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How to renew a vocabulary of reverence
(part two)

04.18.04 | 1 Comment

| Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four |

(B) Particular self-formational practices. Classically, this means activities like prayer and fasting, meditation and alms-giving. Different communities teach different methods, with different purposes in mind (say, Sufi dancing, Pietist soup kitchens, or Zen meditation). Other practices are less traditionally religious, if religious at all. Ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre believes that even playing football can be considered a practice, if it is played simply for the joy of the game and for the goal of being a better football player.

The point of self-formational practices is that they shape who we are. In a sense, practice does make perfect. The more we play football, the better at football we are likely to become, the more likely we are to appreciate football for the game that it is, and the more likely to grow in respect for the greats of the game. We might even start seeing life through a “football lens.”

We should ask then if a particular practice will shape us to become who we want to be. Or, if we are looking for new practices, who do we want to become, and what practices support that end. We run into difficult choices when practices we are fond of shape us in way contrary to our deepest values.

Faith communities—no less than other communities—applaud certain sets of practices as good and worthy of our time and attention. But there are also other, more hidden, practices that are also held up (through more subtle means) as good and worthy of practice. But are these hidden practices healthy or not? We would be wise to find out. Hidden practices can exert more power over us from behind the scenes than the most deliberately attended “unhidden” practices. All practices have a way of pre-determining what is said and unsaid, thought and unthought, moreso as we become proficient with them. We must choose our practices with care.

An interesting question, one asked by Foucault, is what practices are we “performing” unaware? For instance, when we step into a doctor’s office, we quickly, perhaps unthinkingly step into the role of a patient and submit to the doctor acting our her role. We could well ask in this instance what the practices of being a good patient are and what power relationship they place us into relative to the practices and role of the doctor.

Evaluative question: What language is used to describe the actual day-to-day goings-on of a particular practice? We should not confine ourselves to examining only the idealized language of master practitioners and instruction guides. What language do rank and file practitioners use? What language are they encouraged and discouraged to use? Is there slang? Inside jokes? Customary insults? How is failure described? What language is used to describe common obstacles and learning stages? What language is used to describe mastery?

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