Theology and religious language can seem detached and unrelated to the world we inhabit and struggle to live in. Eucharist, Incarnation, Reconciliation, and Repentance can feel like lofty ideas with little traction in the work and play, toil and joy of everyday life. I love the intellectual gymnastics of systematic theology and philosophical inquiry. I relish the lush language of liturgy, the prayers and hymns, the scriptures and sermons. But I, too, find myself wondering, “what’s the point? what does this all mean for my relationship to my wife or my decisions about how to make ends meet?” Can theology or religious terminology matter beyond the echoes of our church chambers?
I think it can. I hope it does.
I’ve begun a new book (yes, another book…), that addresses this hunch I’m continuing to explore. In Practicing Our Faith, Dorothy Bass assembles a variety of voices from within the Christian community to consider a set of Christian practices. The emphasis is on practice, that is, “things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world in Jesus Christ” (5). Practices “address fundamental needs and conditions through concrete human acts” (6). The accent, here, is not explicitly on Christian “ideas” or “doctrines” concerned with thinking rightly. While we must admit that ideas and doctrines are inevitably caught up in the things we do, too often we fail to discover and experience the depth and breadth of our religious heritages because we ignore the patterns of activities traditionally a part of Christian life.
Christian practices are not unique–they are the stuff of everyday life: eating, bathing, speaking, dying, singing. How might these activities be spiritual endeavors that glorify God and testify to the grace we find in Jesus Christ? This is what the book attempts to unpack.
As I consider the direction and shape of my own ministry–the flavor and aim of the work I do as a pastor–I find myself drawn to the idea of “forming practical theologians.” That is, I believe that Christian communities are places to nurture, nourish, and heal people to become practical theologians: to live each day doing (practicing) theology. What joy and meaning might we discover in life when we pattern our routines and infuse our decisions with our Christian faith? What hope might we experience when we pause to see where God’s presence is in the midst of our daily struggle?
To answer these questions we need communities where we can talk about the mundane flow of life in all its variety. We need a place where we can weave these realities into our understanding of God, Jesus Christ, and the mission of the church. We don’t need more bible studies, though bible study is crucial; but we do need a place to talk about and build up our parenting, relationships, money management, exercising, and eating. We need church groups and church activities focused on the intersection of lived life with theology–the way that salvation in Jesus Christ translates into distinctive patterns of relating to ourselves, to others, and the whole earth. In this way, we can begin to form ourselves as practical theologians and, what amounts to the same thing, live into the image of God we were each created to be.
I am excited to see what Christian faith can mean for the practices of discernment, shaping community, healing, dying well, singing our lives, honoring our bodies, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping sabbath, and testimony. Each of these topics is ripe for us to find God’s presence at work in the most mundane corners of our ordinary lives. And each of these topics promises to show how we can each be practical theologians: increasing the fullness of our lives as God intends.