Praxis: Faith and Practice

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

It is a tradition among Quaker Yearly Meetings to have a sort of constitution. They usually consist of two parts. The first, often in the form of a collection of quotes, describes the uniquely Quaker view of God, man, society, faith. The second portrays the agreements by which the Yearly Meeting conducts business and puts its decsions into actions. This book is called by most Yearly Meetings “Faith and Practice.”

Faith and Practice. Our Quaker tradition has always emphasized the interchange between the two. Our practice is informed by our living faith, the actual experience of being led by the Spirit as we have divined it within our Meetings. That faith is nurtured and developed in its turn by the experience of seeking to live up to it in the world. I say “we” to emphasize the communal basis of this faith and this practice. It is an ancient Quaker discipline to test one’s leadings for clearness among other seasoned Friends, and within the wider Friends fellowship.

The Theology of Liberation as it has grown in Latin America and elsewhere has these same traits, given certain important cultural differences. Practice is informed by faith; faith is informed by practice; theological reflection requires participation in both, and within a community of the faithful. This is called “praxis.” Not an academic exercise, but the give and take of prayer, inspiration, creativity, reflection, repeated within relationships with their brothers and sisters in faith. This circle of activity, from the inner to the outer and back again, is known as praxis.

Theology thus comes out of a living faith — out of the struggle to embody our faith in our choices and actions. This is the only authority for doing theology. Everything else is notional: talk which resembles gossip about theology, not the doing of theology itself.

This undertaking is not easy, and only humility makes possible any measure of success. Simplistic answers, formulaic responses, and self-righteous certainty all display an aggressive, domineering attitude that produces only more oppression. Insistence on the prominence of certain scriptural texts, rather than viewing each in the light of the whole of scripture, for instance, is a sure recipe for the disaster which we see, enacted by our fellow humans every day all over the world. It leads to the failure of love and the imperium of ego. The thrust toward certainty is so appealing, so seductive, so misleading. Faith is not about certainty; at least, not that kind. The certainty of faith lies in knowing that God is with us even when all is dark and confusion reigns. A God whose will is known in every detail is no God at all, but an idol to our own narrow predilections, obsessions, and fears.

Humility tells us,always and everywhere, that it is better to be loved than to be right. Beware of those who tell you it is because they love you that they are telling you what to think or feel, as they put you on the rack.

To find fulfillment, a theology of liberation must address the needs of the middle class as well as the poor. This is not to contradict the “preferential option for the poor” which has been the hallmark of liberation theology since its inception. On the contrary, the middle class must learn to adopt that stance for themselves, within their own lives, in order to have an authentic faith. Not by pretending to be poor, not by a Lady Bountiful approach to charity, but by learning how to stand in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the despised. the forgotten, the neglected.

The middle class should take joy in their opportunities for health, education, meaningful work, sufficient income, material comfort, relative freedom of choice and of behavior. The poor want these things for themselves, and by right should have them; to discount them would be to discount the reality of the struggles of the poor to achieve them.

From what, then, is the middle class to be liberated? From our complicity in the structures which which maintain oppression and privilege. From the smug self- absorption that supposes that everyone shares our values, preventing us from having real relationships with others. From greed. From our own aggressiveness. From prejudice of all sorts. From anxiety, the fear that no matter how much we have it is never enough. From feeling unloved and alone.

Liberation, though, is not just “freedom from.” It is also “freedom for”: for joy, for contentment, for love, for a sustainable prosperity. And there are the “freedom of’s”, natural to the citizens of a republic: of speech, of assembly, of religion, of the press, of being secure in our person and property. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

To enjoy any of these freedoms, we must work to see them extended to everyone. “An injury to one is an injury to all”, as the IWW preamble puts it.

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