Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Privilege of Pious Blather

There's a kind of spiritual talk that sounds nice but never lands. It's religious and safe, but floats above the world like an ecclesial Laputa.

I first noticed it as a child, listening to sermons. Some Sundays, the preacher would catch me off guard with the truth of the gospel. Other Sundays, I'd be lulled to sleep by pious platitudes, pillowed by a message that was afraid to bleed.

I've seen the same type of speech all over the place. It's common among theologians, many of whom retreat into esoteric generalizations so their content doesn’t have to rub shoulders with concrete political realities.

Devotional resources are particularly guilty. They pedal in soft platitudes, Lotus-eater-like, inviting the faithful to live lives of perpetual somnambulescence.

Many bishops specialize in it.

Some blogs are equally guilt. And chief of sinners that I am, I can offer some examples of blog posts here at Lutheran Confessions that are examples of this kind of pious blather. Here's one: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2015/09/a-bottled-pope-how-can-water-do-such_26.html

I don't think the entirety of this blog post is pious blather, but the last sentence probably is: "Then hold on tight to the word and promises of God."

Sounds nice. Lulls you into quiet complacency. but what in the hell does it mean? Which "word"? Which "promises"? Hold on tight to what?

Other examples of this kind of pious bloviation:

We need to inhabit the Scriptures and let their story become our story.

God wants you to repent of all the things that keep you from God.

I'm not going to take a side on this issue. I'm just living the questions with this community.

What's at stake here in identifying such strangely free floating vapidities?

First, they allow the speaker or author to maintain the illusion that they are above the fray. It maintains a position supposedly outside of any particular position.

By speaking or writing in such a manner, we either disguise or fail to name our particular social location.

Second, it's a privileged kind of speech. It assumes a monopoly on the one interpretation, a unity of apperception concerning the theological insight in question. Or at the very least operates as if there are not a multiplicity of perspectives, as if everybody already knows what the Bible is, and there is just one reading of it... and it is ours.

Third, it's a strangely non-pluralist attempt to avoid intersectionality (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). Here's what I mean. By not recognizing the plurality of views on an issue, what appears as an expression of the faith is actually an expression of one type of specific faith attempting to appear as representative of all faiths. By not joining any particular discursive community, the voice of this kind of piety seems to speak from nowhere at all.

Nothing about us without us.

As a result, it comes across as avoiding the critique of particular perspectives, beholden to no theory because it is not part of anything in particular. The concern of intersectionality as it functions as part of anti-oppression activism is captured in a rather memorable phrase: Nothing about us without us.

So who in particular is a pious platitude about? What group does it join, or represent? It presumes to speak for all, in a sense, and so is all about all of us while functioning completely without us. Therein lies the rub.

Speaking from or among a particular perspective, with all the attendant risks, is in this sense the only way for the articulation of Christian faith to take on concrete reality. To be incarnate, as it were.

All of that being said.

There are some very good reasons for the temptation towards pious blather. Many clergy who engage in it, and I count myself sometimes among this crowd, speak in this manner in order to avoid offense or bias. We serve diverse faith communities, made up of people with diverse spiritualities, and we try, in these stumbling ways, to speak for and with all.

We also, I think, are all attempting to not simply parrot or replicate painful partisanship. Taking a strong stand, with a clear position, is not always the opposite of pious blather. Sometimes we're simply being demagoguish in our positions, which is its own kind of problem.

Self-differentiated articulation of the faith, maintaining an awareness of multiple pluralities, is no simple feat. It's no wonder, tired as we are some Sunday mornings, that we drift back into inanities. Sometimes we just want to get that sermon done and go to lunch, with little risk that we've put ourselves or our careers on the line for the sake of the gospel.

But here's a good rule. In general, if you are a preacher or theologian, and no one is quite able to discern what social location or perspective you inhabit, then you're getting by with obfuscating sanctimony. And certainly, if you've found a way to massage the message in a way that avoids getting rubbed the wrong way by the intersection of intersectional critique, you certainly have found a comfortable mode of participating in privileged pious blather.

So should everybody know you're a card-carrying Republican or Democrat, or that you're a student of critical theory or a Girardian? Yes. Probably. Like this blog. Over the years I've considered changing the name to something more generally Christian, without a name that marks out my particular tradition within the spectrum of Christianities.

But I like the transparency of the name, when it comes right down to it. I think readers of the blog deserve to know I'm writing from (a) Lutheran perspective. It might even be better if I called it "A Lutheran's Confession," but the word play was fun when I started the blog some dozen years ago, and I'm lazy.

In other words, for the sake of the gospel, all preachers and theologians are more or less going to have to risk being perceived as political.

Because once you've joined a movement, and you're with it, there's no longer a Switzerland to which you can retreat.


  1. Thanks, Clint, for articulating that which I've sense, but never quite identified. Now I know why I rarely like devotional materials.

  2. Yeah, but political speech is full of blather too. Can't do much about that. I don't mind being lightning rod for the Gospel -- as long as I can proclaim God's grace.

    1. A good amount of political speech is full of blather, yes. The difference is that religious leaders often thing their particular kind of spiritual blather is an unadulterated virtue.