Knowledge ≠ Piety

“Quantity of knowledge is not quantity of piety”
— F. D. E. Schleiermacher, On Religion, Second Speech

Raised, as I was, in pietistic evangelicalism, a statement like this was preached to me many, many times. And Schleiermacher is right, as were my youth leaders and pastors. It is a warning that always needs to be heard anew, particularly for those of us who live and breathe in modern academia.


WTM said…
The questions are, however, "What is piety?" and depending on that answer, "Is it better than knowledge?"
D.W. Congdon said…
Schleiermacher: "piety appears as a surrender, a submission to be moved by the Whole that stands over against man."

I can only heartily concur with this sentiment. Of course, I have other issues with S's theology, but at certain points (such as here) I say Amen.
Shane said…
Now honestly. Just a month ago you guys were balling me out for saying that faith is not a kind of knowledge and now DC is saying a hearty amen to a much stronger distinction to the one I was just making.

In fact, because I am a contrarian (and a closet Platonist), I'm going to go on and say that Schleiermacher is wrong. Faith is not "knowledge" (in the philosophical sense) but faith does have an ineliminable cognitive content (I believe in God the Father Almighty . . . ).

I am willing to admit that non-christians do good things. And of course you have to have some kind of knowledge to do a good thing because knowledge comes in two flavors: theoretical and practical. One cannot act correctly without something like practical knowledge (and it is only the one who does the good that is pious, not the one who has religious affections--true piety is not a feeling).

Let's say that it isn't 'quantity' of knowledge that makes one pious, but rather the 'quality' of that knowledge, i.e. having knowledge of the right kind.

But now what is the right kind of knowledge that one must have in order to act piously? I answer that one requires knowledge of the natural law. One has the ability by nature to understand some basic set of God's commands and able to perform these in a way that pleases him even without the special grace of regeneration. (This is not Pelagianism because I am not arguing that these 'good works' are salvific. NB also that I have not denied that grace has no role in all human moral actions, only that a specific kind of grace is not required.)

Does acting pious presuppose some kind of practical moral knowledge? Yes. Does it presuppose faith? No. Therefore, a non-christian person is capable of doing a pious action, i.e. one which pleases God, even though this action is not a sufficient condition for her salvation.

D.W. Congdon said…
Shane, you have to know the context of S's statement. By knowledge he means rational-philosophical argumentation, i.e., science. He does not mean the knowledge that Calvin affirms as necessary to Christian faith.

That said, he specifically distances piety from both theoretical and practical knowledge, and he does not allow it to simply be an amalgamation of the two.

You equate piety with morality. S. explicitly rejects this, and I agree with him against you. I think you are simply baptizing general "good" behavior in a rather strained attempt to make all human goodness equal before God. Piety, as S. defines it, is more or less a conscious awareness of the relation between the self and God, and the self and the world, and between God and the world. Piety concerns the inner-relatedness of human existence in dependence upon God. Now I may not agree with all that S. advocates, but I am at least in agreement that apart from a relation to God, piety is not possible. It is not simply a result of natural law. I cannot disagree with you more on that issue.
Shane said…
I don't in fact make piety = morality. The two are closely related but not identical. I'm trying to work up a post on this at the moment, but I'll briefly divulge what I think in a summarized form.

a pious action = one that God loves, i.e. one that is obedient to his commands.

a moral action = one that promotes the flourishing of human nature.

The question is whether all pious actions are also moral ones? I would like to say that they are because God is good and he presumably only commands good things, but Abraham and Isaac seems like a strong counterexample. I think you need something like a natural law theory (and possibly an account of divine simplicity) to answer the problem correctly.

The problem with making piety a religious sentiment is that it makes piety utterly subjective. This kind of piety has nothing to do with God because it doesn't actually matter that there be any real object to which that sentiment corresponds. All that is necessary for my being a 'pious' person in this way is that I am appeared unto in a certain sort of way (i.e. something appears to me which gives me the feeling of my own utter dependence).

Schleiermacher's 'piety' is just the idolatry of subjectivity. By linking piety with obedience to divine commands I am trying to overcome that subjectivity.

D.W. Congdon said…
Shane, you are actually quite wrong on Schleiermacher. He is absolutely against the idolization of the subjective-monadic self. Piety is social and always arises in relation to an Other. In relation to these finite Others, we are relatively free and relatively dependent; only in relation to God are we absolutely dependent. More on this will have to wait.

Moreover, a pious action as you have described it is, at the moment, acceptable to me -- but it is surely impossible for natural humanity to be pious. Moral, yes, but not pious -- not at least as you have defined it.
Shane said…
"Piety is social and always arises in relation to an Other."

Which Other? Explain to me why it is intrinsically necessary, for Schleiermacher, that this Other, the object of our feeling of absolute dependence, is the triune God of Christian Faith instead of Buddha, the dignity of human life, or even nothing at all.

I don't know why there would be such a reason for Schleiermacher. (Perhaps I simply haven't read enough of his works--but I doubt he is going to be able to dig himself out of this pit.)

As I understand it, this point I'm making was precisely Barth had his theology students read Feuerbach's 'Essence of Christianity'. Schleiermacher's God is a projection based in human desire for an object of worship.

Of course non-christians do pious actions . . . Gandhi springs to mind. Surely not all of their actions are pious but some are and there is no reason to deny the evident fact. Once again the mendacious moral pessimism of John Calvin spreads its poison.
D.W. Congdon said…

You defined piety in explicit relation to the covenant, and unless one is in a faithful relation to the God of the covenant, one cannot be pious.

Ghandi was a deeply moral man. I do not see why moral goodness is not pleasing to God. But I also do not see how we can call that pious. That would be like seeing a person evangelize and then deducing, "Oh, that person is truly saved by grace." How do you know?? Piety is not an empirical reality that we can measure. As Schleiermacher argues very cogently, piety is prior to knowing and doing and is the ground of both.

That said, are there problems with Schleiermacher? Of course. I do not pretend that he is right in every respect. But, as with Hegel, he is a helluva lot more right than you give him credit for.
Shane said…

I don't know where you got the word 'empirical' from in my posts. What I am arguing for is the objectivity of piety, because it is grounded in God's evaluation of an action rather than in the subjectivity of the individual's religious affections.

I did not "define piety in relation to the covenant" if by the covenant you mean the covenant of grace established by Christ's sacrifice.

Piety has to do with commandments, but as I said, I think (provisionally) this has to be understood also in terms of natural law. (not all divine commands are contained within natural law, but some are).

"Piety is not an empirical reality we can measure."

This is exactly the basis of my objection to Pietism. Suppose George Bush says to you, "Sure I look like a lying, thieving immoral bastard to you and everybody else, but I have Jesus in my heart, so I know I'm going to heaven when I die." I am perfectly fine in myself, because I have a very special sort of religious affection (a feeling of absolute dependence perhaps!) that assures me my sins are forgiven by God and therefore it doesn't matter what I do.

I would be very interested to see how you tease out the distinction between moral and pious actions, such that Gandhi can do what is moral and please God with it, but cannot do what is pious. And how you would deny that George Bush is right with God despite his possession of this feeling of absolute dependence. (And remember, you can't use any 'empirical' data)