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Forming Our Faith—Habit-Making Practices

Note: this is part two in a series on the principles undergirding Christian Education.  You can read the first installment here. 

Our cultures are constantly forming our habits.  As the Reformed philosopher James K. A. Smith points out, liturgy is ubiquitous.  He finds it most prevalent in the shopping mall, which through architecture and iconography shapes our desires and transforms our imaginations.  For him, Christian education isn’t about passing along ideas or a worldview, but is primarily about helping to shape what we love, what we desire, what we imagine.  And, so, he argues that worship is central to Christian education and faith formation, as worship is the primary tool of the church’s for engaging our imaginations in this way.

And we are abundantly aware that one of the tasks of the church is to help undo dis-eased imaginations.  The theologian Willie James Jennings, for example, has written extensively about how white supremacy has diseased the Christian imagination.  Thus, our commitments to be anti-racist, welcoming and affirming, accessible to all, and WISE for mental health contribute vitally to our task in faith formation.  And help to clarify, not only what to teach, but ways in which we repair the bad ideas that people have absorbed.

The religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes that religion isn’t something we believe, but is rather something that we do, a skill we possess.  And that we learn it, like we learn all skills, through repeat practice.  There are similarities then to learning how to ski or play the piano.  It takes practice and work to embody these skills with ease.

The impulse that religion is habit-formation rests upon some basic philosophical shifts of the twentieth century.  Ethics moved away from rule-based duties to embodying virtues through habit-making practices.  Learning a language is now understood to be more like learning to play a game.  And philosophers now think of truth and knowledge as something we arrive at by engaging in reliable processes that are learned through cultivated skills.

In theology, George Lindbeck forty years ago proposed that learning religion is like learning a language.  Religion provides a grammar by which you can make sense of life.  And this learning occurs through stories.  The stories of the Bible and the faith tradition become interiorized through practice.  Which highlights the value of continuing to immerse our youngest children in the stories of the Bible.

In the late eighties, theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon published the now canonical book Resident Aliens in which they contend that “Christians are intentionally made by an adventuresome church.”  They wrote:

In Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people.

To which they add that the challenge for the church isn’t “right thinking,” but is instead “right living.”  And by that they mean the creation of a new people, which they describe as a “political challenge.”  We succeed in passing our faith along when that faith demands something of us.  When it is worthy of our time, energy, and passion.  One of the ways we pass it along, they recommend, is through mentorships, as young people experience the life of faith in adults.  Which is one of the reasons we highlight intergenerational participation.

I pointed out to the First Forum class in the spring that part of my baptismal ceremony comes from Hauerwas and Willimon’s book: “We welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life . . . Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say.  This we do know and this we say—God is with you.”

In my next column I’ll write about some of the specific ways that faith formation occurs. 



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First Central Congregational Church