October 25, 2020

A Thought for a Snowy Day

snowy day small

As I sit at home today watching the snow fall outside the window and anticipating the coldest temperatures we have seen around here for decades, I came across this thought that I consider worth contemplating.

The reduction of faith to practice has not enriched faith; it has impoverished it. It has let practice itself become a matter of law and compulsion.

– Juergen Moltmann



  1. When we left our service this morning I told my wife on the ride home how conflicted I feel about the kind of message we just heard. New Year…be more committed to prayer, tithing, reading and meditation, on and on. All stuff that will “deepen our relationship with God” in the coming year. Your quote by Moltmann nails it on the head.

    • I agree with you on one hand, but disagree on another. “Be more committed”…yes, I think that would rub me the wrong way, too. It’s a push from the pulpit that sounds quite self-servihg.

      But…but…aren’t there things you and I can practice that will help shore up our faith for those times when really tough things come our way? Don’t you think Jesus handled his obedient walk to the cross because he had practiced and practiced and knew His Father’s will better than if had he NOT practiced? I told some folks even today, don’t you think his facing the temptations in the desert helped prepare him for the crucifixion, so that he could say “No” to the temptation of calling down legions of angels to save him?

      So I’m really struggling with Moltmann’s premise, as much as I like it from a human/sinner’s perspective.

  2. Christiane says

    sometimes ‘sin’ is what we haven’t done . . .
    I read the phrase and I thought about the old argument against ‘works’ . . . that ‘faith’ stood on its own

    I don’t know if the phrase is some variant of that thinking, or if perhaps
    it describes the way the Priest and the Levite both walked past the injured man by the side of the road, having seen him and yet crossing over to the other side of the road on their way . . . was that their idea of ‘keeping the Sabbath holy’?

    I suppose I will always see ‘faith’ and ‘acts of love’ as rooted in one another. As far as ‘deepening our relationship with God’, sometimes God puts people in our path who need our kindness and if we walk by the person thinking that ‘works’ are not important, we have somehow failed to love . . . the idea of an action involving love for the sake of another person as a ‘work’, that I have trouble with . . . why? because we are CALLED to love others, and sometimes that involves ‘doing something’ to help them, even if it is the gift of listening . . .

    the phrase under consideration may mean to avoid ‘legalism’ and my goodness, we can all understand that . . .
    I think the worst ‘legalism’ out there is when people of faith decide that they are above others and look down on others and point the finger . . . they call it ‘truth in love’ but it isn’t ‘love’ at all, is it ? . . . if there was ‘love’ there, they would have come along side and not felt ‘superior’ to the point of exclusion of the ‘other’ from their circles

    did I come anywhere near understanding that phrase? I don’t know . . . but it stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder about something St. Augustine said, this:
    “Let love be rooted in you, and from that root only good can come.” (it has to do with something mysterious Augustine has said: ‘love, and do what you will’

    reflections (no snow here, but that picture is BEAUTIFUL)

  3. This is very similar to something that was the basis for a talk at a recent tech conference I was at.

    “Don’t let habits become decisions.”

    Church should not be about % of Sundays attended per year, % of income given to said church, days worked in the nursery, etc…

  4. It would be nice if faith was reflected in practice that was always a matter of freedom and love; but that’s a very high standard, which itself easily becomes a matter of law and compulsion. And on the other hand, there is a certain amount of liberty, and even freedom and love, that can be found in soberly, and faithfully, undertaking a practice.

    • But faithfully undertaking something is not compulsion, at least, not as I understand it…

      • I agree that faithfulness in practice does not involve compulsion. And I do now see, as CM’s comment indicates below, that Moltmann is talking about reducing faith to practice. So I agree. When faith is reduced to practice, it is really being equated with performance, and that would naturally lead to compulsion and law. In fact, faith cannot truthfully be reduced to practice, because it is not performance.

        • Exactly. I lived under the soul-crushing weight of that for far too long, and kinda got what he’s talking about right away.

          My educated guess is that Moltmann is Lutheran, though I could be wrong.

          I think evangelicals are sold a diet of practice and performance and very little else. The 1st time I heard anyone talk about God’s love for me in who knows how many decades and *mean* it was/is Lutheran. Long story, for another venue, really…

        • “The flock is starving for Metaphysics, having been fed a steady diet of Morality since before anyone can remember.”

          Charles Williams

          • I like it, Mule. Thanks.

          • Belated Merry Christmas, Mule. Or do Orthodox celebrate Christmas on Jan 7, as a Bosnian co-worker told me today?

          • Robert, all Orthodox celebrate Christmas on 25 December. Most Orthodox follow the Julian calendar, now 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, and so 7 January for everyone else. (It’s a long and somewhat unpleasant story… you can look it up on Wikipedia if you really must know…) We all sync up for pre-Lent, Lent and Pascha, so usually early February to 29 June (St Peter & Paul feast) – quite a chunk of the year. For the first 300 years of Christianity, Jesus’ birth and baptism were celebrated the same day, 6 January – Christmas split off in the 4th century as a “separate” feast, but the 2 are still very much linked as a “season.” Actually, Theophany is a “bigger” feast than Christmas.


          • Thank you, Dana. Merry Christmas.

          • ? ??????????

            Today is Julian Calendar Christmas, as celebrated by the Russian, Serbian, Georgian, Palestinian, and all non-Chalcedonian Orthodox.

            I am a New Calendar crypto-papist myself, nevertheless, I’d love to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to celebrate Old Christmas with them, and see Old Buck.

            George Washington, Samuel Johnson, and Johann Sebastian Bach were born under the Julian Calendar. We aren’t six generations away from it in Protestant countries.

            And yes, Theophany is a bigger feast than the Nativity, and “Christmastide” continues until the Presentation in the Temple on Candlemas (Feb 2) at which time its usually time to start preparing for Lent.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Julian Calendar Christmas comes right after Gregorian Calendar Twelfth Night. If you’re both Western and Eastern Rite, you could double up and make Christmas season a 24-day party.

          • @Mule….sadly we had to leave Rodanthe and Cape Hatteras too early last weekend to catch the festivities, but the decorating and lights were going on full swing at the community center when we left at nine am!!

  5. While I like Moltmann’s premise from a broken-sinner/wobbly-Christian perspective, I’m not sure I can make the leap he makes regarding “practice.” Did Jesus not practice his faith as he lived in this world? Did the disciples not practice their faith when they were with Him? Are we to assume that faith will just come to us when we need it, without any spiritual discipline to help shore it up?

    To use a sports analogy, I think we need to practice fielding as many grounders as we can so that when the really tough grounder comes our way, we might be better prepared to handle it. Jesus didn’t handle the tough aspects of his obedient walk just through blind faith; I think he practiced and practiced a lot.

    Practice, impoverishing faith? I just can’t agree.

    • Reducing faith to practice — that’s the key phrase.

      • Thanks for highlighting that, CM. I’ve been studying “discipline” and the “practicing of our faith” lately and read more negativity into Moltmann’s statement than was there. Yes, the reduction of faith to discipline and practice can lead to legalism and unhealthy religiosity. (So I guess he’s not suggesting discipline and practice should be thrown out, just moderated.)

  6. Great quote; I don’t see Moltmann discouraging practice, and think he’s got the “compulsion” aspect down. Been there, done that, have the scars to prove it.

  7. David Cornwell says

    Reducing faith to practice is a trap into which liberalism has fallen. And also much of much of post liberal conservatism. And the reduction to “practice” is very similar.

    • Yes, David. The liberal version is sometimes called orthopraxy, which was connected with Liberation Theology.

      But I wonder sometimes, David, if someone you often reference, and whom I have admired, Stanley Hauerwas, doesn’t sometimes give an interpretation of faith that tends to reduce it to practice…

      • David Cornwell says

        Robert, this can become very confusing. Which brings up the vocabulary we are using and preciseness in definition of terms. We all come from a different place, and now find ourselves in a different place, so the terms we use can mean one thing to me, and something else to another.

        And so we get back to the phrase that was originally used “reducing faith to practice.” I suppose each of these words would have to have a shared meaning in order to properly discuss it.

        Yes I do admire Hauerwas for many of his writings and the positions he takes on various issues. I do not think he “reduces faith to practice.” He has a high Christology, and based on that a theology of the cross and resurrection from which his faith proceeds.

        I hopefully will balance my admiration for him out through continued study of other positions as the year wears on.

        I also admire John Howard Yoder, Alasdair MacIntyre, Hans Frei, David Bentley Hart, John Milbank, Sam Wells, Karl Barth, and N. T. Wright. (and others) I admire them because of their contributions, intelligence, and sometimes radical faith. This year I’m going to do as much reading as possible and maybe when the year is over my understanding will be more balanced. In the meantime I probably should refrain from writing things that get me trouble!

        • What would be the fun in never writing anything that got you into trouble? A little trouble thickens the soup.

          I like your list of theologians, not least of all because, if it were possible to get them all into a room together talking theology, there would be an enormously divergent array of viewpoints, and probably a little trouble, too…

          • David Cornwell says

            That’s one thing that I like about Hauerwas. He does not mind controversy in the least. And the thing is he is able to remain friends with most of those who disagree with him. He has lost one or two friendships because of his stand on war.

            And he is very hard on the Church of our era.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >Reducing faith to practice is a trap into which liberalism has fallen

      Really?!?!?! Because I see it entirely the way around – the Conservatives are all about practice. What is more a performance than Evangelicalism; a sect almost devoid of an impetus for self-reflection.

      In the Liberal church I do not see much practice, or anything consistent at all, unless you are reducing the entire experience to the church service. I am often, quietly and respectfully, baffled by why the very few “Liberals” I know bother with the little they bother about. Most Liberals I’ve known have by now outted as either atheists or agnostics, some of the angry kind – at lest from my limited circle the Traditional Liberal seems like a dying breed.

      • My take is that progressives and conservatives both fall into this trap, but emphasize different “practices.”

        Conservatives tend to emphasize personal piety and holiness, while progressives stress social justice.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Progressives tend towards a Social Gospel without Personal Salvation, Conservatives tend towards a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Both are out-of-balance.

          “A fanatic is someone who has one piece of a pie and thinks he has the whole pie.”
          — Pope John Paul II

      • Really? You see nothing good in the Liberal tradition? Well, I’m no longer a Christian, but I have kept the friends I made at Grace Episcopal (it was a last stop in Christianity for me, I was a Catholic for a very long time). Today, the vicar (a realy nice woman I’ve always called Fr. Shawn as a matter of habit) is opening her church to the homeless who would normally stay at the library (it’s closed today) for the warmth. She has also contacted emergency services in the suburb she lives in to let them know. Some of her parishioners are rousting themselves from comfortable homes to be there and provide food and such.

        This church along with 6 other religious institutions provides a homeless shelter once a week Part of that involves watching over the homeless, providing them dinner, breakfast and box lunches, etc.

        These are people moved to act not just out of common humanity, but also out of the fact that they honestly perceive the image of Christ in every person. They truly believe that whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.

        Surely that is an aspect of Christianity that unites both conservatives and liberals.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Really? You see nothing good in the Liberal tradition?

          Over-interpret much?

          My point is I just do not understand Christianity minus personal salvation; if that is a minimal emphasis than the entire enterprise seems quite aimless. And the Liberals I do know – the topic seems awkward, and they rarely bring up religion as a motivation for their actions.

          I also simply do not see the connection of Social Justice to “Liberal Christianity”. Apparently many do, at least on this site. Emphasizing Social Justice is a meme of Citizenship and just a Decent-Human-Being thing. I know *many* Nones and Atheists who emphasize Social Justice. Evangelicals are uniquely conspicuous in their antipathy to traditional Social Justice issues; that does not automatically make the inverse correlation true by contrast.

          A generally higher level of activism from Liberals – is that a result of their brand of Christianity or a result of being much less ghettoized?

          I know only a few Liberals [I know more ex-Liberals]. They are beautiful people and I respect their tradition. I (a) admitted I don’t get it and (b) do not see the meme correlation that Evangelicals often refer to.

          • Opening a warming center to literally keep people from freezing to death is not social justice. It’s a corporal act of mercy. Social justice is asking the question why do we have people in danger of freezing to death and what can we the people do about it? They are 2 very different issues. The former is more critical in the nearer term and something summed by “whatsoever you do”, the latter is something that may or may not incorporate the first element and is something that, as you noted, atheists, Nones, and SBNR can coalition on.

            As for personal salvation, I’m not sure that was a crucial part of early Christianity, which seems to have been a much more communitarian affair. When I was a Christian, I always tended toward universalism, because otherwise the concept of I’ve got my ticket all these other people need to get theirs or be damned always struck me as unacceptable.

          • cremak

            cermak_rd – very much agreed. ican see why Judaism appeals to you as well – it’s the opposite of ‘pie in the sky.’

          • sorry for weird typos in my last response!

            the church you spoke of is fulfilling its commission of being a literal refuge, as has been done for much of Western history. i think that’s what it’s all about.

  8. I disagree with Moltmann. It is not practicing love that impoverishes faith. Faith is given to us by God’s active Love; our faith is evidenced by loving him and loving others through our actions as we have been so clearly commanded, not by adopting good feelings about ourselves and our standing before God. In both cases these loves are verbs. The first is evidenced by God’s on-going activity in creation from the beginning and through us now in our daily lives. Rick Ro is right: it is the practice of faith through loving actions by which we feed others and grow our selves.

    Returning to sports: I’d say Moltmann swung and missed on that one.

    (But I hope I am mature enough to recognize that I swing and miss often because I don’t practice enough.)

  9. The temptation to turn everything in on ourselves is often to much to resist.

  10. What does selah mean? CM can you explain that please?

    • “Selah” is a word found throughout the Psalms. Many scholars think it indicates a pause in the music, perhaps for a musical interlude. Such interludes give us a chance to think about what we’re reading or singing.

      Thus, “Selah” used in this sense means, “pause and think about it.”