Monthly Archives: December 2021

Precept versus Practice

Christianity purports to hold love as a value and through precepts such as “love one another” attempts to make it an essential aspect of a religious life. However, the evidence for its practice by Christians is sparse, at least in my experience. Even Christians who seem to exemplify the precept often report something different. For example, the “saint” Mother Theresa has often been offered as an example of Christian compassion and love. On the other hand, I’ve read that she denied this and attributed her behavior to a sense of duty. In short, she seemed to be saying that she acted according to a behavioral form, that is, she acted according what she thought she should do not from how she experienced the world around her and how she felt toward that world.

What is missing here is the lack of practices that develop the ability to be love in the sense that Jesus meant and contemporary spiritual teachers mean. To hold love as a value and advocate for it is simply not enough. Without specific practices designed to actualize love in one’s way of being, love as a value is an empty shell, and a precept such as “love one another” is meaningless. Thus, the result is someone who acts according to an idea or belief about what love should look like but does so not out of love but out of duty or some other motivation.

By way of a concrete analogy, consider a military recruit on a rifle range where marksmanship is valued. The recruit is given the instruction to aim true and shoot straight (precept). Unless this recruit arrives already adept in the use of a rifle, he or she will be largely clue less about how to implement the instruction. What the recruit needs is a practice that develops the skills necessary to aim true and shoot straight. This requires someone skilled in the practice to teach it to the recruit who in turn then engages the practice until the desired level of skill is achieved. Such a practice may have multiple components, such as, body position, breath control. sighting, adjustment for wind, trigger compression and extinguishing reflexive actions; e.g., closing the eyes when firing.

I would suggest that what Jesus and many other spiritual teachers mean by love is grounded in an ability to moderate the ego-self in which its needs and wants are primary and other people’s needs and wants are secondary or even irrelevant. It is only when one has learned to stand aside from the ego-self and its inherent self-centered- ness that it is possible to be love and to engage the world from love. Some spiritual traditions have practices that help one learn how to stand aside from the ego-self. They also have practices that target specific problems that need to be overcome, such as negative feelings toward someone in particular that make it difficult to stand aside from the ego-self that harbors those feelings.

To my knowledge, Christianity has no such practices. Or, perhaps I should say, it has had individuals who developed such practices but they were suppressed and prevented from becoming a part of the religion. In many cases, the person who developed the practices and exhibited their effects was isolated or declared a heretic and in some cases put to death. In contemporary times there has been some effort to introduce the practice of meditation into Christianity through the Centering Prayer movement. One of the earliest advocates was Fa William Johnston who went to Japan to proselytize and took up Zen as a way to better understand the culture. He got more than he expected (Christian Zen, 1971).