to the Practice of Christian Faith and Life
“How can, and how do, our lives and our life together participate in a way of life that reflects the Life of God, both when we are gathered as church and when we are dispersed into countless disparate circumstances? What is the shape of a contemporary way of life that truly is life-giving in and for the sake of the world? And how can the church foster such a way of life, for the good of all creation?”
“Ways of Life Abundant”
Dorothy Bass poses these three questions early on in her marvelous essay, “Ways of Life Abundant,” which launches the book she and I edited together, For Life Abundant. They are rich and wonderful questions. They are life-shaping questions. They are questions that, when pursued deeply and well, can indeed lead us into lives that matter, lives of profound depth and meaning, lives of gracious and effective service, lives of true faith. And they are the questions that have framed and shaped the substance of Dorothy’s life and work.
Dorothy has not only posed these questions. She has lived them. And in her living, she has opened up ways to enable thousands of others to live them too. She is an exquisitely lucid and compelling writer and a superb editor. She is an extraordinary teacher. As a mentor, she is beloved, especially by young scholar-teachers and pastors who are finding their way into their vocations. And over the years, she has created and gathered with consummate hospitality communities of thought and practice whom she has enabled to explore what it means to live the Christian life faithfully and well. In and through her own faithful life and presence, Dorothy has fostered and guided thousands of individual persons and whole communities of faith throughout this country as they have sought to live a way of life together that truly is life-giving, in response to the love of God, for the sake of the world.
The three big questions Dorothy has posed cannot be answered in the abstract. They can only be answered in the context of practice, by practicing the life of faith together, over time, in community with specific people, in specific places, times and circumstances. It is a mark of the integrity with which Dorothy has undertaken her work and lived her life that she has lived that way while helping so many to do so as well.
I have known and worked closely with Dorothy for twenty-five years. We have enjoyed a wonderful collaboration and a valued friendship. It all began shortly after I arrived at the Lilly Endowment. Dorothy had long been a key advisor to my predecessor, Robert Wood Lynn. As a consultant, she helped him in myriad ways to shape and conduct the Religion Division’s grant-making program. She knew the players and the programs, and she understood how the Endowment worked. I, on the other hand, was new to the scene, so Dorothy was a godsend. In the early days, she was extraordinarily helpful in guiding me through and helping me to advance the many projects the Endowment was funding, particularly in the areas of congregational studies and the study of American Mainline Protestantism, work in which, as an historian, she was an active scholarly participant. Early on we recognized that we also shared a deep common interest in the fundamental question of how the church historically has and, more urgently, can today enable people to enter into and be educated and formed in the life of Christian faith. Thus began between us a sustained conversation that continues still today and through which we have found with one another an intellectual and vocational kinship.
Our conversations soon gave rise to the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. Launched in 1990, it is just now coming to completion. The Project was created in the first place to take up and explore in great depth the three questions quoted at the beginning of these reflections. The whole body of work has been grounded in a few basic convictions that are expressed in the titles of two of the key books that emerged from the Project.
The title of one of them, For Life Abundant, states the point and purpose of the whole enterprise. It identifies a telos that is rooted in a core theological conviction; namely, that the great good news is that God is love and the giver of life. The gift of life is given by God in creation and is restored and renewed for all humanity in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. “In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” and through the Word “all things came into being.” And “what has come into being through him was life” (John 1:1–4). “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” says Jesus (John 10:10). The testimony of all of Scripture and of the whole history of the church is that there truly is a way of life; indeed, a way of life abundant. The call to each of us—as persons and as communities of faith—is to recognize and receive that gift, to respond to it gratefully, and to share and participate in that way of life with everyone, so that, as the Apostle Paul says, they (and we) may “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19). That, we believe, is our most fundamental privilege and vocation as human beings, for each of us personally and for all of us together in community with one another. Hence, “For Life Abundant.”
The title of the other key book is Practicing Our Faith. This phrase signals the conviction that we live into and participate in the way of life abundant that God both promises and provides by practicing it. The word “practicing” here has at least two meanings. We “practice” in the sense of trying it out, learning how to do it, becoming more competent in it as our practicing makes us more skilled and thoughtful in what we are doing. We also “practice” in the sense that we become practitioners, often of something that becomes so central to our lives that it shapes the very core of our personal identity and vocation.
Further, Christian practices are necessarily communal practices. We practice our faith, a shared faith, not just an individual faith. As Dorothy has written, “This after all is a basic tenet of Christian faith and life: through Christ, we belong to God and become brothers and sisters to one another, sharing Christ’s love for all people. Christians know we are not made to be alone” (Dykstra and Bass 2010, 4–5). Thus “Christian practices” are described in Practicing Our Faith as “things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world” (Ibid., 5).
Over the centuries and around the world still today, tremendously diverse Christian communities have discerned, explored the contours of, and practiced certain fundamental practices that are constitutive of that abundant way of life. In so doing, the church, in spite of and partly through its often flawed and stumbling efforts, has gathered wisdom and skill that is of inestimable value to us today. The task for us as educators in faith—as pastors and teachers, guides and companions—is to discern and assess the shape of our contemporary practice of faith, draw as deeply as possible on the deep veins of wisdom of our tradition (as well as from our contemporaries across the street and around the world) and engage ourselves, our children, our young people, and our neighbors in communities of wise, shared practice of a way of life abundant.
Practicing Our Faith is an effort to help in that regard. It describes twelve Christian practices that are fundamental to and constitutive of a Christian way of life abundant. The book contains a chapter on each of them, and you can glean from these essays good, strong clues about where the tradition’s wisdom may be found, what its practice has been, and what it will mean to engage in each practice in our time and circumstances. But it is Dorothy’s own book, Receiving the Day (2000), that set the standard and created the template for rendering a practice in breadth and in depth, and doing so in such a way that the best, deep wisdom and practice available in the faith tradition can be appropriated afresh in our own contemporary cultural and social circumstances.
Building on that early work, Dorothy and her colleagues in The Valparaiso Project then set out to produce what has become a vast array of resources to help communities of faith do exactly this.1 Many of those resources have been produced by communities of Christian practice. A community of scholars and pastors wrote Practicing Our Faith. A group of teachers and pastors created a community of Christian practice with their own adolescent offspring and with other young people to whom they were close, and Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens (Bass and Richter 2002) was composed by that community. Dorothy’s three chapters in that book were written with her then-fifteen-year-old daughter and son, Martha and John. A community of young adult theologians and pastors put together On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life (Bass and Briehl 2010), which seeks to encourage and help other young adults embrace a way of life abundant.
In every case, these were not just groups of authors. They were communities of faith who gathered over extended periods of time to worship, read, study, share one another’s stories and life experience and practice their faith together in a way that enabled them to speak, write, teach and help faithfully and authentically. In addition, more than 150 grants were made to help a wide variety of specific existing communities of faith (including congregations, colleges and universities, church camps, retreat and conference centers, intentional-living communities, and social service agencies) use the Project’s published resources to reflect on and experiment with new ways of building up and reinvigorating Christian practices that are central to their own identities and ministries.2
For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry builds on all the previous work on Christian practices, but then asks what all this means for theological education and Christian ministry. To that end, a community of theological educators and pastors of congregations was brought into being to explore these matters together in relation to their own lives and ministries. Meeting over the course of nearly five years, this community of pastors and theological educators hammered out fresh understandings of the ultimate and shared aims and purposes of theological education and Christian ministry. It proposed and fostered ways to overcome some of the disciplinary isolation among various fields and departments that plagues theological schools. It incubated new experiments in theological teaching that involve scholars and pastors working together. Several new PhD programs have come into being in the last decade or so. These, together with other programs that have been significantly reconceived, are playing crucial roles in educating the next generation of theological educators. Both the fundamental purposes and the pedagogical shape of these doctoral programs have been heavily influenced by For Life Abundant, and a number of the members of the community that wrote this book have played crucial roles in shaping and leading them. As a result, and aided and abetted by Dorothy’s own continuing efforts, the community continues to expand and now involves an increasing number of theological seminaries and a whole new generation of theological educators and pastoral leaders.
Dorothy Bass lives a way of life that truly is life-giving. This is her astonishing gift to all of us. She embodies so profoundly in her way of living and working the practice of Christian faith that new and expanded communities of faith have come into being and long-standing ones are significantly refreshed and renewed. She has helped us to see more clearly how our lives and our life together can participate in a way of life that reflects the presence of God. And she has helped us to learn how the church in all its parts can more faithfully foster such a way of life for the good of all creation. For all of this, we are deeply grateful.
Craig Dykstra is Research Professor of Practical Theology and Senior Fellow at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.
1. These resources include five other books that provide in-depth descriptions of the practices described in Practicing Our Faith. Other books explore how multiple practices intersect in the life of particular contexts and communities of faith. Still others take on broader issues regarding education and formation in faith, and Christian faith and life. You can find these books and many other resources, including study guides, course syllabi, and individual articles, essays and public presentations, at the Project’s website: practicingourfaith.org.
2. Extensive reports on each of these grant projects are available at the website under “Resources.”
Bass, Dorothy C. “Ways of Life Abundant.” In For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
_____. Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Bass, Dorothy C. and Susan R. Briehl, eds. On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010.
Bass, Dorothy C. and Don C. Richter, eds. Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2002.
Dykstra, Craig and Dorothy C. Bass. “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith.” In Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, second edition. Dorothy C. Bass, ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.