The Common Good
November-December 1998

Practice Makes Perfect?

by Dan Buchanan | November-December 1998

Faith in the age of excellence.

Practice makes perfect, the saying goes. But in most human endeavors, practice simply leads to more practice. Concert pianists must play scales without ceasing, basketball stars must rehearse their lay-ups, and lovers must repeat "I love you" each morning and evening. Such simple, repeated actions do not lead to a sterile perfection, but serve rather to deepen the identity of the practitioner. Practices remind us of who we are, and only through a lifetime of practice can we discover our most fundamental character. Like the musician, the athlete, and the lover, Christians must "practice our faith" in order truly to be Christians.

This is the argument of the 13 contributors to Practicing Our Faith. They commend 12 "practices"-including Sabbath keeping, "honoring the body," sharing hospitality, and "singing our lives"-to contemporary Christians who may wonder how to be faithful "in a divided, fast-paced society." Practices, they explain, "are things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world." Practices address the basic human need for food, shelter, rest, and companionship; they are performed both individually and collectively; they are rooted in tradition yet open to creative adaptation in the present; and they can draw us into ever deeper levels of commitment.

In a sense, Practicing Our Faith is a contemporary version of the monastic "rule." Texts like the Rule of St. Benedict are the constitutional documents of religious orders; as such they spell out the daily activities that hold the monastic community together. They tell us who monks are by telling us what monks do, and likewise Practicing Our Faith tells us who Christians are by telling us what Christians do.

Practicing Our Faith

differs from most monastic rules, however, in that it is deliberately ecumenical and eclectic, drawing its practices from various Christian and non-Christian communities. We are told how orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath, how members of the black church "testify," how Jesuits examine the conscience, how Quakers and Amish manage their "household economies," and how Methodists sing hymns.

Yet we are never asked to join any one of these groups; indeed, it is almost assumed that we will not do so. The authors share a conviction that practices nurtured in one context can be adapted and combined in vastly different contexts, and they ask simply that the reader "think and act creatively within your own situation."

SOME MIGHT perceive this as a dangerous concession to modern individualism. The authors themselves seem to share this fear, for they are quick to insist that Christian practice "is not something you can do alone, no matter how unique you think your situation is."

The seeming contradiction-adapt Christian practice to your own situation, but don’t do it alone!-expresses a paradoxical truth. Despite the tensions between individuality and community, neither can exist without the other. Communities are composed of individuals, while individuals find ourselves, and are recognized by others, only in community. I cannot find the form of Christian practice that is right for me unless I attend to the accumulated wisdom of a larger community; and my community cannot survive unless it makes room for the distinctive practices of each of its members. Practicing Our Faith is filled with stories that suggest that vital practices depend on both the adaptiveness of individuals and the solidarity of communities.

In this regard, Practicing Our Faith is really not that different from monastic rule. Because the monastic life demands that diverse individuals live in close cooperation, the best rules are at once concrete and flexible.

Benedict’s rule, for example, dictates not only the hours of communal worship, but even the amount of food to be served daily. Yet it also insists that the abbot "care for and guide the spiritual development of many different characters," adapting his leadership to the specific needs of each individual.

A BOOK OF this sort faces a basic dilemma. It cannot fully manifest what it advocates. The authors suggest a set of specific, embodied practices which, if observed regularly over years or decades, will allow a Christian identity to seep into our marrow. But they offer us only a book that can be read in an afternoon. It is not, moreover, the sort of book that is likely to have an immediate, life-changing effect on many readers.

Perhaps because most of the contributors are academics, the essays sometimes become pedantic, functioning more as histories of a practice than as invitations to enter into that practice. At their best, the authors simply share stories of how Christian practices have made a difference in their lives and the lives of their friends. These stories effectively invite us to share our own stories and to emulate the practices, but-as is proper-they leave the really hard work up to us.

But is the Christian life about work at all? My own background is Lutheran, and I have been taught to be suspicious of "works righteousness" in all its guises. Can we define Christian identity in terms of practices without detracting from God’s own work of redemption? Isn’t it grace, not practice, that makes me a Christian? The authors of Practicing Our Faith rarely face these questions directly, and I doubt they could answer them to the satisfaction of Martin Luther. Implicitly, however, they offer an answer that satisfies me, for their many stories suggest that Christian "practices" are quite different from the "works" attacked by Luther.

A work is a means to an end that can be abandoned once the desired end is attained. A practice, by contrast, is repeated whether or not it has tangible effects. It is like cultivating and planting a field, then waiting for God to give the growth. Because the life of Christian practice usually includes both fruitful and barren periods, it is easy to recognize the fruitfulness as a surprising grace rather than as the instrumental result of my actions.

A practice, ultimately, is not a task but a gift. It is not something that I must do in order to be a Christian but something I can do because I am a Christian-because I am part of a community that nurtured the practice long before I was born. As the authors’ stories make clear, to take part in a Christian practice-hymnsinging or hospitality or Sabbath keeping-is often deeply pleasurable. Heaven itself may partake more of the rhythm of practice than of the stillness of perfection.

DAN BUCHANAN is a professor of church history at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Practicing Our Faith: A Guide for Conversation, Learning, and Growth. Jossey-Bass.

Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. Edited by Dorothy C. Bass. Jossey-Bass, 1997.

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