Pious or Holy?

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister: Christian Wisdom Challenges the Contemporary World

Piety is cultural. Holiness depends on our choosing the pieties proper to the times. Culture and spirituality, in other words, are of a piece.

The function of spirituality is not to protect us from our times; the function of spirituality is to enable us to leaven it and stretch it, and bless it, and break it open to the present will of God.

Piety is a function of our times. The piety of a past time may be entirely inappropriate for today. Past piety may, in fact, be un-holy. This says a great deal about the course our discipleship should run.

And what does all of that mean to us today? It means that the question for religious and spiritual people now must be: What cultural realities are challenging the will of God now and how can the word of God best challenge the culture if we are to be a progressive people, a spiritual people, a holy people?

In this essay Chittister outlines "three basic spiritual responses to culture: the intellectual, the relational, and the performative." With these in mind she takes us on a quick tour of "the cultural situation of the Western world from 1960-2006: the era that has formed the spiritual life of most of the world today."

As we all know, the view is not encouraging. Chittister also touches on the work of anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace., Wallace says "major transformations of thought and behavior happen in a society when it discovers that a once-common set of religious understandings have become impossible to sustain.

At that point, Wallace says, society begins to undergo a "revitalization movement" of four major stages."

What is exciting and hopeful in Chittister's grim painting of reality is that we are at least in stage three! Here, "people as a whole agree there is a problem, they can't agree on how to cope with this new social situation." That means, of course, that "inevitably," we face "nativist, or traditionalist movements...."

Nativists argue that the danger has come from the failure of the people to adhere more strictly to old beliefs and values and behavior patterns. They want to do more of the same-old, but do it better. They want the "old time religion" and they find scapegoats aplenty: the economy would be all right if it weren't for unions, they argue; marriages would be all right if it weren't for feminism, and; the country would be fine if it weren't for liberalism.

The rise of Pauline Hanson, used so skillfully by John Howard, is an example of this nativism. So too the shock jocks, and the Republican fury at Obama, I suspect. In a strange way, these frightening recidivists to old evils are good news. They are a sign that we have begun to move to a new place.

Chittister sketches her own hopes for the directions in which we may move. She is clear

What God saves, God saves through us. We need, in other words, to intervene for one another. We need a new worldview that puts the old one "in new light."

There needs to be a rebuilding of piety. The old piety is no longer holy. It is unsuited to the times. She asks how we will "build [a] bridge from the old privatized piety to public moral responsibility."

Her answer sounds strangely familiar. But it is also very different from our comfortable pieties, and will be met with howls of protest. I know this, because I have heard the howls wherever people have tried what she is calling for.

I suggest that we must all begin again to look at the bases of social brokenness and see the spiritual link between the personal and the political. I'm suggesting that we look again at what ancients called the seven capital sins/signs of social brokenness, but this time on two levels: the level of the personal as well as the global. Remember with me: envy, pride, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, covetousness.

Envy, for instance, on the personal level is certainly a lack of acceptance of self, which leads in its sinful form, to a rejection of others.

But globally, isn't this ethnocentrism as well? When we create and uphold criminal governments for our own good--such as in Iraq--rather than recognize the needs of the people of the country; when we impose our system and structures in return for trade, isn't that the failure to accept a thing for what it is?

In one sense, what Chittister says is not at all new. It is implicit in the prophets. We have long heard it from numbers of pulpits, although not nearly from pulpits enough. I wonder if the time is not more ripe. Along with the froth and bubble there is a serious note. Sharp political comment intrudes into the bawdy humour of Good News Week. The light weight infotainment of the 7pm Project has deeply serious moments. It is an opportune time to live a different piety.

Read the article. It is a tight, concise survey of who and where we are. Read on >>>>

Andrew Prior October 2009


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