Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning
240 pp., 22.00
Jesse Covington, Maurice Lee, Sarah L. Skripsky, and Lesa Stern
Habits of the Heart & Mind
All of this will certainly be familiar to readers of Books & Culture. So what exactly is the point? Are we complaining that the authors of TCP should have articulated more explicitly the distinctively Christian—the Trinitarian, ecclesial, and eschatological—nature of the practices they depict and commend? Not necessarily. Perhaps such articulation is adequately reserved to separate, more "theoretical" treatments such as the very fine chapter by Paul J. Griffiths, "From Curiosity to Studiousness." And, of course, simply stating the Christian content of the practices in question risks the unbalanced privileging of the cognitive that an attention to practices is meant to resist. The "Christianness" of Christian practices is to be not only understood and told, but also lived. But in whatever mode, it would be worth asking and answering, more deeply and more positively—assuming agreement with TCP's high estimation of the role of practices in forming faithful people—what makes Christian practices Christian. The authors' students, their colleagues (including readers), and their churches would benefit.
How Do People Change?
By focusing on the formative role of behaviors, the authors of TCP evoke Aristotle's well-known account of habituated virtue: "[S]tates of character arise out of like activities …. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another …; it makes … all the difference" (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1). Here, Aristotle appears at odds with the New Testament's heart-centered model of the human person. "Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit," Jesus says. "For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of" (Matt. 12:33-34, NIV). Can Jesus' words be reconciled with Aristotle's? In TCP (just as in Desiring the Kingdom), readers are confronted with the neo-orthodox challenge of Smith and others: can't behavioral fruit produce changes in the tree itself? The praxis-oriented re-visioning of education in TCP requires exploring the extent to which people change from the inside out (renewed cognitions and hearts which then bear fruit in action), and the extent to which they change from the outside in (modified actions producing reformed hearts and cognitions). TCP's authors treat this puzzle in largely constructive and encouraging ways. Indeed, many of the chapters resist dichotomies that give absolute priority to interiority or exteriority, instead offering (or assuming) a more complex interrelation of the two.
One feature of interiority that is central to education is cognition. Are humans creatures for whom thoughts lead and behaviors follow, or do cognitions follow our practices? Perhaps retreating from the linearity of his claim in Desiring the Kingdom that "we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down," in TCP Jamie Smith apparently rejects a practice-reflection dichotomy. While other accounts in TCP seem to make similar assumptions, DeYoung offers explicit elaboration: "So we need practices, and we need reflection on practices. Practices enhance and expand our reflection, and reflection enriches and sustains our practices."
A second aspect of interiority that is central to a Christian understanding of education and formation is the regenerative and sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit. The editors touch on this point in their introduction, and David Smith's concluding chapter helpfully recognizes that practices are not decisively causal for students' formation—Christian practices offer no guarantees of success. Likewise, DeYoung resists any mechanistic construal of habituation, firmly relying on divine participation rather than human efforts. Moreover, Griffiths observes that the formative nature of liturgy is most active in the corporate worship of the church, emphasizing its dependence on God as initiator and primary teacher. While some of TCP's authors are less explicit about God's role in formative change, what they propose and assume throughout is certainly more theological than Aristotle's account of habituation.