Churches have embodied their beliefs in certain practices, things we do that mark us as who we are and shape our lives in relation to God and others. Bass seeks to recover a rich sense of practice as relating to our ultimate conceptions of God and our expectations for God’s fulfillment of creation. This why of practice, she argues, has been lost in the emergence of vast choices and the breakdown of religious institutional viability. To recover practice, we need to know why we do it and why we would stay with it for the time it requires. Practice, after all, is a way of life, not a quick-fix program.

This is where I find myself hungry for the “great reversal” that will give something other than belief to start the conversation. I struggle to talk to people about practice in a way that doesn’t come down to acting out a set of beliefs (about God or about how we should treat each other). We labor under the impression that Christianity is about what you know, think, and decide, but we – I, at least – know that my being Christian has relatively little to do with anything I ever thought of in my rational self.

It’s more like how I try to correct my young sons when they hit or throw their toys. “We don’t do that,” I say, with what passes for a gentle-but-stern look on my face. I don’t want to shame them, and I don’t want to punish them, but I want to build a sense that treating people well is a part of our family identity. It’s not about following rules to avoid punishment, it’s about living into an identity.

My religious studies professor always pointed out that the question to ask of a religious practice is not “what does it mean?” Meaning is a Western, post-Enlightenment question that doesn’t go very far in dealing with non-Christian religions. In fact, it doesn’t illuminate all that much about Christianity either. The better question is, “what does it do?” We don’t have to understand, let alone believe, what A Mighty Fortress Is Our God “means” in order to draw together with every Protestant church in the world in singing it for Reformation Sunday this weekend. The practice does something that doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with an abstract category like “meaning” or “belief.”

We do what we do because it shapes who we are. We choose whom to be because we want to belong with another someone. That’s peer pressure in its negative form, but also in its positive. It’s the way I try to become a pastor, father, and husband I imagine certain of my role models to have been. The fact that I know none of them have been as perfect as I seem to insist I should be, that’s beside the point. The point is that I try to behave certain ways to get at who and what I want to be.

Can we teach our faith practices in that way? Can we answer the question why with an honest, “because I have the sense that this habit molds me into a little bit more of the person God made me to be”?

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