What is a “Practice”?
In American culture, perhaps because of its historic domination by Protestant Christianity and Protestantism’s intense emphasis on scripture, religion is generally taken to refer to a system of belief. But in many religions, including Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, what you do is at least as important as what you believe when it comes to defining religion: hence the idiom “practicing your religion.”
Practice has become more prominent in theological reflection in recent years, perhaps prompted by the various streams of emergent Christianity that find inspiration, beauty, and spiritual nourishment in a variety of practices taken eclectically from the two thousand year history of the church. But what is a practice, exactly?
The following quotations are taken from a paper by Nicholas Healy , in which he urges a better definition of the term, and quotes the definitions of several other authors. I have reformatted them slightly into bullet form in order to assist in comparing elements of the definitions.
[Alasdair] MacIntyre defines a practice as:
‘any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity
– through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized
– in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence
– which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity,
– with the result that human powers to achieve excellence,
– and human conceptions of the ends and good involved,
– are systematically extended’. 
David Kelsey, for example, defines a practice as
‘any form of socially established cooperative human activity
– that is complex and internally coherent,
– is subject to standards of excellence that partly define it,
– and is done to some end
– but does not necessarily have a product’. 
For Dorothy Bass, [Christian] practices are
‘patterns of co-operative human activity
– in and through which life together takes shape over time
– in response to and in the light of God as known in Jesus Christ’. . .
[A]n activity qualifies as an ecclesial practice ‘only if it is
– a sustained, cooperative pattern of human activity
– that is big enough, right enough, and complex enough
– to address some fundamental feature of human existence’.
Reflecting on the practices of Catholicism as I have practiced, experienced, or observed them, my own definition would be something like this:
- an action, behavior, or pattern of activity
- intentionally performed
- on a regular basis
- which is understood by the community in which it is performed
- as functioning to express, shape, or establish identity
- and/or to form, shape, or strengthen character
What do you think of these definitions?
What’s your definition?
What practices (religious or otherwise) do you, or have you, performed? And how have they functioned in your life or the life of your community?
And a translation question for my erudite co-bloggers and readers: What term(s) are used for (this sort of) “practice” in other languages, especially those which have been historically significant in Christianity and other faith communities? And what connotations do those terms have?
 Nicholas Healy, Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?, International Journal of Systematic Theology Nov 2003 5:4, 287-308
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edn (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 187.
David H. Kelsey, To Understand God Truly (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox
Press, 1992), p. 118.
Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds., Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 3, 23