You are not a Thinking Thing

(I want to grow, but HOW?- part 6: The ideas in this blog post come from James K. A. Smith’s book “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”. The first two chapters of this book are game-changers and I am attempting to summarize the main point of chapter 1 in this post. Thank you, James, for this insight and vision!)

In James K. A. Smith’s game-changing book You Are What You Love, Smith challenges the common understanding of who we are as humans:

In ways that are more “modern” than biblical, we have been taught to assume that human beings are fundamentally thinking things… In other words, we imagine human beings as giant bobblehead dolls: with humongous heads and itty-bitty, unimportant bodies. It’s the mind we picture as “mission control" of the human person; it’s thinking that defines who we are. “You are what you think” is a motto that reduces human beings to brains-on-a-stick. Ironically, such thinking-thingism assumes that the “heart” of the person is the mind. “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes said, and most of our approaches to discipleship end up parroting his idea.

Now stop for a moment and let this soak in. Have we been operating with an understanding that humans are primarily “thinking things”? I think the best way to find out is to analyze our behavior.

How do we disciple? How do we do Sunday Mornings? How do we do Bible Study? How do we do small groups? How do we do children’s ministry?

Smith goes on to describe how we’ve applied this “thinking-thingism” with our “banking model” of education:

We treat human learners as if they are safe-deposit boxes for knowledge and ideas, mere intellectual receptacles for beliefs. We then think of action as a kind of “withdrawal” from this bank of knowledge… In all of this, we ignore the overwhelming power of habit.

Now of course learning and thinking are important. Our minds are critical. The question is one of primacy, are we primarily “thinking things”, or are primarily something else?

Smith asks some pointed questions that I believe are very helpful:

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night? You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way into holiness. Why is that? Is it because you forgot something? Is there some other piece of knowledge you still need to acquire? Is it because you’re not thinking hard enough? What if it’s because you aren’t just a thinking thing? What if Descartes was wrong and we’ve been hoodwinked into seeing ourselves as thinking things?

Do you relate to this? Learning something new, having a hunger for growth and transformation, but feeling like you can’t quite get to where you want to go? Maybe we have been hoodwinked!

Okay James, I’m following you, but if we aren’t primarily “thinking things”, what are we?

You are what you love. What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? How would that change our approach to discipleship and Christian formation?

You still with me? Are you starting to see the difference between these understandings of our primary nature as human beings? Are we primarily thinking things or are we primarily lovers?

If we have been operating with the understanding that human beings are primarily thinking things and our approaches, programs, and ministry philosophy has all been directed toward that end, and we are wrong… we might be in big trouble.

If you’re not convinced, Smith goes on:

The center of gravity of the human person is located not in the intellect but in the heart. Why? Because the heart is the existential chamber of our love, and it is our loves that orient us toward some ultimate end or telos. It’s not just that I “know” some end or “believe” in some telos. More than that, I long for some end. I want something, and want it ultimately. It is my desires that define me. In short, you are what you love.

And then he gives such a helpful word picture of our heart as “part compass/part internal guidance system”:

You can’t not love. It’s why the heart is the seat and fulcrum of the human person, the engine that drives our existence. We are lovers first and foremost. If we think about this in terms of the quest or journey metaphor, we might say that the human heart is part compass and part internal guidance system. The heart is like a multifunctional desire device that is part engine and part homing beacon. Operating under the hood of our consciousness, so to speak-- our default autopilot-- the longings of the heart both point us in the direction of the Kingdom and propel us toward it. There is a resonance between the telos to which we are oriented and the longings and desires that propel us in that direction-- like the magnetic power of the pole working on the existential needle of our hearts. You are what you love because you live toward what you want.

This helps me understand why Jesus asked people the obvious question, “What do you want?” Jesus knew that our hearts were our center.

So if we are not primarily “thinking things” or “brains-on-a-stick”, and instead we are what we love and operate from our hearts which is our where our desires and longings reside, then what?

In short, if you are what you love, and love is a habit, then discipleship is a rehabituation of your loves. This means that discipleship is more a matter of reformation than of acquiring information.

Love is a virtue, and virtues are good moral habits. Aristotle said that when you’ve acquired a good moral habit, it becomes second nature. Second nature is an interesting concept. If we look at much of Paul’s writings, we see him urging people to “put off the old, and put on the new”. Another way to look at that is that he is asking people to put off their “first nature” and to develop good moral habits that become second nature.

So how do we acquire virtues, good moral habits, and develop a “second nature”? Smith lays out two simple but profound aspects of virtue acquisition that have been agreed upon throughout the centuries: Imitation and Practice

Imitation we understand when it comes to the spiritual life. This is the primary model that Jesus used: “Follow me”. Then Paul boldly makes the same statement in his letters by exhorting those churches to “follow my example” as he follows Jesus.

I have never thought about how bold a statement this was by Paul until right now. Do we have the virtuous character and courage to say the same thing to those around us? Shouldn’t we all be able to say this, if we are actually following Jesus with the intention of becoming more like him? This is where that “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” theology gets in our way again, because if we are just sinners, why would we ever ask somebody to follow our example? Is this a prideful statement by Paul, or does he understand what Smith is advocating for, that we are what we love and what we long for and desire can become virtuous? My assumption is that at this point in his journey, Paul feels a sense of victory and growth from the effort and intentionality he has put into imitation and practice. He has not made himself virtuous solo, instead he has co-labored with his Sherpa and submitted to the process of developing good moral habits. The result has been a “second nature” that longs for more of God and his Kingdom.

Okay, back to virtue acquisition and the second component, the importance of practice. This is something I’m very passionate about. We understand the importance of practice in every part of life, but we somehow don’t apply the same principle to our spiritual lives.

If you want to go run a marathon, what do you have to do? Train!

If you want to hit a baseball, what do you have to do? Learn the fundamentals, then repeat multiple times= repetition and practice.

I played college basketball and played on my first basketball team at 8 years old. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I practiced my shot, and I ended up only being a decent shooter. Could I have practiced more, definitely! Would I have been a better shooter with more confidence, definitely! The more you practice, the better you become and the more confidence you gain.

What about an artist, how much practice and training do they invest in their craft? Thousands of hours!

I still remember taking my first typing class in middle school and how amazed I was that by the end of the class my fingers knew where to go without thinking about it. Through practice and repetition, my fingers had somehow developed a "second nature."

So if this principle of practice is true in all parts of life, why do we not apply it to our spiritual lives? Isn’t it kind baffling?

Smith then closes out the first chapter by making the point that what we love is synonymous with what we worship and that there are other voices in our culture different from the Good Shepherd and the Kingdom of God that are vying for our worship. The practices and habits we put in place in our life are forming us to worship something, and Smith brilliantly broadens our understanding of liturgy by calling these love-shaping rituals "liturgies."

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart… In order to appreciate the spiritual significance of such cultural practices, let’s call these sorts of formative, love-shaping rituals “liturgies.” It’s a bit of an old, churchy word, but I want to both revive and expand it because it crystallizes a final aspect of this model of the human person: to say “you are what you love” is synonymous with saying “you are what you worship.” The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, this is really your god.” We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship-- which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate.

Smith closes the chapter by dropping the hammer on “thinking-thingism”:

We can’t counter the power of cultural liturgies with didactic information poured into our intellects. We can’t recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures. The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.

If Smith is correct and we are not primarily “thinking things”, and we have been operating in the Church and in our discipleship models as though we are, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate! Friends, I know change can be scary, but there is so much at stake.

The next two weeks we will be taking a look at the Spiritual Disciplines and the role they play in our transformation. This whole concept that we aren't "thinking things" has helped re-frame and solidify the essential role the disciplines play in our spiritual journey as I believe they are the primary tools we can use to develop a "second nature" that is naturally aimed at loving God and his Kingdom.

Questions to help apply this to where you are today:

  1. What do you love? What are your desires? What are your longings? Write them out and process them with Jesus.

  2. What habits, rhythms, and liturgies do you have in place in your life and how are they shaping you? What are they training you to love and desire?

  3. What are the prevailing habits, rhythms, and liturgies in your immediate culture and how are those affecting you?

#Iwanttogrow #JamesKASmith #ThinkingThings #YouAreWhatYouLove