“Discerning Practices”

Martha Ellen Stortz
GTU Distinguished Faculty Lecture—November 18, 1998

Introductory Remarks

We begin this lecture as voyeurs, that is, as people who look without being observed. To ensure symmetry and justice, we end by observing ourselves. First, I invite you to eavesdrop on a conversation. Second, I want to locate that conversation in a contemporary theological and sociological landscape. Third, I want to examine an important landmark in that landscape: the whole notion of practices. Finally, we conclude by observing ourselves: why all this attention to practices now? what does it say about who we are and where we are?

I. Eavesdropping unobserved.

First, let us be voyeurs. I invite you to eavesdrop on a conversation I had with a young woman who had attended a lecture I gave. The lecture is long forgotten; the conversation only remains, and it is a conversation you have probably had yourselves: “I really liked what you had to say: I just wish you didn’t have to be so Lutheran about it all.” I replied that some of my best insights came from “being so Lutheran about it all.” It affords a unique point of view: from it I can see something, not everything certainly, but something. Moreover, I am stuck there; it is genetic.

We talked further. She had been stuck there too—past tense. She had been active in church groups until college, then discovered that this whole thing didn’t do much for her anymore. She had searched about in other traditions, other faiths, and had finally assembled an eclectic, but for her meaningful mix of spiritual practices, which she engaged on a regular basis. “I’m not at all religious, but I am a very spiritual person. I meditate and pray, and I believe there is something divine in each person. I try to find that in myself and in others. It binds us all together and links us to the divine force in the universe.” She considered herself a recovering Lutheran.

Stand back from all this for a moment: there is more in common between these two Lutherans, one stuck and one unstuck, than meets the eye. We were both searching for religious experience, and we had each found it in different places. Her spiritual regimen was steady and disciplined: she meditated every morning for 45 minutes; she journaled at the end of every day; she participated in workshops and retreats, networking with the people she had met there. Meanwhile, I plodded along with the practices of my own tradition. At the hub were a central core of practices, the marks of the church: baptism, Eucharist, the office of the keys, ordination, prayer/praise/catechesis, the way of the cross or discipleship. Moving out in concentric circles from this core are secondary practices, like marrying and burying, confirming, blessing a meal, remembering the dead, singing heartily and well. Somewhere in the outer orbits of sub-practices lie the ancient traditions of drinking coffee and making casseroles and molded Jell-O salads. For each of us these practices forged a way into the heart, the soil of religious experience.

We were not alone in this quest for religious experience, a religion that touches the heart. Eavesdrop on Augustine, who observed sixteen centuries ago: “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee.”(Conf. 1.1) Love forms identity and directs morality: our mores are shaped by our amores. The quest for religious experience is nothing new, but it is acute in this last gasp of the 20th Century.

And we weren’t alone in our dis-ease, my recovering Lutheran and I. Our communities of faith manage well at furnishing people with doctrines: every good Lutheran knows about justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers. Our communities of faith also gird people with social agendas: social statements on race, capital punishment, assisted dying, etc. My personal favorite is a statement entitled “Sex, Marriage, and the Family” —as if that were the prescribed order. But are our communities of faith any good at helping people experience God? Are they at all helpful in tutoring our affections? I wonder… So I take this recovering Lutheran quite seriously.

This is the conversation we had. But we also need to eavesdrop on the conversation we did not have, the one I have been having with myself over the intervening months. There are two assumptions she makes that a lot of recovering churchfolk make. The first assumption goes like this: “I believe in the divine in me and in every human being.” This is most certainly true. But it is only half true: there’s a huge part of the not-so-divine in each of us. Call it original sin or pride or self-abnegation; this piece exists. Depending on how you are put together, the not-so-divine will screen out all criticism and provide only affirmation or it will screen out affirmation and provide only criticism. Sometimes it screens out everything. But the question is: How to acknowledge this balance of divine—and not-so-divine—especially if you are the only one listening for the divine in your life?

The second part of the conversation we did not have rotates around my friend’s comment that her childhood faith was not doing anything for her. And I wonder if the question: what will this do for me? is not somehow also only partly true. Religion does something for us, by doing something to us. Needs are paradoxical: on one level, we want them met; on another level, we want them transformed. Take Job on the dung heap—here is someone whose faith is not doing much for him. He pleads for something he will recognize as vindication: it does not come. Finally, Job, simply asks to see God. When this happens, his needs are not met; they are transformed in a conversation from a whirlwind. This vindication is nothing Job could have conjured up on his own. Does religion really do something for us? I want to gather up the questions and try to locate these eavesdropped conversations.

II. Locating a conversation.

A recent book provides a map: Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. Wuthnow presents an engaging typology, which is also a chronology of spirituality in the U.S. since the 1950s. During these decades he distinguishes three types of spirituality: a spirituality of dwelling, a spirituality of seeking, and a spirituality of practices. He characterizes the 1950s as a decade of domesticity, which typifies solidly a spirituality of dwelling. This first form of spirituality attended to sacred spaces and habitation. Here place shaped identity, and this spirituality bestowed upon its believers a idealized sense of home—even when the home scene deviated from “Leave It To Beaver.”

The Sixties inaugurated a second type of spirituality: a spirituality of seeking. Commuting and consumerism increased; religion became more mobile as well. Given wheels and encouraged to shop around in their religious affiliation, people left the communities and mainstream churches of their youth. Mistrustful of institutions, authorities, and traditions, seekers sought to negotiate their own relationships to the sacred. This was a world populated by angels and mystical experiences: they appeared unbidden, anonymously, without judgment or difficult demands.

Yet seekers finally tired of this spiritual tourism. They missed discipline, depth, and something to sustain them between mountain-top spiritual experiences. Wuthnow announces the inauguration of a third type of spirituality, a spirituality of practices. Practices provide the discipline that a spirituality of seeking lacked and the depth that a spirituality of dwelling took for granted. This third type, a spirituality of practices, cultivates a relationship with the sacred through a committed use of regular spiritual disciplines, like prayer, meditation, journaling, and study of scripture. As one of those interviewed in Wuthnow’s book observed: “You don’t learn to play chess by thinking about it on the way to work each day…” Prayer is the same way. No one develops a serious and sustaining relationship to the sacred without cultivating that relationship. That relationship, like any relationship, takes work; it demands a daily investment of time.

Where does this place my conversation partner and myself? We both yearn for religious experience and both have found a disciplined regimen of spiritual practices to satisfy that yearning. I come to practices from a spirituality of dwelling; my friend comes to practices from a spirituality of seeking. We both organize our lives around disciplined spiritual practices. As far as Wuthnow is concerned, we are both clearly located in the third sort of spirituality: a spirituality of practices.

But we need to engage in some discernment here. We need to discern the practices, just as one would discern the spirits. Look at my friend and I: our practice of the practices is radically different on three points.

  • The first difference is the role of community. My recovering Lutheran conversation partner networks with lots of folks, but basically her array of practices reflects what she has found for the moment personally meaningful. My practices are deeply traditioned and highly corporate. At times, I have had to search hard for the meaning in them, but that search is always prodded by a community of people who frankly know more about this sometimes than I.
  • A second difference lies in the practices themselves. My friend has chosen her practices out of number of different traditions and communities, but the organizing principle is her own sense of judgment. Of course, I operate out of a tradition with a narrow range of communal expressions, so one could say that the organizing principle for my practices is someone else’s sense of judgment. But is that really true? That judgment has been tested and revised over time and by centuries of believers: it is a dynamic judgment. My friend has chosen her practices; mine have chosen me.
  • Finally, eclecticism marks a lot of late 20th Century spiritual regimens. Can practices move from one tradition into another, and if so, how? How does Zen Buddhist meditation work outside its familiar context of meaning? Can a Presbyterian church build a sweat lodge to enhance its parishioners’ religious experience? Do practices translate from one tradition to another without remainder?

These questions push us to the third part of this lecture: What are practices? and what do they do to someone?

III. Defining practices

I want to argue for an understanding of practices that is more situated than Wuthnow allows, because I believe that practices are by definition communal, traditioned, and prescriptive. I do not think that the notion of practices should embrace every bag of spiritual techniques or group activities. To that end, I offer a stipulative definition of practices, that is, a definition with fences, so that some things will be included and some things excluded. I do this without apology: every fruit cannot be an orange; every group activity or spiritual technique is not a practice. Practices are activities that compose a distinctive way of life, shaping the insiders and identifying them for outsiders.

Cultural anthropologists and moral philosophers have long been familiar with the notion of practices. Cultural anthropologists investigate the worlds of meaning that practices create. In an powerful essay, “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,” Rosaldo examines how a Pacific Island tribe deals with anger and grief, when its central practice is discontinued. Moral philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre investigate the worlds of value that practices create. Sissela Bok’s large body of work treats contemporary cultural practices which we take for granted with an eye to the character of people they create: lying and truth-telling, or keeping and revealing secrets, or, most recently, watching simulated violence in the media.

Theologians and ethicists show more recent interest in practices. Margaret Miles in Practicing Christianity argues that the religious self sustained by practices in a relationship with God allows release from a socialized self, burdened with often oppressive roles and rules. The authors of Dorothy Bass’ more recent volume, Practicing our Faith identify practices as activities that compose a way of life: they treat such activities as keeping Sabbath, hospitality, dying well, living simply, etc. Nancey Murphy in a book Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition brings the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre into direct conversation with theological ethics. These authors claim that a religion cannot be explained or understood without reference to its practices.

A story about Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland illustrates this final point powerfully. He was approached by a would-be convert to Catholicism, and he told the young man: “Great! Go to mass every Sunday, and work in a soup kitchen every week. Come back and talk to me in six months.” He does not recommend reading Rahner or the latest papal encyclicals; he tells the young man to engage in the central practices of the faith: mass and service. Religious practices afford entry into the heart of a faith.

Practices both induct us into a tradition and function as the face of that tradition in the world. For example, my brother-in-law is a writer, and he became a writer by writing in a disciplined way on a daily basis, whether he felt particularly inspired on that day or not. Some days the words simply would not come, and after five hours of work, he had only a paragraph. Some days the paragraphs flowed. I am a Christian, and part of the reason is that I do the things Christians do: show up in church, study scripture, pray for my neighbors. These are often not mountain-top experiences—in fact, they rarely are. More than doing something for me, as my recovering Lutheran friend demanded, engaging in these practices does something to me, not the least of which is induct me into a way of life called “Christian.” Through practices a tradition enters the heart; through practices beliefs enter the body. Practices provide the soil for sustained religious experience.

That is the induction part. But religious practices function as the public face of that tradition in the civic realm. Campaigning for the civil rights of blacks in the 1950s, Martin Luther King did not try to speak a religious Esperanto that would mask the particularity of his own upbringing. No one would have remembered words like: “I have an idea, I’d kind of like to share with you…” But it was more than an “idea,” it was a “dream,” and behind that dream were words from the prophet Joel, for those who had ears to hear:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2: 28-29, NRSV)

Martin Luther King spoke in the very particular images and metaphors that his tradition gave him. He spoke in his mother tongue, and he had a religiously tutored first language to use. That language best expressed his deepest convictions, and that kind of depth translated.

In addition to inducting us into a tradition and functioning as the public face of that tradition in the world, religious practices have several salient characteristics. MacIntyre introduced the definition of practices most theologians and ethicists follow, and I want to amend that, isolating six characteristics of religious practices.

1) Religious practices reflect and constitute a relationship with the sacred. At least the religion I am part of, Christianity, and its unique and somewhat peculiar expression Lutheranism, is not primarily about assenting to doctrine or honoring obligations—though these certainly figure. It is primarily about being in a relationship. All the rest follows.

For all his great relational acuity, Augustine, the quintessential seeker, wonders in The Confessions how he could possibly have missed this. Surveying the twists and turns of a rich life, he discovered that at the very moments when he had been seeking to fasten himself to Great Ideas—Truth, Beauty, and the Good—he had already been found. He sought a “what” and was found by “Someone.”

This relationship is not a private hot-line to the sacred: it contours all other relationships. Jesus restates the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures, but listen to its structure: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:38-39) These exhortations depict a triadic relationship bound with love that embraces God, self, and community. When one leg of the triangle is shaky, the whole pyramid collapses.

Roberta Bondi discusses this triadic relationship in speaking of her daily practice of praying the Lord’s Prayer. As a feminist she struggled with address to a “Father,” but that finally was not the hardest part of the prayer. She continued to stumble over the word “our,” because she could not readily embrace everyone that word included. In the midst of betrayal by a colleague and friend, she found herself praying daily “My Father—and the Father of Jane Ann,” and that repeated address effected a reconciliation she could not have choreographed on her own.

This triad—God, self, community—structures religious practices. If the relationship to God is left out, practices become mere group activities, like coffee hour after church. Worse, they can lose their edge, domesticating the divine and creating the sacred in human form. If the relationship to self is erased, practices become exercises is self-abnegation and self-immolation. Self-sacrifice, a key virtue in many religious traditions, only works when there is a “self,” integral and defined, to freely offer. If the community evaporates, practices become experiments in spiritual solipsism. The presence of a community is absolutely essential to discern the spirits, to test the practices, and to expand our spiritual vision, lest that vision become occluded or grow myopic. I worry that many people like my recovering Lutheran—not at all religious, but very spiritual—deprive themselves of the challenge and comfort of community.

2) My second point follows from the first: practices tutor the emotions. Take a time-honored cultural practice or watching TV. Tune in during Saturday morning, kiddie-time television, and think about the emotions tutored here. A fourth-grade class in Portland took notes: there was a violent act every 60 seconds—kick-boxing or punching, shooting or slashing. What virtues and vices are encouraged in this? Fear, aggression, desensitization to violence and desire for more. Practices have the potential to transform or deform the emotions. Just as sinews connect bone to bone, emotions connect people one to another. They are the connective tissue of human society: they can build up or tear down—that’s why they need to be tutored.

Wuthnow observes that for all the Sixties’ talk about the self—self-expression, self- fulfillment, or “doing your own thing”—“most Americans were ill-equipped to understand or appreciate what it might mean to explore the interior castle.” I wonder if today, for all the talk about feelings and emotions, we aren’t equally ill-equipped to understand them. Practices tutor the emotions. For this reason, St. Benedict laid emphasis in his rule on the opus Dei, the daily office of prayer. Within the course of a week, monks would move through the entire psalter. Imagine the impact this had on the emotions. The psalmist finds room in a relationship with God for everything: rejoicing and despair, consolation and abandonment, judgment and mercy. It is a rich emotional palette, including perhaps some less favorite colors. Grafting oneself into the world of the psalms both evokes and tutors the emotions, which bind a community to God and to one another. This raises a question for my friend, the recovering Lutheran: Would she choose on her own such range?

3) Practices are activities that ritually address fundamental human needs. In so doing they engage the body, allowing the body to mentor the soul. The wisdom of practices challenges a more contemporary privileging of the intellect, which presumes that the mind directs the body. The wisdom of practices allows the body to mentor the soul and the heart as well.

Think of the practices of a traditioned community and the needs behind them: the Lord’s Supper or the Passover Seder responds to a need to eat; wakes and funerals responds to the need to grieve; grace at mealtime, the need to express thanks; baptism or bris, the need to belong and to mark those who belong.

But if practices meet basic human needs, they also redirect them. Remember the servant Job: he wants to see God, and God grants his request, but the impact re-wires everything. An encounter with the living God, whose works of creation have surrounded him in his misery, radically reorients Job’s needs. Remember the recovering Lutheran: in wanting a spirituality that will meet her needs, is she escaping the possibility for transforming those needs entirely?

4) Practices are deeply traditioned: they are done together and over time; they presume community and history. We do not need to walk into Holy Week or Passover wondering “what shall we do this year?” The services follow a flexible pattern which believers have observed for centuries. Following in their footsteps, we join them across time and space.

In the background of practices is Scripture; in their foreground is doctrine. Each is critical in terms of informing and norming practices. Scripture informs religious practices. Christians trace the practice of baptism back to the command of Jesus; scripture informs that practice.

But if Scripture informs practices, doctrines norm them. Doctrines furnish a certain grammar of faith; practices show us how to speak. Practices allow us to live out a faith in word and deed. There is, I want to argue, a reflexive relationship between doctrines and practices. Without doctrines, practices are empty and aimless. We might do them by rote or routine, but we have a hard time figuring out what they are about. Without practices, however, doctrines are disembodied: we might give them lip service, but they have not entered the body of either the believer or the community.

Part of the terror and delight involved in teaching in an ecumenical and inter-faith consortium like the Graduate Theological Union lies in the wild and wonderful questions that arise across faith traditions. One question posed by a student from an a-creedal tradition arrested a history class in recent memory: “What does saying a creed do to you?” she asked. Those from creedal traditions strained to produce the right words and make the appropriate explanations, but only part of the answer can be put into words. The rest of it is embedded in a lifetime of saying the creed itself. Quite literally, practices embody doctrines; there is a unique and necessary balance between practices and doctrines.

So, Scripture is in the background of practices, informing them; doctrine is in the foreground of practices, norming them. The joint impact of doctrine and scripture often suggests revision of practices. Many Protestant churches found customary practices of ordination to be antithetical to their doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. That coupled with Paul’s clear argument in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…” (Gal. 3:23, NRSV) forced a re-examination of the deeply traditioned practice of ordaining only men as clergy.

Given the tight weave between scripture, doctrine, and practices, I would have to caution my recovering Lutheran friend from transferring practices from one tradition to another: Can a Christian or Jew use Zen meditation techniques? I worry about uprooting extract a practice from a context that both norms it, informs it, and gives it meaning. This seems the ultimate form of spiritual colonialism.

Other questions arise. What then norms or informs the imported practice in its new setting? Practices wrenched from their contexts have little recourse either to direction or correction. They become techniques. Perhaps as techniques, they can be re-oriented in another universe of relationship with the divine. Perhaps the gravitational pull of that relationship could hold this imported technique in place, norming and directing it anew. There may be a place for these as secondary or tertiary practices, but they probably should not be part of the central core of one’s spiritual discipline.

5) Practices are good in themselves. They possess standards of excellence which are internal to the practice itself. There are ways of doing something well that come from the doing of it, not from a digital display of marks, or a coach’s praise, or a teammate’s clap on the back. You see it on the face of a skater who just completed a good program: he has skated well. Before he even hears the crowd’s wild applause, long before judges calibrate their marks, his face registers jubilation: “I skated well.”

Some in my own tradition may caution that I’m skating on the thin ice of “works’ righteousness” here, but I think not. This phrase has been a Protestant excuse for not doing the hard work of formation for many years. Now that our students are going elsewhere for spiritual direction, we need to think long and hard about our knee-jerk reaction against formation and direction. If there weren’t ways of preaching well, or worshiping well, or teaching well, we wouldn’t be here. Even Luther counseled people on how to pray—and pray well. But finally the good of praying well is not Luther’s or Benedict’s seal of approval “Well-prayed!”, but the goodness of prayer itself, which is communion with God and community.

Because practices foster internal goods; they are ends in themselves. There may be external goods that can be achieved, but they are secondary. Certainly, a trip to the national AAU championship finals excites our skater, but skating well is an end in itself. Similarly, prayer is an end in itself. When used as a means to an end, e.g., to get something accomplished or to achieve emotional equilibrium, it becomes a technique, not a practice.

However, while distinguishing techniques from practices, I want to observe that techniques may become practices. In a well-worn example, Alasdair MacIntyre tells of teaching his nephew to play chess by plying the boy with candy. Initially, the boy played to amass candy. It functioned as a technique he used to get something else: candy, the external good. Gradually, however, the boy played not to win candy, but because the game itself captured his imagination and intellect. Chess had become a practice.

Perhaps the same thing happens with prayer. Sometimes we do it because we are desperate for something or about something. But the act of praying quite surprises us. Gradually the end we sought recedes in view of the relationship that embraces us. What we sought out for ulterior motives becomes something we seek out because of its own unique goodness. This leads to sixth and final point.

6) Practices foster perception. Insight often does not alter behavior, but often altering one’s behavior creates insight. Simone Weil writes of the effect of Zen Buddhist practices: “The idea behind Zen Buddhism: to perceive purely, without any admixture of reverie (like when I was seventeen).” Practices afford eye exercises to correct vision, training the eyes on communion with God, which is finally not achieved as goal, but revealed as gift. Here the analogy to figure skating breaks down utterly. H. Richard Niebuhr expressed powerfully this meeting of creaturely yearning and divine grace: “We sought a good to love and were found by a good that loved us.”

All of the practices point toward connection with the sacred; all share this goal or telos of communion with God and participate in the grace of its bestowing. Given the gravitational pull of this communion, religious practices are united. For example, in a course I taught one fall with Michael Aune entitled “Praise, Agency, and Action” each of the participants committed herself to a daily practice. One of the students chose prayer for the enemy. She readily confessed to using this prayer as a technique: she had ulterior motives and expected external goods: for example, insights, eased relationships, some measure of compassion.

But more powerful—and utterly surprising!—were the internal goods she had not anticipated. Perhaps the most unsettling was the way in which she began to see herself as an enemy of God, in the easy ability to generate ill will toward God’s creatures. Other practices made a different kind of sense: for example, confession and absolution. She found herself stunned with the utter gratuity of the promise present in the Eucharist. Being deeply drawn into this practice of praying for my enemies, she found other practices made new and different sense. Aristotle spoke of the unity of the virtues; there is a unity of practices as well, because they display a fundamental telos of communion with God.

Let me sum up: practices are activities that compose a way of life and create a place for relationship with the sacred. They acknowledge and sustain that relationship; they tutor the emotions; they address fundamental human needs; they are deeply traditioned; they are goods in themselves; they foster perception. As I have elaborated them, they balance individual and community; they are less activities that we choose to do than they are activities that over time choose us; they reach deep into a tradition, rather than drawing widely from a number of different traditions.

IV. Locating ourselves: Why all this talk of practices now?

Why all this talk of practices now: are we disoriented? uncertain of a certain way of life? What does all this talk about practices say about us now in this place? I want briefly to wonder about the vectors of influence that force our attention on practices at this time.

1) First, there is a huge hunger for spirituality in this country at this end of the millennium. This hunger reflects the desire for relationship with the sacred, and the battle over naming God, male or female, Father or Mother, Lover or Friend, is highly instructive on this point: all the embattled names are personal, relational names. In an age of high therapeutic literacy, we all know that every relationship takes work. And we want to know what kind of “work” this relationship with God will take—or at least put ourselves in a position where a relationship that has always been there can work on us. Practices afford a regimen of readying oneself for relationship with God and sustaining that relationship.

2) As Wuthnow has noted, there is a high dissatisfaction with a spirituality of seeking. A spirituality of seeking that once signaled a freedom to negotiate one’s own relationship with the sacred now seems an unbearable burden. A spirituality of seeking that once capitalized on mountain-top religious experiences now needs to find paths through the valleys as well.

Spiritual practices like daily prayer, meditation, worship, and reading scripture help sustain a relationship in the everyday. The earth doesn’t move all the time, but there is enormous comfort in knowing it’s there. Practices endow ordinary time and familiar places with new meaning.

3) The body figures prominently in religious practices. Practices begin with the one fixed point on a spinning world: the body. There is a move toward spiritual discipline, particularly disciplines that involve the body and can be situated in the heart of everyday life. In the aforementioned course, “Praise, Action, and Agency,” we watched how the requirement to pay attention quickly focused on bodily acts of breathing, touching, moving. Practices inscribe the body, perhaps the final site for a spirituality of dwelling.

4) There is undoubtedly a strain of anti-intellectualism in this renewed attention in practices. Practices seem somehow easier to manage. I worry about a possible prejudice against doctrines in this recent attention to practices, because doctrines norm and aim practices. But I do not want to ignore practices either, because they enact doctrines. A reflexive relationship between doctrine and practice suggests that practices enact doctrines and that doctrines norm practices. In a very real way, doctrines articulate the aforementioned standards of excellence for evaluating practices. Doctrine that is not enacted in practices is disembodied; practices that are not normed by doctrine are empty.

5) Finally, renewed attention in moral theology to character ethics and to narrative gives additional impetus to an interest in practices. Shifting away from a decisionism governed by reason and a focus on quandary ethics, many ethicists are reconsidering character and the role of tutored emotions or “virtuous passions” in the moral life. This suggests reconsideration of the moral significance of the great grey area in which most of us wage our lives—that is, when we are not resolving problems, confronting quandaries, dealing with issues. Practices provide a way of tutoring the emotions and developing character. The simple act of blessing food before a meal creates gratitude as a habit of mind and heart.


At the beginning of The Human Condition Hannah Arendt issues a challenge to “think what we are doing.” She writes at the threshold of the Space Age and the Consumer Society, and she wants people to pause, take stock, take nothing for granted. We stand at a different threshold, an age that is hungry for religious experience.

My recovering Lutheran friend would be spiritual, but not religious. There is a whole culture like that: hungry for spirituality, disdainful of organized religions, and wondering why the spiritual techniques they are stuffing into their lives finally do not satisfy. I want to suggest to my recovering friends of various stripes that the stuff for religious experience lies close at hand. It is embedded in the deeply traditioned and corporate practices. They may be done routinely, taken for granted, but they are dangerous acts, if we could just think what we are doing…

To members of this GTU community Arendt’s challenge means something slightly different. As scholars and students of religion in a broader scholarly universe, we speak with and to the academy. We are well-trained in the language of meaning and morals: we can speak post-modern, cultural studies (“po-mo“, “cult-stud”), the discourses of cultural anthropology, critical theory, and moral philosophy with the best of them.

But we also speak other languages. We are also custodians of the mother tongues of great religious traditions. We know them by head; we also know them by heart. We know their doctrines and moral systems, but we also engage in their practices. That engagement and that alone allows us to speak passionately and persuasively to an age that is hungry for religious experience. What we say and write and practice in here at the GTU offers important nourishment to this deep hunger for religious experience, if we can just think what we are doing.