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What is a “Practice”?

January 23, 2013

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 [1], 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’. [2]

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’. [3]

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’.[4]

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?

[1] Nicholas Healy, Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?, International Journal of Systematic Theology Nov 2003 5:4, 287-308
[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edn (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 187.
[3]David H. Kelsey, To Understand God Truly (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox
Press, 1992), p. 118.
[4]Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds., Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 3, 23

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013 1:50 pm

    Fascinating stuff. When I think of practice as it is modernly used, I think of two things:

    (a) obligations that are required by a religion, but in contemporary society are not universally observed (e.g., attending Mass for Catholics, or keeping kosher for Jews). Since not everyone in a society keeps the obligation, it can become a practice.

    (b) obligations that can be voluntarily accepted (e.g., saying the breviary, or keeping a certain study, or meditating for a certain period each day) which are admirable from the point of view of a religion.

    To me, though, the key point is that a practice is something beyond what is already done. For example, eating on a daily basis by itself is not a practice — there must be something special done (e.g., eating a special kind of food — especially one with some religious or moral significance; or eating in a special way — e.g., mindfully or prayerfully) to raise it to the level of practice.

    At least that is how I am used to hearing the word used these days in contemporary speech.

  2. January 29, 2013 7:52 am

    Thanks for this post, Victoria. In the Protestant denomination I grew up in, the notion of Practice is contained in the Greek transliterated now-technical-theological English phrase “praxis.” At the SBC seminaries, there are courses on Praxis, which amount to doing the “social gospel” safely without having to slouch into all the non-evangelical senses of that phrase. And publications use the word “praxis.” For example, here are two choice titles:

    “The Relationship Between Ministry Praxis and Spiritual Development Milestones in the Lives of Children”


    “Taxis or Praxis? Why Trinitarians Do Not Make Good Feminists”

  3. January 29, 2013 9:03 am

    @Theophrastus: Interesting that you see obligation as the more fundamental concept. I would say, rather, that some of the practices of the religion are obligations. 🙂

    @Kurk: Very interesting, that praxis has taken on that carefully-not-papist-like distinction of meaning! I didn’t grow up with the word praxis (or practice, we didn’t talk about the category of Catholic practices collectively at all, it was all just part of being Catholic), but I tend to use it these days to describe the part of the religion that is “what you do”, ie, its entire collection of practices, over against the part of the religion that is “what you believe.”

    And I forgot to include this very interesting footnote from Healy’s paper:

    The debates at the Council of Trent were clearly in part about the practices of the church. Trent’s claim that the Roman magisterium has authority over morals as well as faith is not to be understood as simply a claim about morality, according to John Mahoney. The Latin word mores referred only part of the time to moral concerns. The Reformers and the Roman hierarchy were united in their concern about morality. What divided them were the mores, those traditional practices and customs handed on, or not handed on, from the Apostles, such as devotions to saints, private masses, celibacy and the like, things that would now be called practices. See John Mahoney, S.J., The Making of Moral Theology: A study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987),pp. 120–32.


  1. What is a “Practice”? | Gaudete Theology
  2. Bedford on Practice and Discernment | Gaudete Theology

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