In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith says that “the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship” is “What do you want?”.
This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow.
According to Smith, Christian discipleship is “more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”
Since he thinks this is the case, he criticizes our mostly intellectual and didactic approaches to forming disciples. Smith contends that this is because of our assumptions that human beings are, first and foremost, rational creatures. I would also argue that feeding heads by exchanging information is simply easier, and that many churches, particularly of the evangelical variety which emphasize “the sufficiency of scripture,” lack the imagination to consider that spiritual formation involves more than grasping the meaning of words on a page and following a well defined list of behavioral expectations.
We have often written here about how advocates of “spiritual” growth diminish the role of the body in our understanding of faith development. Smith joins a growing number of voices who also call us to recognize the place of our affections and intuitions.
In our recent series, Musings in Moral Theology, we reported how scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Richard Beck have concluded that many of our moral positions and church practices grow out of visceral responses to life rather than rational analysis (which serves a different purpose). In one post I wrote:
Our morality is determined rather by our intuitions, our visceral and emotional responses, our conscious or subconscious loyalty to the group to which we belong. Whatever moral reasoning we do tends to follow intuition and emotion, and its purpose is to (1) confirm what our impulsive self has already decided, and (2) to keep us on good terms with the group with whom we identify.
Now, as I read Smith, I see a similar perspective. He correctly observes that the discipleship models many churches use have failed. There is overwhelming evidence that more knowledge does not translate easily into personal transformation. Changing our minds does not automatically lead to changing our way of life.
James Smith is not suggesting we abandon thinking. Nor is he suggesting that the contemporary model of always following our feelings is the right way. “We don’t need less than knowledge we need more,” he writes. “We need to recognize the power of habit.”
An emphasis on habit recognizes that humans are more than minds needing to be filled with correct information. We’re also more than a bundle of emotional itches to be scratched. Instead, Smith encourages us to embrace “a more holistic, biblical model of human persons that situates our thinking and knowing in relation to other, more fundamental aspects of the human person.”
Following this, he then urges us to realize that we, as holistic human beings, are formed by habits that allow our hearts, minds, and bodies to be encountered by God’s supremely attractive vision of shalom that can captivate us and re-form our desires toward the life of the Kingdom.
Now here’s the crucial insight for Christian formation and discipleship: not only is this learning-by-practice the way our hearts are correctly calibrated, but it is also the way our loves and longings are misdirected and miscalibrated—not because our intellect has been hijacked by bad ideas but because our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices, not propaganda. Our desires are caught more than they are taught. All kinds of cultural rhythms and routines are, in fact, rituals that function as pedagogies of desire precisely because they tacitly and covertly train us to love a certain version of the kingdom, teach us to long for some rendition of the good life. These aren’t just things we do; they do something to us. (p. 21)
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