Reflections on Pauw’s Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices

Pauw, Amy Plantinga. “Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices.” Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. eds. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2002.

Amy Plantinga Pauw argues for a significant affective element in the life of believers that strongly influences the relationship between beliefs and practices. She examines the epistemological and moral implications of discrepancies between belief and practice, both for the faithful individual (epitomized by Jonah) and the faith community. She argues that belief and practice cannot be properly understood except in light of desire.

Faith communities are generally understood as constituted by belief, but religious practices, too, are communal in nature. Some practices are obviously and inherently communal, performed communally when the community is gathered for religious activity. Others, such as the discipline of fasting or the corporal works of mercy, are generally perceived as individual activities to which all individual members of the community are individually called. Pauw, however, argues convincingly that these practices too have “breadth” as well as depth, and must be understood in communal context: this context provides a supportive and formational framework for its members’ attempts to faithfully carry out these practices. It transforms acts of religious practice from individual piety to communal faithfulness, from an individual striving to live rightly to a people striving to live faithfully. [1]

Christians who act in ways that are at odds with their proclaimed beliefs are frequently criticized or even dismissed as hypocrites. Likewise, persons who engage in religious practices in the absence of an active desire are frequently accused of merely going through the motions, engaging in rote rituals, or succumbing to social expectations. In our society, it is generally assumed that authentic religious activity is defined by a spontaneous, wholehearted (autonomous/unprompted) desire to perform every instance of the activity, and that anything “less” is inherently hypocritical.[2] Pauw deconstructs these critiques by, among other things, appealing to the lived experience of motherhood. A mother may sincerely love and delight in her infant; but when she is repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night for days on end to nurse or otherwise care for her child, only a person whose romantic notions of Motherhood have entirely lost touch with reality could imagine that she spontaneously, wholeheartedly desires to perform every act of tending her child, and experiences that love and delight with every soiled diaper.

Mothers and fathers who tend their children through their own distaste, exhaustion, and boredom are valorized for putting their relationship with and duty to the child who depends on them ahead of their own personal inclinations in the moment. Why, then, are believers who persist in their spiritual practices even in the absence of desire not likewise valorized?

Of course, it is true that sometimes persons engage in religious activity out of rote repetition, without much engagement of the heart or mind. Pauw draws on Gabriel Marcel’s terminology of “constancy” vs “fidelity” to concisely describe this distinction, but takes issue with his judgment that constancy has little value compared to fidelity, noting that constancy can eventually lead to fidelity. The Catholic teaching that a sacrament will bear fruit in a person’s life only if the recipient is “properly disposed,” combined with the construction of sacramental liturgies and other spiritual disciplines that are directly intended to cultivate the proper disposition, attest to the traditional understanding that practice can bring about changes in attitude and desire.

Pauw suggests that practice, when understood as the activity of a community, can carry an individual through times when her personal practice is either deficient in affect, or absent altogether. For example, even if I fail to keep my Lenten fast, my participation in the Lenten journey of my faith community can tide me over: the communal practice sustains the faith of its members, even for those members whose individual practice is lacking. More generally, individuals who struggle to “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk” can find encouragement and support from the communal practice, including the very basic and practical support of being able to see “this is what it looks like to do that.”

(I find this the most memorable argument of the whole paper. I’ve never heard anything like it; I find it plausible; it encourages me and gives me a less guilty, less stressed, more hopeful, and more relaxed way of thinking about “what I have done, and what I have failed to do” in my practices.)

I’m reminded of an argument I once read in response to a debate that goes on in Roman Catholic circles about the communion song. According to the liturgical documents, it is more important for the assembly to sing during communion than at the opening, closing, or preparation of the gifts. Yet, many individuals actively do not want to sing at this time: people with a particular type of eucharistic piety want to focus on first preparing for, and then experiencing and focusing on, the private experience of receiving Jesus in the sacrament. They don’t want to sing at this time because they get nothing out of it: it contributes nothing to their personal prayer experience of the sacrament. The argument I’m thinking of? You’re not singing for your own benefit; you’re singing for everyone else. It’s a really interesting example, because it is literally impossible for an individual who receives communion to sing through the entire rite: at some point, you have to say “Amen,” and eat something, and say “Amen” again, and drink something. In those moments, you must rely on the rest of the community to carry the song.

Pauw also discusses the importance of communal critique of practices, to keep them both coherent with the belief system and responsive to the contemporary context. This critique is ideally done by members of the faith community, who have access to the lived experience of the practices, in conversation with both marginal members and non-members of the community, who have important outside perspectives.

Pauw’s analysis of the figure of Jonah is particularly interesting for its refutation of the commonly held notion that weakness in practice is caused by weakness of belief. God calls Jonah to warn the Ninevites that they will be destroyed if they don’t repent; Jonah runs away, not out of some general resistance to the vocation of prophet, but because he hates the Ninevites. Drawing on the work of Kathryn Tanner, Pauw observes that

The problem is not that Jonah fails to believe the right things; he fails to desire the right things. As the Augustinian tradition insists, the link between belief and practice is forged by desire and attitude. Both our cognitive and practical efforts arise out of our loves. Right beliefs are themselves insufficient for shaping good practice. . . . [Jonah’s] practice is deplorable because he resents the truth of his belief. He arguably has true insight into God’s nature, but his beliefs are not productive of appropriate attitudes towards God and neighbor. Jonah’s spiritual shortcomings are primarily affective, not epistemic. (45-6)

James Alison, too, examines the story of Jonah and its implications for ordinary imperfect believers in his excellent essay “Spluttering up the beach towards Nineveh.”

Pauw proceeds to some discussion of first and second order affections, quoting the anonymous epigraph that laments “O my God, I do not love thee… I do not want to love thee… but I do want to want to love thee.” She closes with a nod towards Margaret Farley’s notion of “relaxation of the heart” as a practice which, by abjuring moral perfection as a goal, opens up an emotional space within which our desires can be gently examined and reoriented.[3]

Understanding practice, and the link between belief and practices, as essentially manifestations of desire has obvious applicability to a mimetic understanding of ecclesiology. Pauw’s focus on the community as the locus of religious practice and the individual’s experience of that communal practice is coherent with the understanding of the church as the “school of right desire.”


[1] I’m not sure why I’m convinced that this rightly/faithfully contrast is justified. Is it only because of her analysis of communal credit that can tide the individual over, or something else?

[2] Of course, a mimetic understanding of desire denies that there is any such thing as autonomous desire: all our desires are received from those around us.

[3] The reference is from Farley’s Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing, which immediately went onto my to-read list.

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2 Responses to Reflections on Pauw’s Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices

  1. Pingback: Lectionary Reflection: Keep on keepin’ on, and when you can’t keep on no more, get some help | Gaudete Theology

  2. Pingback: Ready for Lent? | Gaudete Theology

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