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Willimon rethinks Christianity as practice(s)

Will Willimon (of Resident Aliens fame) has an article out in the Christian Century that calls into question some of the emphasis of his and Stanley Hauerwas’s work on Christianity-as-practice:

Hauerwas and I did not originate the notion that Christianity is best defined as a “socially established cooperative human activity” rather than as a set of beliefs or a type of experience. But we certainly gave a strong shove to that idea, and to the notion that there is nothing wrong with the church that can’t be cured by restoring it as a place of practice. I bear some responsibility for the now popular conviction that Christianity is a practice and that Christians are best described as people who have adopted certain practices. So I feel I should share why I am now having grave doubts about describing Christian spirituality as a practice.

Practice has become a primary term not only in describing Christianity but in speaking about religion in general. It is acceptable to speak of Christianity as a practice in company who would not tolerate a conversation about “Jesus Christ as Lord.” That should tip us off to some of the theological hazards of this approach.

Jamie Smith has a response to Willimon up at the Duke Divinity School “Call and Response” blog, to which Willimon has also responded (in the comments), making for what I take to be a very helpful exchange. Check em out.


  1. Derek wrote:

    Thanks for this. I have been reading through Tickle’s series on rediscovering the ancient practices, & for at least one of the books, this might stand as a valid critique.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  2. myles wrote:

    Indeed. I worry about this trend.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Matt Jenson wrote:

    I’ve found most helpful Nicholas M. Healy, ‘Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 5:3 (2003): 277-308

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    A very helpful article indeed. Though I’m really still left wanting by it. By which I mean, I’m left wanting Healy’s forthcoming book on ecclesiology!

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    One has to ask here, and this gets to the bottom of Smith’s critique: what trend? It is simply bad scholarship/polemics to refer to something in such monolithic terms without providing specific examples that establish both the phenomenon in question AND its pervasiveness. I’m not saying this to be snarky. I really think there is a great conversation to be had, but it is simply impossible to respond to “this really bad thing is happening all over the place. Let us wring our hands.”

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I think that Willimon actually provides at least a couple examples in his article, and in the comments Roger Owens (who’s the author of an excellent book on the subject, just out from Cascade Books) also gestures towards some sources of the alleged “trend.”

    Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Repentance from a bad ideas is always welcome. Good for Will to admit this.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    I certainly respect Willimon, and I can understand how he would be bothered by the use of “practice” language today. But in my mind, that doesn’t negate the importance of distinctly Christian practice. It is those three words together that matter, and that he and Hauerwas have made clear, as have many since. Practice isn’t sufficient by itself, and outside the context of Jesus as Lord it is deeply problematic. But let’s reinforce the proper context rather than disavowing the term for its appropriation in other contexts.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink
  9. Matt wrote:

    Halden et al,

    Having re-read the original Christian Century article, I don’t think Willimon cites any specific examples -or, rather, any credible examples. He does mention Karen Armstrong, but she hardly qualifies as a serious theologian. I think he has a straw man problem here.

    (And, as an aside, I was disappointed that he chose to begin the article by mocking “puerile undergraduates” -as if being young and therefore ignorant is some sort of crime. To me, he just sounds cranky).

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  10. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    Yes I read Healy’s critique as broadly speaking a sympathetic critique of the ‘new ecclesiology’, highlighting certain dangers in the way practices can, in spite of their concreteness, be conceived in abstraction from their theological context. It will be interesting to see where Healy goes from here… hopefully not in Webster’s direction (cf “The Church and the Perfection of God”, –

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

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