MARCH 8, 2004
Faith in Practice
Martin E. Marty
"Problematize" is not in my dictionary and is inelegant, but you can figure out what it means and might know that theologians sometimes use it. Example: they/we have problematized "narrative" and "conversation." An old cartoon in the New Yorker shows three people with a well dressed chimp at a restaurant table. Of course, he can't converse. They are looking at him. Above his head in the bubble for his thoughts we read: "Conversation--what a concept."
I felt that way a few years ago when I heard of "The Valparaiso Project on Education and Formation of People in Faith." Its leadership has chosen to problematize a concept as common as conversation: "Practice." Philosophizing about "practice" is as old as Aristotle, who is still the master. Theologizing about it is as old as Genesis, which is still the charter. Believers through the ages spend much more energy on practice than on dogma. In respect to Sightings agenda, spotting religion-in-public, practice is what is done and measured among individuals, congregations, movements, and the like -- and most of it is visible.
The Christian Century's Trudy Bush talked to Dorothy Bass, who directs the Lilly-funded Project (see www.practicingourfaith.org, February 24) at Indiana University. Bass, who has a kind of patent on this development of practice, has edited or written six books, three of them with publisher Jossey-Bass -- no relation. I've used one, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, in co-directing a summer island retreat. It worked.
Bass to Bush: "Practices are the things people do together over time that shape a way of life." It is "embodied wisdom." Some of these practices are naturally public, and others are done in private but have a public spill over: "honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and no, keeping Sabbath, testimony, discernment, shaping communities, forgiveness," especially considered in specifically Christian contexts and versions.
The Project exists because "practices are 'in trouble.'" Many spiritual seekers choose to try to do these alone, yet they all need support communities. Observe your version of Sabbath alone and you look nutty. Do it with a responsible group and you can have an effect. "Grandmother" practiced unconsciously, as when she and everyone she knew kept kosher kitchen. Now we have to problematize practices and form intentional support communities. Ms. Bush cannot get Dr. Bass to whine that modern culture is most hostile to a Christian way of life. Bass instantly turns positive and talks about how believers can turn things around, practice their faith, and make a difference.
To illustrate how practices have changed, she treats "hospitality," which is institutionalized in the modern world, but provides an outlet for congregations, communities, and covenanted groups to both learn and serve by revisiting the practice.
The books and the web site are designed to help spread the concept and enable others to put it to work. You can tell that I am a friend of Dorothy Bass, have an interest in her colleagues' work in the Project, support the idea of problematizing "practice," and then of putting practice into practice.