For a very long time it was characteristic of Protestants (pastors, theologians, ordinary laypeople) to see Christianity as a matter of the heart — or, perhaps, as an orientation of the will towards God. This was accompanied by a denigration of classic Christian practices — prayer, fasting, penance, silence — as merely external manifestations of religiosity. Then came a “repristination” of traditional Christian practices: “When a Christian theologian (or a ‘popular’ Christian devotional writer) writes about a ‘Christian practice,” she is almost always commending something to you.” What’s missing from this commendation is the possibility — indeed, the inevitability — that even the most essential and time-honored practices will go awry. For instance, celebrations of fasting rarely if ever acknowledge the ways that for some people fasting can become entwined with eating disorders. What’s required now is a depristination of practice: an awareness of the ways that the cultivation of Christian practices does not escape our sinfulness and brokenness — that such cultivation will necessarily lead to “characteristic damage,” damage not incidental to such practices or occurring thanks to a deviation from them, but rather intrinsic to their embrace by sinners.
Now, Winner makes many important caveats along the way: that she is not making an argument against the cultivation of traditional Christian practices, that by the grace of God even “damaged gifts” can bring blessing. With the arguments and the caveats taken together, this is an important book, and clearly correct in its chief points.
So. Now what?
- Among certain non-Catholic Christians, there is a kind of sentimentality about “Catholic” practices. Get over it. No practice, no church, no denomination, no communion, allows You to escape You.
- Properly chastened — and properly aware of the particular dangers of the practices that allow you to do what you would want to do anyway — continue to cultivate them. They have arisen and been developed over many centuries for Reasons.
- Long ago Stanley Hauerwas, in response to the frequently-heard insistence that “the Christian church needs a social strategy,” insisted that the Christian church is a social strategy. Christians who in good faith and with self-skepticism practice the traditional Christian disciplines are ipso facto pursuing a social strategy. Let’s not forget it.
- In an email to me, Leah Libresco Sargeant mentioned the recent tendency among U. S. Catholic bishops — and maybe bishops elsewhere, I don’t know — to move Holy Days of Obligation that occur during the week to Sundays. Leah commented, “I don’t like shifting Holy Days of Obligation from Thursday to Sunday — it’s good for sacred time to interrupt ordinary time. We need reminders of that hierarchy.” We need the practices that set us in tension with the practices of everyday life under technocratic capitalism. And we need them even if those tensions are, for us, near occasions of sin.