Queering Spiritual Formation, part 2
FORMATION INTO TRADITIONS OF PRACTICE
Among the key insights of the spiritual formation movement is that, during the upheavals of Reformation and Enlightenment, the Church acquiesced to modes of ethical reasoning that shifted focus from metaphors of vision and virtue, to metaphors of belief and commitment. This went along with the Enlightenment’s focus on freedom from authority. Philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer calls this “the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power.” Conversion became increasingly a matter of assenting and committing to Christian doctrine; disappearing from view was the idea that one might have to be formed a certain way to grasp, let alone live out, the teaching of Christ. This is where Stanely Hauerwas begins in his call for a return to forming disciples into traditions of practice: “For the fundamental mental presumption behind democratic societies is that the consciousness of something called the common citizen is privileged no matter what kind of formation it may or may not have had.”
Discipleship, Hauerwas argues, is less like taking on a belief system, available to any rational person regardless of their historical development, and more like training in apprenticeship to lay brick (or any other skill we would master). Apprenticeship is the means by which “we seek to acquire the intelligence and virtues necessary to become skilled practitioners.” By studying under a master, the apprentice gradually becomes able to know what excellence consists in for their craft, and to distinguish between the best they can do and the best it is possible to do. That is, they learn discernment of virtue. This is a deeply undemocratic process; the “common person” will not only be unable to perform the requisite skills for their craft, but will not at first even recognize what counts as excellence, for “habits of judgment and evaluation rooted in inadequate and corrupt desires, taste, habits, and judgments must be transformed through being initiated into the craft.” This process is not one of learning information, or even practicing alone, but rather being immersed in “a different community with a different set of practices.” This, Hauerwas argues, is a much richer description of discipleship into Christlikeness — apprenticeship under a master, through immersion in a community of practice.
There are a few points we must underscore before we move on to introduce tension into this picture. First, this vision of formation into discernment of excellence is very old, and our “democratic” picture very new. Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrates how ethical theory from early Athens through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and into to the early stages of the Scottish Enlightenment required that one be a member of and formed by a certain polis/ecclesia in order to make rational claims of any kind; without formation, one could not be said to have virtue sufficient to discern the good. That we have lost this conception of ethics is striking and worth consideration. But we also should note the dependence of this theory, as MacIntyre and Hauerwas articulate it, on the presence of a Master to whom we may be apprenticed. While ostensibly this is Jesus, this discipleship will of course have to be mediated through human interpretation and institutions, represented by traditions. Finally, we should note here that in a very important way, on this view ethical claims become relative to communities of practice; not only are the claims of Jesus not binding on “outsiders” because they are not committed, but in a very real way the teaching of Jesus becomes unintelligible to the uninitiated, as apprenticeship is required to become competent in the language employed by the community, language itself shaped by and shaping our moral discernment. Conversion is not a matter of assent and belief, but of acquiring a language, skill, and virtue by submission to a community of practice.
Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum Books, 2012), 273.
Stanley Hauerwas, “The Politics of the Church: How We Lay Bricks and Make Disciples,” in William T. Cavanaugh et al., ed., An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), Kindle Location 8385.
Ibid., Loc. 8455.
Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).
Hauerwas, 8433; cf. James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).