Faith Matters

Our practices keep our commitments alive

To resist the kind of society we don't want, we have to cultivate the kind we do.

For the past year, we have been living through a national seminar on the relationship between beliefs and practices. One after another, men who have supported women’s political candidacies and called themselves feminists have been exposed as dangerous to women. Often, their professed beliefs in women’s rights have protected them. Reporting on the recent accusations against Eric Schneiderman has revealed that women were sometimes urged by friends not to report the violence the former New York attorney general allegedly perpetrated in the private sphere because of the good he did for women in the public sphere.

Obviously, it’s not enough to believe in the right ideas. Beliefs don’t guarantee behavior. If we are going to undo our formation in misogyny, in racism, in a Christianity warped by nationalism, it won’t be enough to think our way out of these ideologies. Thinking our way out of them is certainly necessary—but we will also have to practice our way out of them, deliberately.

At Harvard Divinity School’s commencement in May, the student speakers—Denson Staples and Lindsey Franklin, newly minted M.Div.’s—challenged us to bring more intentionality to our life together, especially in the classroom. It’s not enough, they said, to gather a diverse community. We have to develop practices that don’t replicate the old hierarchies. We can’t simply believe that we are welcoming; we have to learn how to be welcoming. Denson and Lindsey called us to cultivate greater attention to the pedagogy diverse classrooms require and to who is included or excluded by the forms of education to which we are accustomed. They reminded me of Simone Weil’s fierce insistence that a lack of attention in prayer cannot be made up for through “warmth of heart” or “pity.” It’s not enough to wish each other well and then carry on as before.