Focusing on the practices of the church is all the rage these days. James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation an excellent and thought provoking book is only the latest volley in a long list of theologians attempting to reorient the center of Christianity away from its doctrinal content.
Standing against the tide is Nicholas Healy, who offers some interesting cautions in his article, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” Healy’s article is older—first published in 2003—but he does a nice job of highlighting some of the troubles that arise through viewing Christianity as constituted by its practices.
Healy’s leading critique is that the language of practices obscures the central role intentions play in both individual and communal actions. His central thrust is that the emphasis on practices fails to account for why they fail to shape us in the ways proponents claim they should. In other words, the Mainline Protestantism problem.
But his more trenchant critique is the theological one: most accounts of practices (and specifically Stanley Hauerwas) fail to locate the practices of the church beneath the doctrine of God. He writes:
In order that church practices and the theory that supports them may be properly modified for Christian theological use, they need to be brought within a broader theological context. Put another way, we need to recover the traditional notion that, while theology is indeed a thoroughly practical form of inquiry, it must proceed on the basis of contemplation. We need, in short, as we need from Hütter, a more robust account of the doctrine of God – the triune God – as the starting-point for ecclesiological reflection.
Without such an account, the new ecclesiology may seem too reliant upon an overly abstract and thus flawed philosophical and sociological apparatus. As a consequence, it becomes rather too easy to interpret the emphasis upon the church and its practices as if it reflects the view that Christianity is all about being Christian, and the gospel is broadly identifiable with the church’s practices and doctrines. A Christian is one who is disciplined by the church’s practices so as to be transformed into the visible communal embodiment of the Gospel. The objective component of witness, that to which one witnesses, is thereby confused with the subjective component, the form of witness. It may then seem to those less than charitably disposed to the new ecclesiology that it has made a turn to a communal subject constituted by its particular set of abstract practices. Like the earlier turn to the experience of the individual subject, which it is intended to counter, this turn also threatens to collapse the object of faith into ourselves. Our proclamation becomes rather too much about us and what we over-optimistically think we do. The message becomes rather too easily identified with an ideal account of the medium.
Healy wants to account for embodied practices within the working of the Holy Spirit, but not tie the Holy Spirit’s working to those practices, lest we be unable to account for Mainline Protestantism.
While I think Professor Smith escapes the first critique by focusing on liturgies and not practices, and on what’s done in the practices and not what’s meant by them, I think the second has some force for his project. Or it at least I think it provides a more promising solution to the Mainline Protestantism problem than the one he hints at in a footnote. From page 208:
At this point, I suggest that my account of secular liturgies might be able to provide a framework for explaining why the practices of Christian worship don’t seem to transform those who participate in them. For instance, I can think of a congregation gathering week in and week out for historic, intentional Christian worship that includes all the elements discussed here; and yet, from the perspective of shalom, some of its parishoners are unapologetic and public participants in some of the most egregious systemic injustices. Does that falsify my claims here? I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. Rather, we will need a more nuanced account of how some liturgies trump others; in this case, we could suggest that though these parishoners participate in Christian worship, their participation in other secular liturgies effectively trumps the practices of Christian worship. Such a line of investigation might also require that we attend to empirical realities, drawing on a theologically informed psychology, sociology, and ethnography.”
I honestly don’t know what to make of the suggestion that some liturgies could possibly trump a liturgy where we encounter God in Himself, given to us. But more significantly, Smith’s solution strikes me as a horizontal one—we need to identify and eradicate those liturgies that are stifling the working of the Triune God—when, in fact, it seems that our problems start at the top. If our practices are not changing us, we might do best to look at the way we are performing them and our understanding of God that undergirds them.