Practice and belief

In thinking about PeaceBang’s recent reflections on love and freedom in Unitarian Universalism, I was struck by her description of what seems to be a key element of contemporary UUism

Our obsession with free thought and “building our own theology” has encouraged UUs to participate in religious conversation from a place of debate rather than discernment. When each individual UU is obligated (or invited) to create their own religion, therefore it follows that each individual has to defend their own religion. All of which we do with great gusto, endlessly, shaping our religious identity around these debates…

as a spiritual practice:

Nor do I expect the debate lovers to stop their debating. They are devoted to it, it is their spiritual practice, and they should be encouraged to keep at it as long as it feeds them intellectually and emotionally.

This is fabulous. (Although I would add that it should feed them spiritually, as well.) An intellectually-oriented spiritual practice is often seen as a contradiction in terms. My tradition has plenty of room for intellectual debates about the faith… among professional theologians, for whom it is framed as a vocation, not a spiritual practice. There’s a distinct air of “don’t try this at home” about serious theological discussion in the RC church, which leads to the watering down of “adult ed” into either catechism class about the beliefs of the church, or a superficial guided conversation.

I’m sure there are people who find that sort of thing helpful, but I found it empty of substance and nourishment. I had to go to graduate school to get anything to chew on. How sad is that? And I’m not that unusual: I’ve talked to a number of people over the past few years who lament that they are starved for substantive discussion in their churches or congregations.

I think it’s one reason we lose people, and I think PeaceBang’s framing of vigorous theological debate as a spiritual practice is very helpful.

This leads me to a larger issue of belief versus practice. American society is largely dominated by the primarily Protestant framing that religion is a matter of belief in a particular set of truth statements. In this way it’s perceived to be very much like science in the sense that both are primarily about mental constructs that describe the world and therefore guide one’s behaviors and decision making. (Of course, science is the dominant cosmological model in our culture, so this isn’t really surprising.) The primary difference between them is perceived to be about standards for belief: science requires evidence that is universally accessible, while religion includes subjective experience and authoritative tradition as sufficient evidence, or may be perceived as not requiring evidence at all, in the “blind faith” model.

I’m a member of American society too, and I frequently get caught up by this paradigm without noticing it, until I reach a point in conversation where I can’t quite articulate why I don’t agree with something… and then I figure it out. Catholicism is not entirely about belief. Catholicism is a very holistic religion — an oddly modern word for such an ancient faith. Catholicism is about practice (praxis), about what we do, as much as it is about belief (doxis). We Catholics use our bodies when we pray: we genuflect, we bow, we cross ourselves. We use bread, wine, water, oil, incense, candles, flowers. There are some things we all do (go to Mass, receive the sacraments), some things that many of us do (fast during Lent, pray the rosary, companion with the saints), and a treasury of spiritual practices in our rich tradition that we can pick and choose from to find what nourishes us.

What we do is as important as what we believe to the practice of the Catholic faith. Obviously this is not a dichotomy: doxis and praxis are not set over against each other, but rather reinforce, express, and shape each other. It’s especially important to note that practice is not simply an expression of some facet of belief, but rather, it contributes its own insights and leads to a deepening of the faith. When I bow during the line of the creed that says “For us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became human,” I am in that moment physically humbling myself, which shows me through my body something of how God humbled Godself in becoming human. When I pray for my enemies, I find (much to my surprise, when it first started happening) that this practice both softens my heart towards those who have hurt me, and eases the pain of those hurts.

PeaceBang is arguing against a false head/heart, intellectual/emotional, dichotomy that she sees imposed over the argument she’s trying to make. I think the doxis/praxis framing might be a productive one — her essay alludes to it but never quite makes it explicit. The church has been called both a hospital for sinners, and a school for saints. It is practice, not belief alone, that heals sinners and trains saints. Her vision of the church she’d like UU to be is a beautiful one, and emerges from this understanding:

[The church] exists to question cultural norms, to help us want the right things and to hunger and thirst for justice, to make us uncomfortable with the gap between our professed ideals and our actions. It exists to claim us, to shake us, to demand of us, and to make us new people — brothers and sisters of one another, lovers of the world, workers on behalf of the Kingdom of Equals, and the kind of people that others are so drawn to that they can’t help but ask, “Wow, how did you get trained to be such an amazing human being?”

“My church is training me,” we would respond.

Replace “Kingdom of Equals” with “Reign of God” (in which, of course, all humans are equals), and this Catholic ecclesiologist can sing a hearty Amen!

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5 Responses to Practice and belief

  1. Andrew says:

    “I’m sure there are people who find that sort of thing helpful, but I found it empty of substance and nourishment. I had to go to graduate school to get anything to chew on. How sad is that? And I’m not that unusual: I’ve talked to a number of people over the past few years who lament that they are starved for substantive discussion in their churches or congregations. ”

    I agree. In my church, we’ve had ministers who really dug into the issues, saying things that the congregation might actually disagree with, and those who did not – I much preferred the former (even when I disagree with them).

    I’m going to pass this post onto my UU friends, by the way…

  2. Having been several different religions at several different points in my search (Including UU for a couple years), I find that the problem of discussion is basically a case of figuring out where the median level of understanding in your congregation is, and then shooting a bit below that. This seems to be a common practice in most religions once you get outside of pure ritual, and the reason seems to be that they don’t want to alienate anyone by telling ’em things that will confuse or upset them.

    I have personal experience with this. When I was a massively fundamentalist lad, my self-important youth minister started showing off, dropping theological concepts that really weren’t meant for the uninitiated, and could only cause distress. Obviously, for me, they caused a great deal of distress, and it took me several years to recover a reasonably stable ambient level of faith. If you’re conventionally religious, your religion is the tent-pole of your soul, and any time you go screwing around with that, you run the risk of bringing the whole dang thing down atop you (Which also happened to me in later, unrelated incidents).

    Because they wish to avoid this, and give fairly simple answers for complex questions, traditional churches tend to throw really easy pitches. The down side of this, of course, is that there tends to be a lack of “Solid food” as St. Paul puts it, and people like myself quickly grow frustrated with the same 15 or 20 lessons over and over again, and tend to drift away.

    Unrelated to that, I found your Praxis/Doxis comment very interesting.

    • I have personal experience with this. When I was a massively fundamentalist lad, my self-important youth minister started showing off, dropping theological concepts that really weren’t meant for the uninitiated, and could only cause distress. Obviously, for me, they caused a great deal of distress, and it took me several years to recover a reasonably stable ambient level of faith.

      I think this is part of PeaceBang’s point that we (well, UUs in her case, but I would say all of us) need to learn how to have conversations that matter in the context of a spiritually nurturing and caring relationship, rather than just bludgeoning people with a hefty intellectual hammer.

      Because they wish to avoid this, and give fairly simple answers for complex questions, traditional churches tend to throw really easy pitches…

      I’m curious whether you subsequently found a “non-traditional” church that did better at this? If so I’d be interested to hear about it.

  3. No. I didn’t. I put a lot of effort into it – even went to a Bible College for a few years to try and sort things out – but ultimately that was frustrating. I went to a number of non-traditional churches, and found them really no better. Sadly, “Non-Traditional” generally translates into some political or social agenda or another, and has little to do with theology or the needs of the soul. (This is why U.U. wasn’t a good fit for me) I also tried Baha’I (Probably the closest to what I was looking for) and a few other things.

    I drifted off into becoming something of an armchair mystic for a long time, sort of trying to find the ‘base code’ of religion in general, dealing more with impressions and symbols and meanings and double-talky new-agey-sounding stuff like that, rather than literal stuff. This was a period of … I don’t want to say ‘un-learning’ stuff from my Fundamentalist youth, but more like learning to use both my eyes at once. I began to recognize that faith is faith, but for it to be of any kind of use, you need a framework, kinda’ like a vine needs a trellis, otherwise you’re forever tripping over it.

    Then I did nothing with it.

    Then, after a couple years, the Republispouse said “Let’s find a church, I’m tired of not being part of a community.” But I’m a heretic and blah blah blah! “Well, if what you say is true, then one trellis is as good as another, so long as you actually do something with it, right? So here’s how you can test your hypothesis.” So we went. And I ended up getting involved. And I feel pretty good about my relationship with God, and about myself, though it’s fairly nonstandard.

    That said, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the church we settled on (generic Nondenominational fundamentalist mildly charismatic megachurch). It’s not the greatest of fits for me, there’s quite a bit that I take exception to, or roll my eyes at, or (most commonly) just sigh at in an “Well, I’ve been down this road before” sense. We may change eventually. But the important thing is that it has provided me with a way to express and utilize my faith, which, I think, has been good for my soul.

    Heresy and Search and Mysticism are lonely pursuits, after all.

  4. thewaterisfine says:

    This is great. I love this sense of working out our salvation in every way, intellectually, practically, and piously. When I was initially struggling to find a more centrist, or at least a less literal / absolutist hermenutic, my priest told me to approach the scripture via the prayer book. I was amazed to find the daily office and our prayers shape our reading and then, in turn, that our reading informs those prayers.

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