The Extent, and Limits, of Practice

The Extent, and Limits, of Practice May 5, 2010

“Practice” is all the rage in my field, practical theology, these days.  There are books and books about it (hell, I’ve even written books and books about it), and there’s a powerful group of practical theologians who gather regularly under the auspices of the Lilly Endowment to talk about.  Craig Dykstra, VP for Religion at Lilly, is the convener of said group, and he’s written about his angle on practices, which is roughly in line with Alaisdair MacIntyre‘s recover of Aristotelian “virtue ethics” (think Hauerwasian Mafia).  What I’m saying is, this version of practice study is both well-loved and well-funded in practical theology.

Famously, MacIntyre describes a practice as,

Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which the goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.[1]

I am struggling with MacIntyre and the concept of practice in chapter three of my dissertation.  It’s through practices that I’m trying to get my arms around what is distinctive about the eight congregations that make up the core of my study, from which I will be attempting to make some general ecclesiological claims about the emerging church movement at large.  And practices do offer insights into these churches, and the movement.  But the study of practices can be limiting, and I’m grappling with that as well.

For one, I’m looking to Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of habitus, which inherently challenges MacIntyrian practice,

Systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations needed in order to attain them.  Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor.[2]

But, in order to find an even deeper critique of practice, over the next couple of days I’ll be reading some Kierkegaard (recommended by Andy Root) and some Nicholas Healy (recommended by Chris Scharen) — the dudes at Luther Sem are coming through for me!

PS: Be sure and check out Andy‘s and Chris‘s books.

[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 187.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990), 53.

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  • tom c.

    Hi Tony, I’m afraid I don’t know my Bourdieu, so what I am going to write may not touch on your particular interpretive concern at all. So far, I don’t see the inherent conflict with the Bourdieu and MacIntyre quotations. I wonder if the “system of structures” Bourdieu refers to are the ways in which human life is organized and routinized through social institutions; we might call this practice(1): what we do which is due to enculturation or socialization.

    If I am reading the MacIntyre quotation correctly, it sounds like he is saying that every collaborative human activity has an aim, good, or excellence it aims at; one imagines this telos (if you will) might be unknown or unconscious or so obvious it is hard to clearly describe. It might even require careful inquiry to identify that end of collaborative activity. After doing the hard work of reflecting on practice(1), one might attempt periodically to intentionally form a collaborative activity towards a particular desired end (practice(2)); maybe this is what liturgy is.

    Just my two cents over morning coffee…I could be out of my element here…

  • You might find this article that just recently came out interesting:

    It’s a response to Willimon’s article in which he does a little redefining of the word practice as it was used/interpreted in his book with Hauerwas, Resident Aliens.

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  • Macintyre’s definition is a 67 word sentence and Bourdieu’s definition has a 52 word sentence.

    Go with Bourdieu.

  • Tom C.,

    Good read. The two are not incommensurate, but they come from different perspectives. MacIntyre assumes much more personal agency on the part of the individual and the collective, while Bourdieu leans more toward post-structuralism (we’re trapped in structures that dictate our behavior). In the end, a theory of practice can be developed that combines the two, and that’s pretty much where I’ll land in my dissertation.

  • John M., Thanks. I’d seen Willimon’s article, but not Smith’s retort.

    John M. (2), Good Point.

  • Sarah

    Like what Tom C mentioned, above.
    Practices – ways of engaging in learning and experiencing faith – matter to me. I come at learning thru the lense of Gardner’s multiple intelligences (informed by other theories as well). I tend to lean on Dykstra’s definitiion which as you mention leans on MacIntyre, from Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), introduction and chapters 2-5 in particular. Dykstra describes “practices” as ways of embodying and thinking about “patterns of shared life in and through which Christian people experience and help one another to receive God’s real, but still mysterious grace.” These patterns of activities within communities of faith create an environment “in which people may come to faith and grow in life in Christ.”

  • hey tony,

    i would love to see this combination. sounds very interesting. I still need to read more of B.

    but you better get that diss. finished. I’m about to start mine, and I remember a couple years ago declaring that I would finish before you (somewhat jokingly, but maybe not now…)


  • carla jo

    The more compelling question to my mind is this: Did you have to look up the MacIntyre quote or do you still have it memorized?

    Also, the concept of a practice, for AM at least, is only useful as it pertains to the virtues developed by that practice. So perhaps it’s helpful to look at the virtues developed–or at least aimed for–by the practices of these communities.

    It seems to me that this is where emergent communities find themselves moving in a truly different direction than other churches. They have a different end in mind, a different set of virtues in their sights. Problems arise because those virtues (and the standards by which we judge both “excellence” and “goods internal”) are hard to quantify.

  • i like diana butler bass def. she says that practices are too difficult to define.

    whoa i thought, but then … this is formation, the human engaging the divine!