Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Nature of Belief

I have a friend who is a friend of Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke theologian whose reputation for foul mouthed rabble rousing is legendary. Hauerwas has written a memoir, which he’s had my friend read through in manuscript form. Because there are relevant similarities in life experience between Hauerwas and myself, and because my friend thought it might do my soul good to read it, he asked Hauerwas if it would be okay to share the manuscript with me. Hauerwas agreed. So that manuscript has provided my night time reading over this past week.

I have never been much of a fan of Hauerwas. Though I must admit, I’ve only read two of his books. The first was Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (1986). I was motivated to read this as a student at Yale Divinity School because of my work with people with mental retardation. (As you may or may not know I have an undergraduate degree in social work and was a practicing social worker for about three years.) The book did not make much of an impression. That may say more about me than it does about the book, however, as I was all of 23 or 24 years old when I read it. The other book of his that I read and that resonated deeply was Resident Aliens (1989), a book he coauthored with William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke. That book I highly recommend to readers of this blog.

Here in Grand Rapids I’m part of a group called In Vino Theologica or in wine there is theology. It’s a motley little group of men and women, young and old, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant, Confused and Skeptical who come together to read and think about what it means to be Christian. I try to find short(ish), thought-provoking articles for us to read beforehand and then discuss over a couple of bottles of wine and fine cheese. Since I’ve been reading Hauerwas’s memoir I thought I would see if he had anything online that might serve the purposes of our little group. And I came across an article he wrote in 1991 that is immediately relevant to the discussion I was having with Mike Wittmer last week on his blog. Mike and I were discussing the nature of Christian belief.

In that discussion I made the following claims:

I would just point out that practices, rituals, sacraments, feasts and fasts, etc. for 1500 years of Christian history served as the primary means for the redirection and reorientation of our desires, our loves and lives, for our spiritual formation as icons of God and followers of Jesus whose end is communion with God and others. It is only since the reformation that the pendulum has swung away from the embodied practices of concrete communities as central to spiritual formation and toward the atomistic, disembodied and cerebral-centered. I suggest it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction once again.


When it comes to faith I am, after all these years, still a beginner. I am always ever a beginner. I’m coming to see, I guess, that I am still learning to believe, still learning how to believe. For a long time I was preoccupied with what to believe. As I get older I’m coming to see that how I believe is of equal importance. I am coming to see that belief is something that takes practice and something one learns to do over time.

In the article of Hauerwas’s that I found for use in In Vino, Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community Hauerwas compares becoming a Christian to learning to lay brick. He says:

To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it; you must learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. Moreover, it is not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar. In order to lay brick you must hour after hour, day after day, lay brick.

Of course, learning to lay brick involves learning not only myriad skills, but also a language that forms, and is formed by those skills. Thus, for example, you have to become familiar with what a trowel is and how it is to be used, as well as mortar, which bricklayers usually call "mud." Thus "frogging mud" means creating a trench in the mortar so that when the brick is placed in the mortar, a vacuum is created that almost makes the brick lay itself. Such language is not just incidental to becoming a bricklayer but is intrinsic to the practice. You cannot learn to lay brick without learning to talk "right."

The language embodies the history of the craft of bricklaying. So when you learn to be a bricklayer you are not learning a craft de novo but rather being initiated into a history. For example, bricks have different names--klinkers, etc.---to denote different qualities that make a difference about how one lays them. These differences are often discovered by apprentices being confronted with new challenges, making mistakes, and then being taught how to do the work by the more experienced.

Now the comparison:

Christianity is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.

For example, I am sometimes confronted by people who are not Christians but who say they want to know about Christianity. This is a particular occupational hazard for theologians around a university, because it is assumed that we are smart or at least have a Ph.D., so we must really know something about Christianity. After many years of vain attempts to "explain" God as trinity, I now say, "Well, to begin with we Christians have been taught to pray, 'Our father, who art in heaven. . .’" I then suggest that a good place to begin to understand what we Christians are about is to join me in that prayer.

For to learn to pray is no easy matter but requires much training, not unlike learning to lay brick. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.

This expresses better than my feeble attempts one of the points I was attempting to make in my discussions with Mike concerning the nature of Christian belief; namely, that Christian belief takes practice. It's not that we first become Christians and then as evidence of that engage in certain sorts of behavior. Rather, it is in the very course of engaging in the practices and rituals peculiar to the Christian way of being in the world that we actually become Christian.


revsusan said...

Thanks Kevin! I think this is a very helpful follow up to the "Conversation with Kevin" on MW's blog.

The brick-laying analogy works well for me. Simon builds kilns ( I know lots about kiln construction. I know arch forms, can explain the difference with hard and soft brick, temperature ratings...but I am not a kiln builder. He takes on apprentices and they learn by doing.

Conversation about ideas and methods are important, even critical to one's development as an artist, but not sufficient. Though I speak...but have not love, I am nothing.


Randy said...

really good and quite simple even... which is also good (& impressive) for a philosopher.

one of my trades by birth is horticulture. I can tell you much about plants, diseases, insects, fertilizers, soil impact upon plants... None of this stuff makes another another person a horticulturist...

And this post perhaps gets at a significant piece that is often forgotten -- I am a follower of Jesus because of a call to follow. My life is simply a feeble attempt to follow.

Mike Lamson said...


I am perplexed at what seems to be your insistence that Dr. Wittmer thinks practice is secondary to belief (or I think you called it 'reflective theorizing.').

I don't see how Mike would disagree with the apprenticeship analogy. However, even the very practice of doing something requires that there is some sort of "knowledge" behind it. I just don't understand why you are so resistant to Mike's comments about both/and.

I guess I'm not too much into which causes which because both must work together. I gather there is a miscommunication on both sides. You are claiming Mike's emphasis on belief without looking at his arguments for practice (as evidenced in DSB), and Mike is stressing your apparent denial of belief in your rhetoric on practice.

I understand your sentiment. I also hate the whole, "let's focus everything on intellectually assenting on the right things," but I also think saying that it doesn't play a part is confusing.

In regards to causality, you can learn by doing and by knowing. Even to learn how to do bricklaying assumes that someone (your mentor/master) knows something about bricklaying, or you couldn't do it in the first place.

Maybe this is heated because of the issues it brings up on salvation? Are you saying that those who live like Jesus, but don't confess to believe (intellectually assenting)in orthodox Christian tradition/doctrines are still Christians? Maybe that's where the tension is. Dr. Wittmer seems to be exclusivist in his view while yours is inclusivist? I'm not accusing or assuming anyone, just thinking out loud.

Regardless, it seems you both say basically the same thing, except the argument of causality (whether practice comes from belief and vice versa), which really doesn't seem to matter to me. Why can't both be valid?

Thanks for the dialogue. It's definitely helpful.

Leonard said...

Kevin, you've always had a bent toward stuff. I remember you once gave me an unforgettable analogy having to do with your father's old cardigan.
Your post spurred a bit of remininsence. I grew up in the CRC of the 50's, and went (was sent) to Catechism every week for years, learning (by heart) the Heidelberg Catechism. I don't regret that intellectual grounding for a minute, and , in fact, would argue that kids need more of precisely that today. However, it struck me how few grounding practices I learned. It seemed mainly to be what we didn't do than what we did-- like not mowing the lawn on Sunday, and not going to movies.
We ridiculed the mindless bead-pushers and the meatless Friday neighbors for their "idolatry."
Yet, I recall a secret desire for just such things. Flesh and blood things to do.
It's fascinating to see how practices are coming back into focus for flesh-starved Protestants. I just got done reading a book from Eerdmans on praying with beads for crying out loud.
So, I guess it's both practice grounded beliefs, and belief grounded practices. Beads is a good example. It's a practice that's grounded in the theology and efficacy of prayer. But it's something your fingers do as well. And the classic prayers themselves, drip by drip, form stalagmites (tites?) of substance in the soul.
Anyway, thanks for the thoughts, and keep practicing. Maybe someday well get it.

Dan Brennan said...

Kevin, Good common sense observations. I do love the album. I am with you!