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Dorothy Bass and the Practices of Faith
Stephanie Paulsell

It would be difficult to overestimate Dorothy Bass’s influence on contemporary American Protestant spirituality. Enlarging the focus beyond individual spiritual formation alone, her groundbreaking Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Jossey-Bass, 1997) invited us to consider Christianity’s social practices, the embodied things Christians do with and for one another, over time, in response to God, in order to address human yearnings and needs. Her work opened, and continues to open, new avenues for exploring Christian education and formation, theological education, the relationship between theory and practice, and the family resemblances among religions.

In collaboration with her colleague, Craig Dykstra of Lilly Endowment, Inc., Dorothy led the way in excavating the long history of Christian social practices and asking how we might marshal the resources of that history for contemporary life. Thinking with the work of scholars like Alasdair MacIntyre and Pierre Bourdieu, Dorothy and Craig pondered what the notion of Christian social practices might offer to people longing for “patterns of shared life” that are “richer and deeper than [those] offered by the wider culture” (POF, x). Rather than focusing solely on the cultivation of each individual Christian’s spiritual life, Dorothy and Craig sought to cultivate a richer social life, to think about “what Christian faith has to do with our work, with friendship and marriage, with the way we raise our children, with public and political life, with how we spend our money” (x).

Their method was not a method of application in which they would “apply” the doctrines and truth claims of Christianity to daily social living. They deliberately did not begin their work at either end of the theory/practice divide that has so often stunted modern theological education and scholarship. Indeed, if that divide is not as fiercely defended in this century as it was in the last, we have Dorothy and Craig, in part, to thank. They began instead with the assumption that the histories, theologies, and practices of Christianity have not developed separately, but together, over time. For Dorothy and Craig, Christianity was not just a set of truth claims; it was “an ancient, global and still developing tradition” that bears within it wisdom about what it means to be human, wisdom about ways of living that respond to God’s presence in and for the world.

I was lucky enough to encounter Dorothy and her project on Christian practices at the very beginning of my career. As a post-doctoral Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University, I was assigned Dorothy as my mentor and graciously invited into her work. Dorothy and Craig had recently assembled a group of outstanding scholars—people like M. Shawn Copeland and L. Gregory Jones, Don E. Saliers, and Amy Plantinga Pauw, people whose books I had read and admired—to excavate together some of the social practices that they believed were key to “a way of life that is whole, and touched by the presence of God” (x). This group of scholars had identified patterns of life like hospitality, testimony, keeping Sabbath, forgiveness, dying well, and singing together as Christian practices that addressed fundamental human needs. These well-known theologians, ministers, historians, and educators planned to write a book together, mining the wisdom of Christian practices for how we might live together more justly, more attentively, and more joyfully in our own day.

After the group had met a few times, they decided that they needed a chapter on the practice of “honoring the body.” Although I was not present for those discussions, I can imagine how they went. Every practice the group planned to write about was an embodied practice. Indeed, embodiment was a hallmark of the kind of Christian practice Dorothy and her colleagues sought to describe. Christian social practices are intended to meet embodied human needs: the need for a place to rest and food to eat calls forth practices of hospitality; the desire to exhale one’s breath in praise calls forth the practice of singing; the need for reconciliation between embodied human beings calls forth the practice of forgiveness. The body will be present in every chapter, I can imagine them arguing. Why have a chapter on the body alone?

It is precisely because practices can be done well or badly and possess both the power to heal and the power to harm that the group decided, in the end, to add a chapter on honoring the body to their book. Christianity has an ambiguous legacy with regard to the body: is it a blessing or a site where religious rules are tested? A gift from God or a problem God asks us to solve? A part of the essence of who we are, or a shell, as Plato once put it, within which the soul is trapped? Christian answers to these questions have not always honored the body, and the effects of those answers reverberate through the ages.

Offering me the opportunity of a lifetime, Dorothy invited me to write the chapter on the Christian practice of honoring the body. I remember that I was slow to catch on. “The Christian practice of honoring the body?” I asked. “Is there such a thing?”

“Well,” Dorothy replied, “surely a faith that has creation, incarnation, and resurrection at its heart has some ways of honoring the body.”

Through Dorothy’s generosity, I found myself in one of the most exciting and creative collaborations I have ever experienced. Was there a Christian practice of honoring the body? Certainly. But it was not lying on the surface of Christian history like a stone in road. It was obscured by hierarchical understandings of the human person, by misogyny, by fear of the power of sexual desire. It had to be excavated, sought in unexpected places, argued for. But so did all the practices. All of us, accomplished theologians and novice writers alike, were engaged in work that was both descriptive and creative, both theoretical and practical, both historical and constructive. For specialists trained in particular methodologies and fields, it was not always easy to work at these intersections without choosing one perspective over the other. But refusing to adhere to the theory/practice dichotomy freed us to think more expansively about the relationship of our scholarship to the way we live our lives. And that was thrilling, joyful work. Sitting around the table with those dedicated people, talking about the most ordinary human experiences in the most extraordinary way, I felt the world opening up.

With Practicing Our Faith, Dorothy invited us into an alternative scholarly space within which we were encouraged to ask why what we studied mattered to us and why it might matter to others. Dorothy and Craig did not regard theoretical scholarship as somehow distant from practical questions of human living, and they led us through key philosophical, theological, and sociological works that would open our imaginations and shift our thinking. Nor did they regard questions about fundamental human needs and desires as belonging to the realm of the “practical” alone; instead, they urged us to theorize from the stuff of our own lives and the lives of others. Nor did they hold back their own human longings and frustrations, their questions about how to live life with integrity, questions we all worried over, questions that inspired our work. They aspired to help themselves and their readers to cultivate “a way of life that is informed by the wisdom of the Christian tradition, alert to the needs of our time, and responsive to the gracious presence and startling promises of God” (12). This ambitious goal required every resource they could get their hands on.

For scholars accustomed to working within a particular field and its methodologies, the work into which Dorothy invited us was both challenging and liberating. It required us not only to study and try to understand the long history of Christian practices, but to see ourselves as actors within that history, receiving the wisdom contained in those practices from our ancestors, trying to make that wisdom come alive in our own lives and the lives of our families and communities, and developing ways of passing it on.

If the way of thinking and writing Dorothy commended was inviting, the way of being religious her project imagined was even more so. I can remember Sharon Parks helping me with my essay by saying: “Offer your readers one small, doable step to take that will make it possible for them to take the next step.” This was the spirit of Practicing Our Faith. “You join by jumping in where you are” (7), Dorothy and Craig wrote in their introduction. “Start where you can” (10). The whole spectrum of Christian practices did not have to be embraced before you could get started. Did the practice of forgiveness seem out of reach? Don’t start there, then. Start with something that feels doable. Do you like to sing? Lift your voice in song with a congregation once a week. Are you concerned about the crisis of hospitality in our society and perhaps in your own life? Choose a small way of making a beginning: invite a friend for a simple supper at your table or help serve a meal in a soup kitchen. Feeling like work has taken over your life? Refrain with a few others from working and spending for one day a week and see what happens. The practices are web-like, Dorothy insisted. Begin with a song or a meal or a rest and eventually you will come around to the practice of forgiveness. Every practice leads to every other. But rather than moving through developmental stages in a linear fashion, the practices invite us to start anywhere and branch out from there in any direction. They have an experimental, improvisational quality. What they will mean in our lives and the lives of our communities cannot be predicted in advance. We have to practice them in order to find out.

Sabbath keeping was the practice Dorothy explored for Practicing Our Faith and for Receiving the Day, her book-length treatment of Christian practices that involve the structuring of time. She began to be drawn to this practice when she noticed how easily she and her friends trespassed the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy through refraining from work. They regularly complained to each other—the academic’s time-honored form of bragging—about how much work they would have to bring home over the weekend, how much of their Sundays would be taken up by grading papers and preparing lectures.

As Dorothy began experimenting with refraining from work one day a week, she found that Sabbath keeping not only offered rest for the overworked; she found that keeping the Sabbath holy illuminated God’s most radical claims on our life together. The practice of Sabbath keeping teaches us that only free people can take a day off. Therefore, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is God’s enduring testimony against slavery. Keeping Sabbath is deeply intertwined with the practice of saying “yes” and saying “no”: yes to giving oneself to joyful worship and fellowship, no to our capitalist economy’s pressure to make and spend. Keeping Sabbath reminds us that the arrangement of time is political: “how time is structured,” Dorothy notes, “makes someone’s life easier and someone’s harder” (83). Good Sabbaths have the potential to do more than make good Christians, Dorothy concluded. Good Sabbaths have the potential to make good societies, in which no one has too much work and no one has too little.  This weekly festival, this “spring of souls” (87) makes a claim on us that goes far beyond the boundaries of our own lives.

Dorothy’s work on Christian practices has had far-reaching consequences, not only for Christian spirituality but also for theological education. The vision she offers in Practicing Our Faith gives students preparing for ministry an integrated way of approaching their studies in both the classroom and the field, and it offers faculty an integrated way of thinking about their own classes and the theological curriculum as a whole. Practices provide a point of intersection between what has often been divided into the “practical” and the “theoretical,” illuminating how theology, history, belief, and the embodied acts of human beings and their communities all impinge on one another, shaping and critiquing and extending one another.

The future of Dorothy’s work in Christian practices may lie in multi-religious theological education, interreligious dialogue, and comparative theological scholarship. A focus on practices illuminates the family resemblances among religions, as Dorothy’s own work on Sabbath keeping so beautifully shows. Practices emerge in response to deeply felt human needs, needs we all share by virtue of being human. What would a list of core social practices look like for Islam, for Judaism, for Buddhism? Where would each list overlap with the list in Practicing Our Faith and the lists emerging from other traditions? Where would the lists diverge? Where are the family resemblances among different religions’ social practices most vivid and where are they most obscure? What do we learn from the differences and similarities about how to shape a rich and flourishing life together?

At the end of the twentieth century, Dorothy Bass invited us to jump in where we are, to experiment with the practices that address our yearnings for a meaningful life together, a life in which there is room for us to offer and receive hospitality, to work and to rest, to praise and lament, to respond to the needs of others, to cherish and protect creation, and to grow in our awareness of the living presence of God. Nearly twenty years later, as we move deeper into another century, the needs Dorothy’s work addressed are as urgent as ever, and the work Dorothy has done and invited others to do continues to hold out the possibility that we can practice our way into patterns of living that are good for us and for the world.

 

Stephanie Paulsell is the Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

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