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Why Practice Matters...
by Gary Waller
When we live the practices of Christian faith, we join together with one another, with Jesus, and with the communion of saints across time and space in a way of life that resists death in all its forms - a way of life that is spilling over with the Life of God for creation, for our neighbors, and for ourselves.
Practices point beyond the individualism of the dominant culture to disclose the social (i.e., shared) quality of our lives, and especially the social quality of Christian life, theology, and spirituality. Our thinking and living take place in relation to God and also to one another, to others around the world and across the centuries, and to a vast communion of saints. In this regard, Practicing Our Faith is not a self-help book but a mutual-help book.
Practices help us to understand our continuity with the Christian tradition -- an important matter during this time of change and in the midst of a culture infatuated with what is new. The way of life we are describing is historically rooted, and the history from which Christian practices emerge is an expansive one that encompasses many cultures and denominational traditions. In the terms used here, "practices" endure over time and across cultures; what changes are the specific moves by which specific groups of Christians embody these practices in different times and places. Attention to practices, in this sense, can help contemporary people to treasure their continuity with the past, even while also helping them to embrace the future with hope and creativity, as members of a living tradition.
All of this means that people need to craft the specific forms each practice can take within their own social and historical circumstances. This approach thus requires attention to the concrete and down-to-earth quality of the Christian life. It invites attention to details such as gestures and the role of material things.
Practices make us think about who we truly are as the created and newly created children of God. An important claim is that Christian practices address "fundamental human needs." We live in a culture that is very confused about what people need -- a culture where a plethora of dubious "needs" are constantly being constructed and marketed. In contrast, awareness of Christian practices helps us to reflect theologically on who people really are and what we really need.
A practice is small enough that it can be identified and discussed as one element within an entire way of life. But a practice is also big enough to appear in many different spheres of life. For example, the Christian practice of hospitality has dimensions that emerge as (1) a matter of public policy; (2) something you do at home with friends, family, and guests; (3) a radical path of discipleship; (4) part of the liturgy; (5) a movement of the innermost self toward or away from others; (6) a theme in Christian theology; and probably much else. Thinking about this one practice can help us make connections across spheres of life-connections that often get disrupted in our fragmented society. For example, reflection on the Christian practice of hospitality would provide a way of exploring the relations between spirituality and social justice.
All people engage in most or all of the practices in Practicing Our Faith in one way or another. After all, all human beings necessarily rest, encounter strangers, rely on one another's help when ill, and so on. However, those who embrace Christian practices engage in these fundamental human activities in the light of God's presence and in response to God's grace is it is known in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Christian practices can be understood not as tasks but as gifts. Within these practices, we do not aim to achieve mastery (e.g., over time, strangers, death, nature) but rather to cultivate openness and responsiveness to others, to the created world, and to God.
Christian practices add up to a way of life. They are woven together: if one is missing, all are distorted in some way. On the other hand, because they are woven together, any one practice can become a gateway into the whole way of life.
Practices heal the division between thinking and doing (which many modern people have thought are separate) and show how much each is related to the other. On the one hand, practices are forms of doing: A child or adult can participate in a practice such as hospitality through warm acts of welcome, even without comprehending the biblical stories and theological convictions that encourage and undergird this practice. Most of our practicing takes place at this unreflective level, as we go about our daily living. At the same time, practices are not only behaviors. They are meaning-full. Within a practice, thinking and doing are inextricably knit together. Those who offer hospitality come to know themselves, others, and God in a different way, and they develop virtues and dispositions that are consistent with this practice. When people participate in a practice, they are embodying a specific kind of wisdom about what it means to be a human being under God, even if they could not readily articulate this wisdom in words.
While affirming the unreflective character of most participation in practices, it is also helpful to reflect in the light of our faith on the shape and character of the practices that make up our way of life. Indeed, such reflection may be especially important at this point in history, when the shape of our lives is changing so rapidly. These are practices in which Christian communities have engaged over the years and across many cultures, practices which it is now our responsibility to receive and reshape in lively ways in our own time and place. When we do reflect on practices such as those explored in Practicing Our Faith, we can see that central themes of Christian theology are integrally related to each Christian practice: our practices are shaped by our beliefs, and our beliefs arise from and take on meaning within our practices. For example, Stephanie Paulsell bases her chapter and book on Honoring the Body on the theological convictions that God created human bodies and declared that they are good; that God shared our physical condition in the incarnation of Jesus; and that God overcame death through Jesus' resurrection. Through everyday activities -- for example, resting, bathing, and caring for those who suffer -- we live out our deepest convictions about who we are as embodied children of God in specific, often stumbling, ways. We learn to do so from those with whom we share our lives, and likewise, it is with them that we need to reflect on practices as they take shape in the light of and in response to God's grace.
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