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Church as the Salle of Life

March 11, 2010

I recently stumbled upon this Unitarian Universalist blogging gem that’s about a year old titled “Why I Believe in Going to Church.” I was motivated to read this because 1) it’s about fencing, and I fence, 2) UUs are often pretty interesting people, and 3) this was linked in a blog roundup that one of my articles was also linked in.

I like this analogy a lot. It calls me back to many of my thoughts about fencing, and my comparison with churches. I started fencing in high school, because the fencing coach was also the academic quiz bowl coach (and I was in quiz bowl). Since he was an army reservist, the club was on shaky grounds, since he was always having to deal with military commitments. So, needless to say, I wasn’t very active then. But I did get interested in fencing at that point.

When I got to college, I decided to get back to it. I wasn’t good at all, and because I hate losing and being “bad” at things, I would often find excuses not to go to practice. It’s really a pity, because we had a coach who would drive down every Monday to give lessons.

I got the chance to go to club nationals that year, though (which is nowhere near as legit as a real nationals, I bet, but more accessible, by far), and my coach said something that really changed my outlook. What he had said was…when you want to do a hobby, you have to be willing to dive into it. Whatever your hobby is, it’s probably going to be expensive. Even if it’s something like WoW, you’re going to pay for subscription and the time put in. So, if fencing is going to be your hobby, think about investing in some equipment and investing some time.

I bought my own gear within weeks.

Unfortunately, after I decided to get serious, the coach determined it wasn’t economical to make the drive back and forth all the time. So I really missed out on that. (We did have another coach, and I made sure to take advantage of lessons while she was here…but I didn’t *get* it. She had to correct me about *everything* every few seconds, but it went in one ear and out the other because I wasn’t even aware of what I should be paying attention to.)

Slowly, but surely, I started winning a few matches. I got my E rating at a tournament we hosted at our school (even though people encouraged me to go to plenty of USFA tournaments in the area, I only went to the one our club hosted every year), and I wanted to do even better!

But after that year, our second coach and her husband both left for Illinois, and our club was left coachless. We aren’t bad, I don’t think. But this year, I wanted to make more of a splash than the intercollegiate club tournaments.

Since I’ve been on my internship, I’ve been in a city that has three (at least, I might be missing one or two) good fencing clubs, and has decent tournaments regularly (and I have a car, so I can get to other tournaments too). I go to a real fencing salle (this salle is closed to our school’s club, I suppose. Our first coach regularly coaches here) and am beginning to see a community of fencers who’ve been here for a while. It’s changed my look on things.

Seeing this community and taking a few more lessons, I identify with a lot of what Lizard Eater says. I have often struggled with the repetitive and slow drills, because I often want to know why I’m doing something. But with time, as my point control, footwork, and bladework has improved, I’ve begun to understand. And as I’ve done better and better in tournaments, I’ve come to identify the role of training and practice.

I can, therefore, agree with her as to that. And I have often thought that a good church would be like the good salle: a close-knit, supportive community that trains with purpose (even if repetitively and slowly) so that when life comes at full speed, the best practices are most natural.


I do not think the analogy holds. I do not believe in going to church (in the sense that I do not believe church is necessary to learn and practice “how to do life”.) I’ll explain why I don’t agree, and how my thinking about fencing practice has changed too.

The analogy is simple. At a fencing salle, we learn best practices in slow, methodical ways from others who can correct us before bad habits set in. When we learn best practices slowly, then they will come naturally when at speed (in tournaments). I wrote about a related idea in “If we diligently develop our technique…

So, is it true that in church, we learn best practices in slow, methodical ways from others who can correct us before bad habits set in? That when we learn best practices slowly, they will come naturally when at speed (in life)?

My problem is in several parts. I believe that fencing salles do provide a specific value above the alternatives. People who are formally trained get some benefit from the salle that specifically assists them at tournaments that is not easily substituted elsewhere. You’re probably not going to learn “arm first” or right of way from the day-to-day routine.

On the other hand, I disagree that churches necessarily provide a specific value above the alternatives. Even if it may be true that some churches train people for “how to do life,” I do not believe that this benefit is exclusive and I do not believe most churches are even finetuned toward this task. (Too often, I think it’s more about “how to secure the afterlife” or “how to cultivate right (TM) belief” rather than “how to do life.”) Even more, you *can* learn how to “do life” adequately outside of churches. I dislike Lizard Eater’s concluding wish because it supposes that church is the only (or even the best) place to learn and practice how to do life.

Upon evaluating this, I had to rethink the entire analogy. What are the substitutes for learning how to “do life”? And then I realized…it’s just “doing life”!

So, what would be the substitute for learning how to perform well in tournaments? Rather than go to practice, it would be to…go to many tournaments!

And that’s when I realized it.

Way back when, when I was beginning in fencing, I had originally assessed that the reason I did so poorly at tournaments was because I didn’t go to practice much (and don’t get me wrong; that certainly was true). However, even when I did go to practice often, I found I still didn’t do all that great at tournaments. But that’s because I was not looking at the full picture. To get better at tournaments, I actually had to fence in tournaments! And others had told me that too!

The final difference, then, are my perceptions of the comparative roles of practice. In fencing, I still value practice, because as I said before, I believe there is a noticeable and not-easily-substitutable value. While tournaments teach me about implementation at speed, a coach teaches me about what to look for in the first place. However, with life, I do not think that church is privileged to have quite the same role. Even if there are genuine “life coaches,” they are not in any way reserved to churches.

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  1. Carson N permalink

    When I was young I took karate lessons. I did it for years until I got a black belt. My only purpose for taking karate was to get good at fighting. In the end I discovered that I never learned even the first thing about fighting from karate, which was disappointing. If I knew then what I know now, I never would have taken karate in the first place. I simply didn’t understand that in order to learn how to fight, you have to actually fight people.

  2. Carson,


    Fortunately, when people start fencing, w are under no illusions that you will use this in actual combat, although I still have some illusions that if I am ever attacked when I have my fencing equipment, I’d pull an epee out of my fencing bag and have at my unmasked, unprotected opponent.

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