Thursday, June 26, 2008

Faith as a Way of Life

Well, I finished another book this morning that wasn't on this list: Christian Scharen's Faith as a Way of Life. Originating out of Yale's Center for Faith and Culture and funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.'s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program (Covenant Seminary also participates in this program), this book could serve as a summary report of Yale's SPE project. At the heart of the project and book is the conviction that pastoral excellence is "the ability effectively to mediate faith as an integral way of life to persons, communities, and cultures" (ix).

Scharen observes, however, that there are two major cultural obstacles that prevent such a vision of pastoral excellence: North Americans' commitment to compartmentalized and self-maximized lives. Even Christians allow their lives to devolve into separate spheres with religion serving as one of several; in response, pastoral leaders often serve as religious managers, assisting people manage that particular sphere without demanding any changes in others. And even Christians allow their focus to be on their own individualized success and comfort; in response, pastoral leaders often serve as therapists, providing unconditional love without necessary change. The obvious problem with these pastoral responses is that they reinforce cultural barriers to taking faith seriously as an integral and integrated way of life.

In order to model how faith can serve as an integral way of life, Scharen moves to four spheres that are often cordoned off from faith: kinship and family; work and economics; citizenship and government; and leisure and the arts. Through a process of theological reflection, Scharen offered particular practices that could serve as pastoral strategies as well as pastoral models that could stimulate pastoral imagination for the integration of a faithful way of life. The book concludes with a thoughtful reflection on pastoral leadership itself as a modeling of a faithful way of life, one that is drawn into God's own life and scattered into the world.

There was a great deal here which was helpful: gracefully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, intellectually-grounded and yet accessible. However, since I'm also reading (another book not on my first list!) Andrew Purves' Reconstructing Pastoral Theology (a more complex and detailed version of his Crucifixion of Ministry), I was struck by how theologically thin this book felt at times.

For example, in each of the four spheres, Scharen offered discrete practices (table fellowship; testimony, communal discernment, making music), all of which may be pastorally appropriate. And yet, I wondered several things--how do these particular practices find their grounding in and flow from rich theological traditions? How do they reinforce a particular view of the world? What stories make sense of these practices over others--why these practices?

As with a great deal of the literature over the past ten years that emphasize practices or rituals (ranging from Dorothy Bass to Catherine Bell), there is almost a misbegotten faith that if we can simply inculcate practices that we will form people in appropriately spiritual ways. My contention is that practices divorced from a grounding in a thick theological tradition--a vision of who God is and who humans are, of sin and redemption, of things past and things to come--will not sustain people in the faith for the long haul. Rather, all they can produce is religious nominalism, which is a far cry from religious or pastoral excellence.

In this regard, I still think that Neal Plantinga's Engaging God's World serves as a model. Rooted in the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption-consummation, the practice of Christian vocation in this world has texture--we are living in this time between times as hope-filled signs of the new creation; we are participating in God's reconciling the world to himself; and we work under Christ's Lordship knowing that we are pleasing to him. That is not to say that the book I wished Scharen had written already existed; it is to say, however, that it would have been good to root pastoral excellence in a larger theological framework that would have made sense of the practices he chose.

In the end, I was glad to have read the book. As I said, it was well-written and very thought-provoking (more so than my 4th-grader's baseball game last night). In pointing to the goal--pastoral direction which assists Christians in living faithfully integral lives--Scharen has served us well.

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