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Kevin W. Hector – Christianity as a Way of Life [Feature Review]

A Way of LifeLiving our Theology

A Feature Review of

Christianity as a Way of Life: A Systematic Theology
Kevin W. Hector

Hardcover: Yale University Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Aaron Klink

I vividly recall a vigorous debate between several students and the professor during my divinity school seminar on Trinitarian doctrine.  The issue was a minor, but technical point. I forget the exact nature of the debate, but I quickly lost the thread of the discussion and was unsure if the conclusion they reached would matter to Christians outside the theological academy. On break, I asked a classmate, now a professor of systematic theology, to explain the debate to me. Shrugging his shoulders, he admitted he had become lost too.  The students in that debate are now tenured theology professors who between them have published half a dozen award-winning books.  They clearly knew what they were talking about, but I was left with the question of the relationship between academic theology and the Christian life.  For example, what might Karl Rahner’s declaration the “immanent trinity is the economic trinity” mean for the hospice patients I serve as a chaplain in their search for God at life’s end?  

The premise of this book by University of Chicago theology professor Kevin Hector is to suggest that theology’s primary purpose is to shape humans into the likeness of God, which is made known in Jesus.  To make this case he draws not only on Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians from the patristic era to the present in an ecumenical fashion. He also does something that is too rare in academic theology; he uses personal examples from his life as a father, husband and professor that readers will relate to. 

Hector begins with the nature of devotion, which is a concept most Christians are familiar with. He argues that the things we are devoted to shape the things we pay attention to. In other words, our devotion shapes our perception of the world.  He notes that when his children were small, his devotion to them meant that he paid close attention to any noises he heard while they were sleeping, to ensure their safety and well-being. He also notes that another part of devotion is a desire to understand that to which we are devoted. It is for that reason that Christians should pay attention to the story of Jesus and make serious efforts to understand what that story means as we try to devote ourselves to God, made known in Jesus. In this way, learning and piety are connected. 

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The first part of the book is organized roughly according to the  traditional “order of salvation:” sin, liberation, and transformed living.  Then Hector discusses how theology is intended to shape Christian practices that shape Christian life in the world. While he treats the traditional practices such as worship and eucharist, he also treats other practices that theologians rarely discuss such as the practice of home-making and the importance of corporate singing. 

Hector’s chapter on sin entitled  “The Way of the World” exemplifies his ecumenical approach. He argues that we can tell that the world is not as it should be based on casual reflection.  He draws from the writings of African-American and feminist theologians who note the ways that social structures make it difficult for certain groups to flourish and form ethical subjectivity.  Hector also draws on the Augustinian understanding that we cannot free ourselves from sin without divine assistance.  He also notes the way that we can become prone to sin because of our habits and understanding drawn from Thomas Aquinas which is influential in the Roman Catholic tradition. The ways he blends insights from contemporary theology and both the Augustinian and Thomistic schools is seamless, and he presents them in a way that general readers not trained in academic theology will follow. Specialists in Thomas or Augustine or liberation theology may quibble with points of his readings, but his outlines are fair, and he is careful to avoid technical debates that are prevalent in more specialized literature. 

We learn to escape “the way of the world” through  Christian practices that allow us to “hear God’s judgment” such as baptism, confession, forgiveness of sins, spiritual friendship, and learning to narrate our lives truthfully. We are also called to see others as made in God’s image, making us less liable to harm. 

What tradition often calls “sanctification,” Hector instead uses the phrase “to be reoriented.”   Instead of providing an abstract treatment of the issue, Hector argues three practices that re-orient our being: homemaking, imitation and becoming one.  Hector says that we make a home by surrounding ourselves with things that matter deeply to us, noting that his office contains his wedding pictures, a jar of buttons his children loved to play with, and the chair he sat in while writing his first book (121).  He also notes that by creating homes, we create places of respite and sanctuary where we can be truly ourselves, noting the exhaustion that comes about when we spend our lives in places where we cannot be our true selves as we understand them.  He then argues that in some ways, church is a place where we go to be with others who share our devotion to God, and week after week learn to become more at home with each other in the quest to engage in practices such as singing that help them attune their hearts and lives to the God to whom they are devoted. 

This review cannot do justice to all of Hector’s chapters, but the book turns from corporate practices to our more personal relationships with others, discussing the nature of Christian love and the nature of Christian vocation. From there, he turns to questions of “The End” and what it might mean to understand divine judgment and mercy on our lives according to both Scripture and the tradition. The treatments are always ecumenical, balanced, and accessible while being thought provoking. 

Hector has given readers a sophisticated but accessible introduction to Christian doctrine focused on the ways that theological doctrines seek to shape the practices, lives, and devotion of those who seek to follow Jesus. As the book’s title indicates, Christianity is supposed to comprehensively shape our way of life, helping individuals and  communities embody the love of the God who is made known in Jesus.  Hector manages to make sophisticated theology accessible without being simplistic, showing the richness and totality that Christian vision attempts to foster in all that we do. He does so with immense learning and relatable examples drawn from his own experience. This would be a great book for an adult Sunday school class, but also welcome reading for pastors and academic theologians seeking a model for writing sophisticated theology in an accessible manner.

Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain and Bereavement Coordintor at Pruitt Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina. As a writer and speaker his work focuses on how churches can faithfully minister to the ill and suffering and on Lutheran theology. An ordained pastor in the Church of the Brethren he received his M.Div. from Yale and a Th.M. from Duke Divinity School where he was the Westbrook Fellow in the Program in Theology and Medicine.

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