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March 25, 2010

James K.A. Smith: Practice Overload? A Response to Willimon

What is it about bishops and retractions?

In the spirit of the Bishop of Hippo, Bishop William Willimon recently penned his own little “Retractationes,” fretting about the Frankenstein unleashed when he and Stanley Hauerwas encouraged a “turn to practice” in their landmark book, “Resident Aliens.” The result is a jeremiad about his youthful jeremiad.

In particular, looking back at the adoption of Alasdair MacIntyre’s defintion of a “practice” in “Resident Aliens,” Willimon poses a stark question in his "Christian Century" piece: “Note anything missing in MacIntyre’s thick description of ‘practice?’ God.”

Somebody’s been reading Karl Barth again. And what we get is yet another critique of “religion” as godforsaken human striving operating under the guise of “practices.” It’s as if Willimon is praying, ‘Event-like God, breakthrough our humanity and save us from “Christian spirituality as a practice”.’

I’m not quite ready to break out the sackcloth and ashes. What Willimon laments is a straw man and a caricature. He has “grave concerns” about a “vast literature [that] has arisen to extol the virtues of Christian practices apart from the God who makes Christian practice interesting in the first place” (emphasis added). Really? Where? Maybe there’s some cottage industry in the corner of the mainline I don’t know about, but I’d like to see the bibliography for this supposedly vast literature that extols Christian practices “apart from” God. Certainly “Resident Aliens” doesn’t do that. I’m hard-pressed to think of any examples from this vast literature that fall prey to the false dichotomy that Willimon bemoans.

Nobody’s suggesting that we pick between Christian practices and God. What we’re trying to understand and appreciate is just how this gracious, empowering God gets hold of us. The sort of God who becomes flesh is the Lord who inhabits material practices. Where Willimon posits a false dichotomy (God or practices), Chalcedon invites us to have a little more imagination: God in the practices. What’s the alternative? God as magic? Willimon doesn’t realize that he’s giving comfort to the naïve, disastrous dualism that plagues so much “earnest” North American Christianity.

Because I don’t know anyone encouraging the dichotomy he demonizes, I find it hard to share Willimon’s worry that practice-talk is just new-fangled liberalism, a “genericizing” of Christianity as a natural phenomenon. If you take Willimon’s word for it, you’d think practice-talk was Daniel Dennett’s dream come true -- that “our infatuation with practices could be but the latest phase of atheism.”

If what you’re worried about is liberalism, then perhaps there’s a legitimate concern in the ballpark here. But from my corner of North American Christianity, a Chalcedonian appreciation of how God grabs hold of us in embodied practices is a crucial correction to the functional gnosticism that pervades evangelicalism. Patient attention to the formative role of practice is an antidote to both magical and managerial conceptions of spiritual formation. It also provides a powerful lens to see what’s at stake in wider cultural practices which function as liturgies.

So the point isn’t to say that Christian practices -- especially worship practices -- are just like any other (MacIntyrean) practice. This isn’t a leveling project. But neither are Christian practices utterly unlike other practices. There can be a heuristic value to (temporarily) “naturalizing” Christian practices: seeing their similarity to other realms of practice helps us recognize their formative power while also discerning the extent to which other rituals and “secular liturgies” are competing practices.

But Christian practices are also unlike other practices just because they are the charged spaces -- the “hotspots” -- of God’s sacramental presence and the Spirit’s sanctifying power. This is how the Spirit gets hold of we embodied, material creatures. His presence in the practices is an extension of the logic of Incarnation.

At least that’s the lesson I first learned when I read “Resident Aliens.”

So don’t beat yourself up, Bishop.

James K.A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His latest book is “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation” (Baker Academic).


Professor Smith’s response

Professor Smith’s response accuses me of setting up a “straw man” in my concerns about the theological problems in current talk about practices. I wasn’t taking back anything Hauerwas or I said about practices. I was simply lamenting what’s become of the concept of “practice” in much of the literature. I’m interested to see that most of the response I’ve been receiving seems to have no difficulty in finding instances where there is inadequate theological grounding of the current “practice” craze, sorry that Professor Smith has trouble of thinking of any such literature.

He’s right: I do write as someone influenced by Barth. Smith knows that my critique is heavily indebted to Barth’s attack on “religion.” However, let it be said that I write as a Wesleyan, a Sanctificationist (as I tried to note the article). Over the years we sanctificationists have learned a thing or two about some of the ways in which sanctificationist language can go bad.

If Professor Smith wants to dismiss my concerns as merely a “straw man,” that’s OK. From what I read, his “practice” language has won the day.

By the way (since Professor Smith asks for a bibliography), if you want a truly theological grounding of practices, a wonderfully well formed critique of the practice movement, and a theological essay that Smith cannot miss as mere Barthianism, then please get Roger Owens' new book, "The Shape of Participation." It says so much better than I can say why we should take more care in our language and in our commendation of the salubrious effects of conceiving of Christianity as a practice.

Will Willimon

On Not Dismissing Barth

As someone who emerged from Pentecostalism, I'm also quite familiar with "sanctificationist language" gone bad. Agreed. The question is how to avoid that. Correction is helpful; over-correction less so.

I think the Barthian concern is a legitimate one and don't mean to dismiss it entirely (as I note). So I'll look forward to reading Owens' new book. I already appreciated the articulation of this concern in Matthew Boulton's book, God against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship.

great discussion

Thank you for this wonderful and important discussion. I think about practices from the perspective of a pastor, and do worry that the growing literature on practices can make it sound like these are things we should start doing to turn our congregations around. When I read Bishop Willimon's Christian Century article I suspected he was critiquing the same understanding of practices I critique in the book he mentioned. Take this definition for example, by Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, whose work has shaped much of the current literature: "By 'Christian practices' we mean things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God's active presence for the life of the world." I think a useful discussion can be had around whether that understanding of practices gets us to what Prof. Smith (rightly, I think) thinks practices really are: The material way, through the Spirit, that God joins our bodies with the body of the Son for the life of the world. I worry that sometimes the language of practices suggests God is doing something "out there in the world" and that the church needs to join up by starting to do this list of things. Rather, I think the church's practices, if righly conceived in a fully trinitarian way, are what God is doing in the world. I think John Howard Yoder's discussion of practices, which, as far as I can tell, is not influenced by MacIntyre, gets close when he says, "Each of these practices [the five that he most often discusses], first of all, is a wholly human, empirically accessible practice--nothing esoteric. Yet each is, according to the apostolic writers, an act of God. God does not merely authorize or command them. God is doing them in, with, and under the human practice." You cannot say that without Chalcedon.

one more resource

Nicholas Healy has some similar concerns to Willimon, all the while deeply committed to talking about the concrete church in all its imperfections and sin. He worries that talk of practices veer off course in frequently failing to consider how a people intend and construe those practices. He also insists on more explicit appeals to the Spirit in practice talk. I've found this article invaluable - Nicholas M. Healy, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 5 (2003): 287-308

The Space for Over-Correction

It seems like if a critique of practices is an argument that is better served in a full length format (which I feel like Bishop Willimon is saying when he cites another's work instead of actually conversing on his argument beyond a dismissal of any counters) than it is not prudent to try and adapt a reflection into an article. When people generically speak of practices apart from particular (uh oh, sorry for the buzz word. I feel there is going to be another quite soon) communities than yes, that language becomes quite unhelpful. But so do criticisms of that language. If Karen Armstrong is where your churches are getting their language of practices (as your article cites for the only example from the vast literature) than I feel there are other issues at work than and unhealthy emphasis on practices.

Alabama may be flooding with literature about practices but Austin isn't. Yes, if people abuse the language of practice it can be harmful but that is just like saying if people abuse chairs by hitting each other with them it would be harmful.

How We Learn

I've been following this thread with interest. I read Willimon's Century piece and found myself wondering why he was alarmed--I've yet to experience a church community that is embracing practices without expecting those practices to be a means of encountering God. In my church, it's the lack of faithful practice--the lack of disciplined, time-tested modes of doing--that creates challenges. Smith's point resonates better with me: it is the practices of the culture (consumerism, social relations, media consumption) that are woven-through with their own theology that are the much larger threat. Christian practices can be a life-saving antidote.

The questions Smith picks up in his book--how we learn as embodied beings--are the salient ones. We learn through our bodies--by practicing. How can we hope to learn what we need to know without distinctive Christian practices?

When the bishop Willimon's

When the bishop Willimon's article was published I composed a response a while back which one could find here - http://theophiliacs.com/2010/02/28/on-not-quite-agreeing-with-will-willi...

In essence, I agree with professor Smith (and bishop Willimon?) but would go so far as to say not only that "practices" are good or even necessary - which they are - but that they are unavoidable and go all the way down. We will be formed by "practices" or "technologies," most of which are outside of our control; becoming disciples necessitates that we construct practices to in order that we might be formed rightly in the mind of Christ and of the Church.


At the risk of jumping headfirst into deep theological pools without sufficient swimming skills, I want to comment briefly on the discussion. I've been wrestling with the definitions offered for Christian spiritual practices. I would return to the language of "good works," and that such works, or practices flow from faith. I am most sympthetic to the notion that discipleship involves certain practices, not because they a requirement for encountering God, but because we're commanded to do them in the Gospel, and they arise in us as an effect of the work of the Word that kills and makes alive. The Word comes as both Law and Gospel. There are things we ought to do, and cannot do, things we ought to believe, and do not believe, times we ought to pray, and do not. In the his Large Catechism, Luther spends much time explaining the inner dynamics including the death throes of the old creature, which get in the way of keeping the commandments, or right belief, or true prayer, or receiving the sacraments, forgiving as we have been forgiven, or attending the needs of the neighbor--none of us are so unselfish that we don't struggle to love our neighbor as ourselves or God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Anything that helps one become less selfish, might be a useful spiritual practice. Bonhoeffer writes about judging the person by the work, or the work by the person in "Christ the Center." We can't argue back from the work to the person. The person interprets the work. Spiritual practices by themselves say nothing about the heart of the person who does them--only God can judge that heart. But we are commanded to live in the world with a difference. Here's Bonhoeffer:
"If Jesus was the idealistic founder of a religion, I can be elevated by his work and stimulated to follow his example. But my sins are not forgiven, God still remains angry and I remain in the power of death. Jesus' work leads to despair in myself, because I cannot imitate his pattern. But if Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to emulate him; I am encountered in his work as one who could not possibly do this work myself. Through his work, I recognize the gracious God. My sins are forgiven, I am no longer in death but in life. Whether his work perishes in a world of death or whether it abides in a new world of life, depends upon the person of Christ." Intro.,"Christ the Center"(New York:Harper Row,1960)pp.38-39.

Natural or Supernatural

I must confess while I have not read a lot of the recent literature on practices (or Willimon's article) I have begun to notice in myself lately a tendency to see and practice the Christian practices as a kind of natural forming activity. They build self-discipline naturally because, well, you have to be self-disciplined to practice them regularly. They form me into a patient person naturally because one has to be patient to practice them. They do what social science has taught us that practices do: they form our attitudes, motivations, and characters by acting first and feeling second. I was surprised to see this conversation because it fit well with something I was noticing in myself. Being a Wesleyan, my response isn't to throw the practices (or means of grace out...that would be antinomian), but to confess and repent and receive God anew amidst the practices.

more on practice

A brief follow-up. Have just come from our Rabbi's home after spending afternoon chopping apples into small bits for Passover tonight. Was proud of my small bits of apple. Someone else chopping raisins who is not a part of any faith community said the work we were doing seemed like a holy work to her, helped her connect into something meaningful, and she was honored to be doing it. In the course of preparations, in a steaming kitchen, with the history of slavery, Egypt, the Exodus, and 3000 years of yearning, we discussed spiritual practices, and the need for rituals of meaning. We didn't lose sight of the point of practices, and considering the context, the afternoon bore witness to the importance of the issues emerging in the discussion above. The afternoon gathering for Passover preparation was a powerful demonstration of both points: the need for religious practice and the need to keep the focus on the Holy One.

another example

Another good example of a theologically immanent approach to practice is K. Tanner's book "Theories of Culture." Willimon's critique is entirely appropriate as there has been a growing trend, for example, within the practical theology movement and Christian spirituality movement to embrace practices but with a theology that is quite distinct from anything one would find in Resident Aliens. If one were to explore literature in either one of these sub-fields of theology, you would find this trend clearly there.

Christian practices are not borrowed from culture and made strange, as Tanner would argue, but have an ontological root in God. Cultures have borrowed the practices of God's people and made them 'natural,' that is, immanent to human nature as distinct from their source in the divine. This is part of the rub between liberal and more traditional theological approaches which is playing out in the debate over the nature and source of xian practices.

Religionless Christianity

I honestly don't know what this debate is about. What Christian doesn't pursue spiritual practices, and how could we experience revelation without them? When Bishop Willimon studies the Bible while preparing a sermon, isn't that a spiritual practice? Aren't the sacraments (even when interpreted in a Zwinglian sense) spiritual practices? Isn't prayer a spiritual practice?

I know few Christians who would argue that we are saved by spiritual practices. But if one is going to listen to God's revelation, you have to start by opening the Bible. That's an action, a work, a discipline, a practice -- and a practice that can prepare one to encounter God in those moments when God unexpectedly breaks through into our lives.


With all the theology that we may come , The holy spirit instructed illettered people. So let give him the total place many humanitarian deeds will be driven in a different way. As far as heaven upon our head , as far is the thought of God behond ours.

Excommunication: a testament to Willimon's lack of commission

I realize this is a bit late; that said, I am prompted to make my mark on this conversation.

I have a quite telling testament to the nature of Bishop Willimon's inability to grapple with tough questions facing both church and culture:

... A couple months ago the good Bishop had blogged about the church's need to not be influenced by culture; rather the church must only influence culture. I responded in kind that that is really quite impossible or impractical, as any real and authentic relationship, be it humans/god, husband/wife, culture/church, puts both agents on both sides into risk, inevitably influencing each other. If there is not mutual interdependency then the relationship is false and misleading. Even further, I made the argument that church/creed must always realize that it can be critiqued, even leveled, by outside influences. I warranted this by citing the prophetic canons of Jeremiah and Amos, where the temple and city of self-righteous Judah will be destroyed and replaced by "wooded heights" (see Jer. 26). I had thought arguing from within the sound confines of Scripture would elicit a response from Willimon; it very well did, however not the one I had expected - he banned me from his blog!

Now, I must say that I did not lose sleep over this, but I am surprised at the lack of engagement, nay, the outright censure of a blogger attempting to argue from the very pages of Scripture itself, a testament that is supposed to bind the church together.

Indeed, if Will cannot even engage in exegetical give-and-take regarding Scripture, then how can he and his vocation fulfill the commission to be a peculiar ekklesia (1 Peter 2:9) which is supposed to be a critical example of the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth via Christ our Lord? -- And I am left scratching my head, asking the rhetorical question: What is so "peculiar" about Willimon's blog the Peculiar Prophet?

Willimon's Blog

Just for clarification: no one is banned from commenting on Will's blog. You simply need a Google or Blogger ID.


-- You have not read my post close enough. I in fact do have a blogger ID; I must have utilized a blogger account in order to post comments in the first place, right?

Only after a couple of posts, was I then somehow blocked.


That does not make sense. Try posting on his blog and I will make site it makes it through. If that does not work e-mail me your blogger ID.

The Hubris

I have sat with Prof. Smith's comments and the Bishop's response for some time. I have to admit, I think Smith's critique is right on, and may not even venture far enough.

I am amazed how the Bishop wears his hubris on his sleeve. If he were to question his and Prof. Hauerwas' definition of practice, that would be one thing. But to claim all the work done on Practices from the Christian confession have erred because of Willimon's work is a prideful remark. Take a look at any of the works on Christian practices in the last twenty years, and it is MacIntyre who rises to the top of the footnotes. Even his co-writer has ventured long into the work of Christian theology appropriating "After Virtue" for a decidedly Christian Ethics.

This is a rehearsal of the 'Athens/Jerusalem" polemic. Yet, in the wake of historical understandings and even the critical theorists, is should be clear that the distinction between culture/philosophy and church/theology is a dead end.

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