Thursday, December 08, 2011


Liturgy and Discipline

Lynne Baab at "Thoughtful Christian" has written, based on recent writings of Will Willimon, on spiritual practices. In Part I
Willimon writes: "I fear that a practice is what we sometimes do when our attention has been displaced from the living God. This leads to a domestication of Christianity, in which Christianity quietly morphs into a species of unbelief, and revelation is taken into our own hands. . . . The Armenian idea that we must do something for God before God will do anything for us, the concept that my relationship with God is sustained by my actions or feelings or inclinations, the notion that “religion” is something I do rather than God’s effect on me – all these ideas appear to be lurking behind the contemporary discussions of practice" (p. 227).

I heard the same concern from a student. In a casual conversation he told me, “There’s so much rhetoric about spiritual practices. If I get the practice right, then I’ll work my way to God.” He went on to say that theologians throughout the ages have affirmed that God meets us. He said that it is not our responsibility to engineer a meeting with God; in fact, it is impossible for us to do so.
In Part II
In their landmark 1989 book, Resident Aliens, and in its sequel, Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas presented a powerful and radical way of looking at Christian communal life, using images from the Old Testament about aliens who are resident in a community. In his chapter in A Spiritual Life, Willimon says he has come to regret the strong emphasis in the second book on “the necessity for Christians to develop practices commensurate with the peculiar demands of Christian discipleship” (p. 223).

Willimon believes that the many books on Christian spiritual practices extol the virtues of those practices quite apart from God. In fact, he notes, an emphasis on practices can provide a way to avoid talking about God and to defend ourselves against God’s unexpected and disconcerting interruptions into our lives. We know God and experience God’s presence only as a gift from God, always as revelation, not primarily because of what we do. He believes the emphasis today on spiritual practices stands in a long line of attempts to live life on our terms.
Baab disagrees with this perspective, citing examples where the disciplines have lead to very fresh encounters with the Holy Spirit.

She continues to build her care in Part III
God is amazing, and yes, God is untamable and wild. We should never stop being open to unexpected encounters with this amazing God. In fact, God is always the initiator. God reaches out to us as our Creator, as our Redeemer in Jesus Christ and as our Sustainer through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, any action we take as an attempt to draw near to God has to be viewed as a response to the initiative God has already taken.

And yet I still affirm that Christian practices have great significance in transforming us and enabling us to hear God’s wild, untamable Word to us. I believe spiritual practices make space for us to encounter and hear this God who is already with us and in us and speaking to us. And I believe spiritual disciplines – with the emphasis on the word discipline – help us to embrace the structures and habits that shape our characters more into the image of Christ. Spiritual disciplines are a means by which we respond to God’s call, and they in turn open us to God’s further action in our lives. Spiritual disciplines are a reflection of the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
I think this is a terribly important debate. Based on the evidence of my own life, I tend to side on the Willimon side. But as I read it laid out here it dawned on me how this entire argument parallels the argument about liturgy in worship. In fact it is interesting that the discussion of spiritual discipline has grown as liturgical practice as waned. I am a liturgy heavy guy so why would I instinctively take the opposite tack on spiritual disciplines?

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that the disciplines are an individual effort and liturgy is primarily a communal one and therein lies the significant difference. Liturgy, being communal in nature, contains an accountability designed to prevent one from becoming to "me" focused in its practice.

Something for further reflection.

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