the role of emotion in spirituality or have wondered about this pre-evangelical movement of “Pietists” that began during the period of the Enlightenment, then you may enjoy these remarks. Here’s part I:

Some remarks on Pietism and Heart Religion, in a historical key

The modern critique of heart religion

The first thing to say, perhaps, about heart religion, is that just as it got a bad rap in the 1600s, when Pietism was born, it still does today. Now, decades after the heyday of the charismatic movement brought heart religion to Main Street, the vaguely disreputable aura of an emotionally expressive religion lingers. Emotional commitment to, and expression of, one’s religion still seems, even to many evangelicals, somewhat uneducated and ‘un-necessary.’

Often, observers have assumed that the expressive emotional practices associated especially with Pentecostal and charismatic faith are basically an escape valve or a denial of difficult circumstances by the kind of people H. Richard Niebuhr called the ‘disinherited’—that is, lower-class folk who don’t know any better.

Hmm . . . Let me suggest one group of poor, ‘disinherited’ folks who ‘didn’t know any better’:

How about the uprooted, persecuted, suffering Christians the Apostle Peter was talking to in his first letter, “who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”? Those who he said “had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials”? To those people, Peter said “though you do not see him now [that is, God], yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (I Peter, chapter one.)

It is worth thinking about this. Were these people involved in escapism and denial? Or would Peter have said, and does the New Testament as a whole seem to teach, that true escapism and denial comes when people focus on their material circumstances and their earthly futures, to the exclusion of the things of God and their eternal destinies?

Though “moderns” have critiqued heart religion, it is biblically rooted

Obviously, I think the modern critique of heart religion is wrong-headed. And I think it is wrong-headed because it is based on a misunderstanding. Modern critics see nothing but the emotions involved in heart religion. They see the religion of the heart as irrational or even anti-rational. And of course in the 20th and 21st centuries, reason trumps all. Reason is power, because of the tremendous power of technology, grounded as that is in scientific rationality. And therefore people tend to believe that emotion—which after all (they think) has nothing to do with reason, unless it clouds it and befuddles our decision-making—should have no role in the important things of our lives, including religion. It’s OK to get excited at a football game or to weep at a movie, but it is not OK to get excited about Jesus or weep in one’s prayers. That is to rely on emotion too much for safety.

What these critics do not see is that Christian groups such as the Pentecostals and early Methodists, and even more, their forebears, the Pietists and the Puritans, have understood the “heart” not just as some organ of raw feeling, but in biblical terms, as the center of emotion, thinking, AND willing.

Indeed the modern “religion of the heart,” far from wallowing in feeling for the sake of feeling, has arisen out of a post-Enlightenment recognition of the woeful inadequacy of merely intellectual models of what it means to live as a Christian. Heart religion is as much about behaving as a Christian as it is about feeling as a Christian. It has simply recognized that it is impossible for us to behave as Christians unless our whole being, including our emotional being, has become transformed—has been “converted.”

If you go back to the original documents of the 17th-century Pietists, you’ll see that they were deeply concerned that people be “born again,” and that being “born again” meant not just repeating a sinner’s prayer and going home, but indeed walking in a whole new way, serving God with their whole being—again, including their emotions.

Listen to the 18th-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards, who worked out of this same stream of heart religion that the Pietists helped to bring to the modern period. Edwards wrote:

“As in worldly things worldly affections are very much the spring of men’s . . . action[s]; so in religious matters the spring of their actions is very much religious affections. He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion. Nothing is more manifest, in fact, than that the things of religion take hold of men’s souls no further than they affect them.”  (That is, we won’t get any farther with God than our emotional commitments limit or allow us to.) (Edwards, Treatise on Religious Affections, 101.)

This talk is continued here.

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One response to “Religion of the heart – part I

  1. Pingback: Religion of the Heart « The Pietist Schoolman

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