Thursday 18 March 2010

William H. Willimon on Too Much Practice

William H. Willimon, ‘Too Much Practice: Second Thoughts on a Theological Movement’, Christian Century (9 March 2010).

Here’s a brief article which will probably generate a fair bit of interest. I try to summarise the gist here but mostly use Willimon’s own words as I do so.

In short, according to Willimon, practice has become ‘another way to avoid God’.

Close to the start, he writes:

‘While I still believe just about everything Stanley Hauerwas and I said in [Resident Aliens], I’ve come to have a few regrets.’

He continues:

‘In Resident Aliens we stressed that Christianity is a communal tradition that gives us the skills, habits and practices that enable us truthfully to know the world in the way of Christ and subversively to resist the toxic pressures of the world’s godlessness.’

He notes that they cited Alasdair MacIntyre’s well-worn definition of a practice as:

‘any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the results that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.’

[Yes… most normal people need to read it at least twice…]

And then he says:

‘Note anything missing in MacIntyre’s thick definition of “practice”? God.’

He reckons that he and Hauerwas ‘gave a strong shove’ to the idea that ‘Christianity is best defined as a “socially established cooperative human activity” rather than as a set of beliefs or a type of experience’, and that he bears ‘some responsibility for the now popular conviction that Christianity is a practice and that Christians are best described as people who have adopted certain practices’.

So, he shares why he is now having ‘grave doubts about describing Christian spirituality as a practice’.

For starters, ‘practice’ has become a term to speak about religion in general, such that ‘it is acceptable to speak of Christianity as a practice in company who would not tolerate a conversation about “Jesus Christ as Lord”’, which ‘should tip us off to some of the theological hazards of this approach’.

He notes that Kierkegaard ‘attacked the idea that one becomes a Christian simply by accepting intellectually some supposedly rational set of arguments for the validity of Christianity’, that ‘Christ calls people not to admiration but to discipleship’. Even so, Kierkegaard’s ‘practical Christianity is based on the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity that is seen in Jesus Christ’, whereas ‘much contemporary talk about practice appears to be based on certain vague anthropological (rather than theological) assertions about the way human beings behave – such as that our lives go better when we inculcate certain allegedly salubrious habits like Sabbath-keeping, prayer, meditation and hospitality’. For Kierkegaard, however, ‘practices are those ways that one must live if one is convinced that Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’.

Willimon thus sees the ‘possible error of construing Christianity primarily as a practice’ in ‘the propensity of books on Christian practice to describe the Christian faith in general’, noting that ‘when Christianity is conceived as a practice, a set of paths toward God which some people have found helpful but which lead in much the same direction as every other path, then Christianity has been misconstrued’.

He uses sabbath-keeping as an example, pointing out the danger of commending sabbath ‘apart from the story of the salvation and sustenance of Israel as God’s people’.

He avers that the God Karen Armstrong makes the case for (in her The Case for God) ‘is the innocuous god that most North Americans already believe in’, that ‘by defining religion as “a practical discipline” – that is, a set of practices – advocates like Armstrong seem to feel that they can sidestep the tough theological decision required when one is confronted with the question, “Is this god whom you are following actually God or not?”’

‘My worry is that attention to practices deflects our attention from the living God.’

He also sees Pelagianism in the shadows here – ‘the idea that we must do something for God before God will do anything for us, the concept that my relationship with God is sustained by my actions or feelings or inclinations, the notion that “religion” is something I do rather than God’s effect upon me’.

Drawing inspiration from John Wesley, he writes that ‘worship’s object determines the nature of worship’.

‘We’re always in danger of reducing Christianity to a matter of our experience. The true God can never be known through our practices but comes to us only as a gift of God, only as revelation… Thank God we don’t have to devise a set of practices to take time for God; in Jesus Christ, God takes us.’

Unusual personal reflection coming up: bravo, Willimon, and thank you!

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