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

The early Willimon was more right about practices than the late 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).