Early in Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game (1943) comes a fascinating passage concerning the personal costs of debate. The novel is set in an imaginary country resembling Switzerland, some centuries in the future, and its action centres on the “Pedagogical Province” of Castalia—an archipelago of a province, a series of quasi-monastic scholarly communities dotted throughout the land. In one of those communities, called Waldzell, a visitor arrives, an outgoing and rhetorically gifted young man named Plinio Designori. Plinio stands in the midst of a group of adolescent scholars-in-training and cheerfully explains to them that their studies are frivolous and sterile and that they are indefensibly parasitic on the larger society. Some of the scholars ignore Plinio; but “still there were always several schoolmates gathered around [him]; he was always the center of attention, and whether or not there happened to be an opponent in the group, he always exerted an attraction so strong that it was akin to seduction.”
The novel’s protagonist, Joseph Knecht, joins this audience, and eventually he assumes the role of Plinio’s chief interlocutor and opponent. It falls to Joseph to defend his community’s traditions, which he does with determination and increasing skill. Though he lacks Plinio’s verbal agility, he compensates for it by long hours of study and preparation. Eventually he is able to refute many of Plinio’s claims, which leads Plinio to become more serious and nuanced in his critiques, which in turn requires Joseph to study and think harder, and so on. Iron sharpens iron. Plinio comes to understand that there is much more to Castalia than he had suspected, and for his part Joseph comes to see that his community really does risk preciousness and isolation from the concerns of the “real world.” It is a lesson that stays with him for the rest of his life.
But the relationship between the two boys is not symmetrical. The narrator explains, “Even when [Plinio] was being defeated on a point, he managed to think of the audience and contrive a facesaving or witty line of retreat. Knecht, on the other hand, when his opponent had driven him into a corner, was apt to say: ‘I shall have to think about that for a while, Plinio. Wait a few days; I’ll come back to that point.’”
These contrasting responses indicate the boys’ contrasting temperaments; but more important, they indicate how they are differently situated. For Plinio has nothing to lose in these debates except face: the worst that can happen to him is to be shown unable to respond to a particular argument. As I have noted, he is a visitor to Waldzell from the “outside”; his parents’ plan is to have him absorb some of the community’s intellectual discipline and then return to his world of wealth and privilege. Whether he wins or loses an argument has no necessary bearing on the rest of his life.
Joseph Knecht, by contrast, is not safe.
Again, Waldzell resembles a monastic community: young men leave their homes, schools, and families to join it, foregoing marriage and career. Joseph has pledged his whole being to the scholarly world of Castalia; if that world is fundamentally frivolous and useless, the definitive choice of his life was a catastrophic mistake, and he is wasting his energies and his gifts. This is why, when Plinio can deflect an unanswerable argument with a witticism, Joseph has to go away and think hard about Plinio’s strongest claims. The stakes for him are very high—and not just for him: the young scholars gathered around to listen to these dialectical contests (which become increasingly popular) are depending on him to justify their own choices as well.
Thus, if Plinio thrives on these debates, Joseph is exhausted by them. He becomes ever more disciplined not just in his studies but also in meditation—the equivalent of prayer in this wholly secular monastery—because he knows that without the calm that arises from meditation he will break down altogether. But he comes close to breaking down anyway, so great is the stress.
As I contemplate this section of The Glass Bead Game, I find myself thinking of C.S. Lewis—more particularly, of some of the comments he made when, in the 1940s, he became a famous defender of the Christian faith. Speaking to priests and youth leaders on the topic of Christian apologetics, he offered this warning: “I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar.”
Note that even success in argument is dangerous. Even if you leave your opponent speechless, you are probably aware that another, more skillful opponent might have done the same to you. Indeed, if you are skilled in debate yourself, you may well know the strongest elements of your interlocutors’ positions better than they do; you may wipe your brow in relief when they fail to bring out their most powerful weapons. But you feel that relief because you also feel your own weaknesses, your limitations.
When Lewis helped establish the Socratic Club of Oxford, along with a group of fellow Christians, he often heard the charge that the club was inherently biased, prone to the temptation of setting things up to favour the Christians. Lewis freely acknowledged this bias—but went on, in an essay contemporaneous with The Glass Bead Game, to point out that “argument . . . has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours. . . . The arena is common to both parties and cannot finally be cheated; in it you risk nothing, and we risk all” (emphasis mine). That is, the unbeliever whose case for unbelief seems weaker at the end of the day hasn’t “lost” anything more than Plinio has when he can’t answer one of Joseph’s arguments: at worst, he or she must do further thinking about the evidence for and against Christian belief. But the believer whose case for Christianity is undermined by such debates is in a radically more vulnerable position.
Thus the warning of Sir Thomas Browne in the seventeenth century: “Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity. Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth. A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender: ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, then to hazard her on a battle.”
Some of my philosophical friends are horrified by Browne’s argument and remind me of St. Peter’s exhortation: “Always [be] prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). But I would reply by noting two things: there is more than one kind of preparation, and there is more than one kind of defence. All too often Christians think of preparation for “making a defence” as a matter of gathering information and training themselves in dialectical agility: anticipating arguments and coming up with clever responses to them. But the example of Joseph Knecht suggests that prayer—and contemplative prayer even more than the petitionary variety—is at least as important a mode of preparation. Indeed, I would claim that it’s more important, because in my experience it’s far less common for debating Christians to be uninformed than it is for them to be angry, truculent, and uncharitable—and to the degree that they are, they reflect a lack of preparation, a lack of piety.
Piety is an old-fashioned word, and one that we struggle to speak. But it is a virtue of which we have particular need.
Piety is an old-fashioned word, and one that we struggle to speak. But it is a virtue of which we have particular need.
It is not, in its origin, a Christian word. The Roman poet Virgil calls his hero pius Aeneas, says that he is a pietāte virum, but we might well mislead readers were we to say “pious Aeneas” or a “pious man.” For his character is unmarked by the smarmy religiosity we typically associate with the word “pious.” Aeneas is devoted to his mission, is faithful to the call of the gods on his life. He is willing to sacrifice his own interests to those greater interests, especially to the founding of the great city of Rome. He binds his will and his heart to that task. This is what it means to be pius.
In a curious and provocative book called Permanence and Change (originally published in 1935), that curious and provocative thinker Kenneth Burke takes up what he calls “the problem of piety.” After some reflection on this subject he concludes that “piety is the sense of what properly goes with what” (emphasis in the original). Piety is at work “when the potter moulds the clay to exactly that form which completely gratifies his sense of how it ought to be.” And that sense of “how it ought to be” arises from the potter’s precise attention to and deep respect for the material in which he works.
As another example, Burke cites the “strange misgiving” that a man might feel when felling a great tree—an inchoate sense of having violated something, a feeling of impiety. Further:
The purely utilitarian attitude towards such acts, however, requires that one introduce a distinctly impious note: one cannot permit the symbolic overtones of meaning to function at all. If the tree falls, and one feels a strange uneasiness, one must shut off the queer remorse by an impatient “Nonsense!—this is only one tree, I needed it, and there are plenty of others to take its place.” The non-utilitarian qualities of the act are dismissed—one must perform the act as a “new man”—and when a great oak falls, only the poet, bewildered and plaintive, may permit himself to feel that there is somehow a deeper issue here than the mere getting of firewood.
In short: Utilitarianism banishes piety.
If we grasp this point, we will better understand the collapse of our social institutions, a collapse so powerfully diagnosed by Yuval Levin in his 2020 book A Time to Build. Throughout the Western world, but especially in the United States, we see an epidemic of mistrust of institutions: government at every level, and religious organizations at every level beyond the local, are viewed with contempt. Now, to be sure, some people may only ask of an institution, “What’s in it for me?”—they may be utilitarians on their own behalf. But more important, I think, is that people generally believe that that’s how the participants in those institutions think. Mistrust of government arises from the belief that our political representatives exploit their positions for self-aggrandizement; mistrust of religious organizations arises from the belief that pastors and bishops and church administrators alike treat the church as a means of acquiring power and prestige.
This is why Levin addresses his strongest appeals not to those who observe institutions from without but to those on the inside: “We must all accept the responsibilities that come with the positions we hold, and we must ensure that obligations and restraints actually protect and empower us. We need to inhabit these institutions, love them, and reform them to help make them more lovely to others as well.” That is, if we want other people to respect our institutions, we most love them as Joseph Knecht loved Castalia, as Aeneas loved the promise of Rome.
Renewal of trust in institutions will not happen unless the institutions recover their integrity, and that will not happen unless the people who work within them become pious.
Renewal of trust in institutions will not happen unless the institutions recover their integrity, and that will not happen unless the people who work within them become pious—devoted, faithful, committed not to their own personal flourishing but to the flourishing of that which they serve. And if, as we have seen, utilitarianism banishes piety, the restoration of piety will depend on the banishing of utilitarianism.
What I have written in the previous sections is, I believe, applicable to all the damaged institutions of our current social order, but I am especially concerned with the church of Jesus Christ. And to understand the distinctive challenges facing that institution—or, if you prefer, that loose and sometimes fractious congregation of institutions—we must reflect again on the asymmetry between Plinio Designori and Joseph Knecht. I devoted so much time to a portrayal of Joseph’s sufferings because that enables us to see the personal costs of piety—in more senses than one of the word “costs.” Joseph’s sense of responsibility to the institution he loves, his desire to help it flourish, causes him pain and also requires him to invest time in meditation and study. The same demands will be made on those who love the church, but superadded to those demands are the tensions that arise when one reflects that the eternal destiny of people may be at stake when the church is involved. Thus the especially heavy weight of guilt that falls on pastors and other ministers who have abused children when that abuse deprives the victims of their trust in God. And even when such evil is not in play, there remains the constant awareness by Christians that, as Lewis says to unbelievers, “you risk nothing, and we risk all”—all.
The prospect of risk leads to fear, and fear in turn leads to utilitarianism. Or so I believe. I have heard with my own ears church planters speak casually and cheerfully of ROKI: “return on Kingdom investment.” As far as I can tell, such “return” is measured largely in terms of average Sunday attendance, though the financial contributions of attendees is, presumably, also factored in. A church-planting organization, acting on venture-capitalist principles, invests money in a church start-up: rents space, pays salary to a pastor, and so on. But this investment is time-limited: at a certain point the church needs to become self-sustaining. If that doesn’t happen, then there’s insufficient ROKI to warrant further investment. The investor pulls the plug.
Everything here is done by calculation, not by love—not by piety. To support a local congregation simply because you love the church of Jesus Christ and refuse to stop loving that unique congregation—that’s forbidden; some risk is accepted, but with limits identified and set at the beginning. The utilitarian calculus precludes unmeasured risk, and as we have seen, there is a close connection between the acceptance of unmeasured risk and the cultivation of piety. Piety does not and cannot precisely count its costs.
Piety does not and cannot precisely count its costs.
If the planters of the church operate according to a utilitarian calculus, will the pastor dare to think otherwise? Will the congregants? They will, surely, be vulnerable to the same weighing of costs and benefits. And, perhaps even more important, when a Plinio comes along—a witty skeptic, a charming mocker—they will be for him the easiest of pickings.
The renewal of the institution of the church can begin only with the renewal of the virtue of piety. But where will that renewal begin? Speaking as a layperson, I will echo the psalmist and say, “Put not your trust in princes”—including princes of the church. Piety, like charity, begins at home. I must prepare myself. I must pray for and earnestly seek a spirit of faithfulness and devotion to a church that does not always, or even often, appear to deserve it. Because in the life and witness of Jesus Christ we see always a God who shows mercy to the undeserving, and loves the unlovely.