A CRITICAL REVIEW OF
There is often a great disconnect between the formal teachings of Christianity and the life that is lived by each individual Christian. Robert L. Kinast offers a process for restoring the connection. It is a means of making sense of life today through the perspective of faith, thus “making faith-sense.” It provides a way for the ancient teachings of the faith to become relevant in the lives of today’s followers of Christ. Equally important, it provides a means by which to discover divine truth in the laboratory of life.
Kinast is a pastoral theologian specializing “in the practice of theological reflection within ministry training programs.” He is director of the Center for Theological Reflection in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida. Kinast holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in systematic theology from Emory University and has taught pastoral/practical theology at the Catholic University of America and at the Washington Theological Union. He is the author of ten books and more than seventy articles on practical theology, lay ministry and process theology.
Summary of Contents
Kinast offers a process for recognizing the “signs of God’s presence in everyday events and to shape one’s life accordingly.” He lays out a step-by-step. “Making faith-sense means fitting one’s life into the pattern of faith values, beliefs, and ideals that have been handed on from previous generations,” Kinast writes. “However, ‘fitting in’ does not mean slavish conformity to the past or rationalizing your actions artificially. It means creating a personal, practical way of living, consistent with a faith view of life.”
Making faith-sense requires reflection on everyday experience. That reflection is accomplished by selecting an experience for evaluation, which utilizes four steps—narration, analysis, meaning, and enactment. Much of the book is occupied with explaining those steps.
Narration means simply telling what happened. The primary goal is to “describe your experience factually” without personal interpretation. This pursuit of facts “can sometimes clobber your ideals and cherished wishes, but they can also bring you closer to the truth and that is the ultimate goal of making faith-sense.”
Analysis is a means of uncovering the reasons why an experience occurred as it did. “The purpose of analyzing an experience for faith-sense is to enter it with greater attentiveness and to let the experience reveal all that it has to offer,” Kinast writes. “A well-analyzed experience is the best basis for making faith-sense because it provides a true-to-life standard for the spiritual or theological meaning you may claim.”
The third step is to determine the spiritual meaning of an experience, and Kinast calls it the heart of making faith-sense. It will lead a person to one of three ways of making faith-sense of the experience—affirmation, adaption, or conversion of what one believes. Most people make faith-sense of events by “interpreting them as an affirmation or illustration of what they already believe.” Some events, however, do not “confirm your faith so much as confront it with questions and challenges.” Such an experience will require a person to modify his/her understanding, rearrange priorities or add a new perspective. If affirmation and adaptation are not adequate for understanding an experience, then conversion becomes necessary in a person’s ideas, values, and behavior.
Step four is enactment, which is “integral to the whole process. In fact, you have not made faith-sense until you have turned your reflection into action.” Christianity is a way of life, “not a philosophical or theoretical system of ideas.”
Analysis of Content
Kinast offers a clearly reasoned approach to developing an understanding of faith that is authentic for an individual living in community. It pushes a perspective to theological formation that goes beyond formal, systematic understandings of the faith. The author has coined a term, “making faith-sense,” that is odd but better understood by saying it is a way making sense of life from a faith perspective.
The book offers an alternative to two less productive ways of relating life to faith. It is common to either take one’s faith tradition without challenge or to reject it altogether in the face of life’s challenges. Kinast has offered a way forward that involves thoughtful engagement with one’s own experience and faith. It seeks an honesty of understanding that acknowledges the validity of both the faith tradition and the unique experience of each person. “Making faith-sense is more than putting a few ideas together or simply reacting to things that happen. It is thoughtful, deliberate consideration of your experience.” He does not devalue formal theological reflection; rather, he says: “… [A]cademic understanding of theology is not the same as making faith-sense. Formal theology … is a marvelous resource for quick, efficient learning, but it is not the way life occurs or the way theological meaning appears in everyday experience.”
Kinast’s approach is not common in the Baptist tradition, which places Scripture, and a certain tradition of understanding it, at a loftier height than one’s individual experience. For instance, in discussing the benefits of conversion in one’s beliefs, Kinast says:
“When really new experiences challenge your faith, they call for really new responses. This in turn requires a greater degree of creativity as you search for alternatives, explore new possibilities, and put together a fresh way of thinking, valuing, and acting. A creative faith is a living faith and much more likely to enhance your experience than a routine, familiar, and unchanging system of beliefs.”
Southern Baptists would typically not speak of seeking to have a “creative faith.” The desire would be to have a biblical faith, as if there was only one faith and it was to be discovered in Scripture, not in one’s experience. While this disconnect with Baptist language is noted, it can also be said that Kinast’s approach should fit smoothly into Baptist life because of the stress placed on the priesthood of the believer in the free church movement. Also, Baptists tacitly acknowledge the impact of experience on theological understanding because of the varied biblical interpretations that arise in their tradition. For instance, Kinast follows the statement above immediately with the following statement:
“At the same time, creativity cultivates a spirit of freedom with regard to your faith. This does not mean that ‘anything goes’ or that you can make the faith be anything you want. It means that you do not feel rigidly bound to the formulas and practices you inherited and learned, much less that you feel afraid to question or change them.”
This statement squares neatly with Baptist sensibilities even if the word “creativity” is not normally used by Baptists in reference to their theological interpretations. In short, while Kinast’s approach may sound odd or even wrong to some Baptist ears, it actually is an approach consistent with historic Baptist principles.
Kinast’s thesis is built upon a number of principles. In chapter two, he lays out an important distinction between meaning and facts. “Making faith-sense … tries to honor the twin claims of meaning and facts. … Meaning is roughly equivalent to or located on the subjective side of a situation. It refers to how you feel. … Facts are on the objective side.” Meaning and facts influence each other. “Making faith-sense tries to wed meaning and facts. You can start with either one, but it is important to include the claims of both.” This model of recognizing the difference between meaning and facts, while still connecting the two, is extremely helpful in seeking to understand theological reflection. By separating the two, one theoretically is more ready to do a better job of understanding the two.
Chapter three is said to be the “heart of the matter,” and this is clearly the case. It deals with the results of seeking to make faith-sense of life—affirmation, adaptation, and conversion. Affirmation is the most common and, one could say, the easiest, but Kinast makes an important distinction about its importance when done so thoughtfully. “The more you practice the skill of making faith-sense, the more you recognize your beliefs in the day-to-day events of your life. As a result, your faith and the rest of your life become more integrated.” In other words, affirmation is a means of connecting one’s day-to-day life with what one says he/she believes.
Adaptation is a much more dynamic process, one that is required when the experiences of life challenge one’s beliefs. Challenging experiences push a person “beyond the status quo of your faith-sense and make you wrestle with your beliefs in order to make sense of your experience.” This section is extremely helpful because it shows how a person can change without abandoning one’s faith. It can be assumed that some people abandon faith when their experience does not match their initial, often childlike understandings of faith. This shows another way forward—a way of growth.
Conversion provides a similar way forward. It provides an alternative to living with a faith that doesn’t make sense and no faith at all. This requires more substantial change in one’s beliefs, but it is usually the result of “deep-rooted, substantial occurrences that affect your life.” Because such change is difficult, Kinast points to the benefits of pursuing it. “A creative faith is a living faith and much more likely to enhance your experience than a routine, familiar, and unchanging system of beliefs.” The absence of this could explain why so many Christians seem to have a shallow faith experience; they have let their faith wallow in routine, familiar, and unchanging beliefs.
Analysis of Writing Style
Kinast writes clearly and builds his case well, using stories effectively to illustrate his points. Since the author is coining a phrase, “making faith-sense,” it does make for difficulty in understanding during the early portions of the book. He could have done a better job of explaining the term at the beginning, but he does develop it throughout the book.
Contribution to Peer Group
This book could be of great help to Baptist ministers because it reflects a way of thinking about theology that is rather foreign to their faith tradition. It expresses realities that Southern Baptists do not like to face—that what is said about God and Scripture from pulpits is not always consistent with what people are experiencing in their daily lives. Theological understanding is more malleable than most Baptist ministers want to admit, and this book could be of great help in expanding that understanding.
Kinast has done the church a great service. He has sought to build a bridge between the long-established faith understandings expressed by faith traditions and the reality of life as experienced by each person. The need for this bridge is not even recognized by many believers, whether minister or layperson. This disconnect is a significant reason for the lack of relevancy of the church in many people’s lives, therefore, this book offers a path to helping rebuild that relevancy. Beyond those practical implications for the church, Kinast has offered Christians a way for moving forward in understanding the truth of God in today’s terms—a truly worthy goal.
Kinast, Robert L. Making Faith-Sense: Theological Reflection in Everyday Life. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999.
University of St. Thomas. “Founder of Center for Theological Reflection to speak here tomorrow.” University of St. Thomas web site. http://www.stthomas.edu/bulletin/2004/03/30/founder-of-center-for-theological-reflection-to-speak-here-tomorrow/ (accessed October 16, 2011).
 Robert L. Kinast, Making Faith-Sense: Theological Reflection in Everyday Life (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999), back cover.