How do we translate our faith into practice to make a meaningful difference in the world? This is a question that is relevant across all religions, even if the actual application differs from faith to faith.
Praxis has been defined as ‘the use of a theory or a belief in a practical way.’ While many can get caught up in the differences between religions, this focus on affecting positive change is common across them all.
In Christianity, emphasis is placed on daily prayers, attending regular church services and reading the bible. Practicing five pillars of Islam is considered an essential part of Islamic praxis to strengthen faith, and improve character. Similarly the Jewish tradition places importance on “mitzvot” or commandments which provide dos and don’ts to guide actions and behaviors such as understanding the teachings of Torah and Talmud, and refraining from idolatry and theft. In Buddhism the Eightfold Path provides a framework for practical application in everyday life whereas Hinduism encourages ‘Pooja’ or worship rituals, observing fasts, practicing meditation and a variety of other daily practices to connect with the divine.
All religions agree that beliefs and doctrines ring hollow if we are unable to translate them into practice. Praxis is all about overcoming the self—or gaining self-control and discipline through repetition—thus transforming into more thoughtful, selfless, and loving beings. It is about turning love or devotion into action.
This action is not one-sided only. The point is that our praxis not only affects our external conditions but it also affects our interior selves. For example, when we give food to the poor, we help them; but focusing on the needs of the less fortunate also helps us appreciate what we have.
We can study the religious texts all we want, but if we fail to reflect upon how all those words relate to us in our own individual lives, especially in a way that galvanizes us to act differently, then we are not learning any kind of practical manner. Practices like prayer or random acts of kindness should be done daily to cultivate lasting change. Essentially, developing these new habits through praxis is like fortifying them, keeping the virtues we wish to embody safe from the vicissitudes of the outside world.
It takes a lot of resolve and willpower to sustain any new practice, and it takes a still mind to focus on our resolve effectively. The goal is to draw this level of focus and consistency into our everyday lives, so it becomes as habitual as brushing our teeth or getting dressed. Praxis is the place where the age-old wisdom of the religions is applied in our modern context, which makes it truly exciting as it provides a tangible way for us to cultivate our faith making the religion a lived experience rather than just a set of ideas.
“But be the doers of the word, not only the hearers, deluding your own selves.”
“My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with tongue only, but in deed and truth.”
—1 John (3:18)
“During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned in forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, A Buddhist Monk
Point of contemplation: How can you apply the principles of your faith or belief system in the modern world? Where can you make a unique difference, in our own life and that of others?
“Great work requires great and persistent effort for a long time. […] Character has to be established through a thousand stumbles.”
—Swami Vivekananda, An Indian Yogi, and Hindu monk
“Instead of innate desires eliciting outward forms of conduct, it is the sequence of practices and actions one is engaged in that determines one’s desires and emotions.”
—Saba Mahmood, An Anthropologist of Islam and Secularism
“If the mind is still but the body is not responsive, no intention can be communicated to the body. If the body is responsive and the mind is confused, the actions will come out confused.”
—Eva Wong, in her translation of the Lieh-tzu
“We tend to ‘learn’ some things but ‘study’ others. For instance, a child learns to walk but an entomologist studies the behavior of ants. We learn something practical; we study something theoretical. In learning the focus is on the learner; in studying the focus is on the subject. In learning something new, a man improves himself. He either acquires a new skill or becomes more proficient in the old one. In studying, a man acquires new knowledge but this new knowledge need not make any difference to him as a practical man.”
—D.C. Lau, in his translation of Confucius’ Analects