One of the most common frustrations in living the Christian life is the divide that often exists between what we believe to be true and how we actually live. We know that following Christ means (among other things) loving others as he has loved us and doing all things to his glory.
But, to our chagrin, much of what we do and feel does not embody the truth we profess to know.
How can we make our practice reflect our knowledge? In a new book titled You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith writes that the answer to this problem hinges on the most basic assumptions we make about how human beings are constituted.
Specifically, he argues that our habits shape what we love, and what we love determines how we live – but we don’t always love what we think we do.
More Than “Brains on a Stick”
At the root of the gap between thought and practice, Smith identifies a fundamental misconception of how people navigate the world that he calls thinking-thingism. This is the idea that the essence of human beings lies in their rationality, their minds, their capacity to think. The human body as a whole is merely incidental:
We view our bodies as (at best!) extraneous, temporary vehicles for trucking around our souls or “minds,” which are where all the real action takes place. In other words, we imagine human beings as giant bobblehead dolls: with humongous heads and itty-bitty, unimportant bodies.
In the context of discipleship and growth in Christ, this means we often assume that “learning (and hence discipleship) is primarily a matter of depositing ideas and beliefs into mind-containers.” According to this model of discipleship, as our knowledge of the Bible and theology increases, so too will our resemblance to Christ.
Studying the Bible is a good thing of course, and so is learning as much as we can about theology. It’s just that knowledge alone will not empower us to live as we ought:
To recognize the limits of knowledge is not to embrace ignorance. We don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. We need to recognize the power of habit [emphasis in original].
In addition to the power of habit, Smith adds, we need to understand how the desires of our heart define us.
Love Is a Habit
We are all lovers, says Smith. By this he means all human beings want, love, and devote their entire lives to pursuing something, “some ultimate end or telos.” The only question is what that something will be. This desire defines us, not what we know:
In this alternative model of the human person, the center of gravity of our identity is located in the heart—in the visceral region of our longings and desires, the gut-level region of kardia.
Do we choose what to love? To some degree, but according to Smith,
Love as our most fundamental orientation to the world…is less a conscious choice and more like a baseline inclination, a default orientation that generates the choices we make.
Where does this default orientation come from? It is shaped by our daily habits and practices:
If you are what you love and if love is a virtue, then love is a habit. This means that our most fundamental orientation to the world—the longings and desires that orient us toward some version of the good life—is shaped and configured by imitation and practice [emphasis in original].
The problem for us is that many of the ordinary cultural practices and habits we take part in without even thinking about them—what Smith calls cultural liturgies—embody “rival visions of flourishing” that are antithetical to the Christian vision of the good life. Worse, these cultural liturgies mold us whether we are aware of it or not:
Just as our habits themselves are unconscious…it is also the case that the process of habituation can be unconscious and covert. This is especially true when we don’t recognize cultural practices as liturgies—when we fail to realize that these aren’t just things we do but things that do something to us [emphasis in original].
One example of a practice that can shape us more than we realize is what Smith refers to as the “liturgy” of the shopping mall. We may think of the mall as just a place to buy things, but many of its features and associated practices—from the soaring architectural design of the building (which just so happens to resemble a cathedral), to the implicit promise in every advertisement that a given product will bring us happiness—contain “an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.” In the case of the mall: “I’m broken, therefore I shop.”
Another cultural liturgy that can influence our attitude toward work specifically is the phenomenon known as “happy hour.” Now I myself enjoy cheap food, but think about the story that’s typically wrapped into the occasion: “All right, we’re off work, now we can enjoy ourselves for a bit and on into the weekend before we have to resume our daily drudgery.” The activity itself may seem like a trivial thing, but when framed this way the practice still has the power to shift our unconscious loves and attitudes against work and the value with which God has invested it.
By taking part in such cultural liturgies on a regular basis, as habits, our hearts will become inclined toward a non-Christian telos. This will have an effect on our actions and the choices we make. Even if we don’t always act in accordance with a non-Christian telos, we may nevertheless notice that the inclinations of our hearts are at odds with what we believe to be true in our minds.
How, then, can we reorient our hearts (and thus our actions) back toward Christ?
Worship as Recalibration
If there are secular liturgies that incline our hearts away from Christ, then it stands to reason there are sacred liturgies that turn our hearts back to him. Smith observes that one common name for these sacred liturgies taken as a whole is worship, especially the worship that takes place among a gathering of believers in the church:
The church—the body of Christ—is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites.
From this perspective, an ordinary church service is an occasion to locate ourselves in God’s story, “the drama of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and God calling us to “play the role of God’s image bearers who care for and cultivate God’s creation, to the praise of his glory.”
This is how vocation relates to the power of worship to recalibrate our hearts and incline us again toward God’s story. When we take part in worship and are reminded of who we are in Christ, stewards of the earth and culture makers, our hearts are once more attuned to the right telos.
Smith captures this connection between vocation and the love-shaping power of worship well:
It is the practices of Christian worship that renarrate our imagination so that we can perceive the world as God’s creation and thus hear his call that echoes within it. This now intersects with our core theme because our (culture-) making, our work, is generated as much by what we want as by what we believe. We are made to be makers, but as makers we remain lovers. So if you are what you love, then you make what you love. Your cultural labor—whether in finance or fine arts, as a fireman or a first-grade teacher—is animated less by “principles” that you carry in your head and more by habits of desire that operate under the hood of consciousness [emphasis in original].
If we take care to habituate ourselves in God’s story through public worship and other liturgies that embody it, our loves will remain inclined toward him. In this way, we can acknowledge with our minds and love in our hearts the grand narrative Christ has brought us into, as manifested in our particular vocations.