I’ve been thinking about formation lately — how I might become more like the person, specifically the Christian person, I believe I should be, but more importantly, how I might pass that on in an exemplary fashion to my kids (especially if the world wants to form them into something quite different), and to those I teach and pastor.
One of the challenges I face simultaneously as a parent and a pastor — and for myself in terms of my own life in the world — is, I think, not just convincing my kids (or people at church) to believe the story of Jesus is true but to feel like it is true. Not simply to have Christian beliefs but Christian affections. I haven’t found a huge library of resources in my own church tradition for this distinction, and I’m still stumbling my way around; it seems to me that we assume feelings have to be generated from belief, and if it comes the other way around we are suspicious that it’s manipulative.
At the same time, one of the challenges we face in the west — both in the church, and the world we live in — is that belief and feeling are almost subsumed into second place behind ‘working’ — being effective. Again, this is a challenge I personally face too — the benefits of having archives for my blog is you can dig back into past me and find a little pragmatist/utilitarian and watch the wheels fall off as my values shifted. It’s not that I’m anti-effectiveness, or excellence, or results. I’ve largely just changed metrics so that what I’m interested in is the cultivation of both belief and feeling alongside the cultivation of character. Character is the result — not success or productivity. Back when I was a ‘utilitarian’; I was calling myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; suggesting that the right thing to do was the thing that produced the most converts to true belief… the more I thought about ethics (and how hollow it was to make results the ‘end’ or purpose of action rather than goodness) the more I became interested in virtue ethics and the place of character; and the role of a ‘story’ in shaping character, but also of habitual action.
One of the things that shifted me from utilitarianism to a more character focused ethic was reading Augustine, and because of Augustine, reading Aristotle, who split intellectual virtue (reason) and moral virtue (ethics):
Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II
I’ve largely been shaped by a culture (both in and outside the church) that emphasises teaching rather than practices as the way we are formed as people. I say this because I’m not claiming to speak beyond my own experience here, yours might be different. It’s not that I haven’t also learned through practices; learning via practice is inevitable. It’s simply that I haven’t thought about my habits as the pathway to moral formation or the pursuit of what is good; I’ve thought of that as something to be pursued on the basis of what we believe to be right (and of helping other people believe right things). Interestingly, Aristotle doesn’t say that the habitual formation of virtue is in competition with being effective; he saw goodness in terms of being connected with the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — a purpose fundamentally connected to the nature of an object.
We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II
The question is who, or what, sets the parameters or definition of ‘what makes a (hu)man good’ and what work we should be doing. There’s a fundamental view of these questions at play in our education system; but when it comes to Christians we have a clear sense of what makes us good, and what defines our work. Our ‘end’; in terms of our ‘purpose’ is to image God — to glorify him in relationship with him, by reflecting the character of God as we live — we have a specific picture of what that looks like in the person of Jesus, and so Paul talks about us being ‘transformed into the image’ of Jesus. That’s what our fundamental purpose is (or our ‘chief end’); we do this by being ‘united with Christ’ or ‘in Christ’ as ‘the body of Christ’ and our work, then, becomes to be like Jesus, in partnership with other Christians. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:
There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. — 1 Corinthians 12:6, 12-13
We’re to do ‘God’s work’ in co-operation with the body God has put us in (the church) — that’s ‘our own work’ — or as Paul says a little later in the letter (having discussed the ‘way of love’ as a habitual practice (1 Cor 12:31-14:1), imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
If we’re going to cultivate virtue our habits have to be aligned with becoming like Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. I suspect a pretty nice ‘proof text’ for this, if you wanted one, is Matthew 28:18-20, the ‘great commission’ — I’m struck by how much I’d read this in my utilitarian days as basically being about converting as many people as possible to an intellectual idea, rather than being about the harder work of re-forming re-created people so they don’t bear the image, or imprint, of whatever character their habits have formed as they’ve worshipped something other than Jesus, but instead are ‘disciples’ of Jesus; those disciplined towards practicing his teaching.
It’d be easy to turn this discipline thing into following a bunch of rules — and then being judgmental of ourselves and others when we inevitably fall short of the standard of perfection; but the Romans 8 picture of the Christian life is one where our transformation is an ongoing process that doesn’t seem to finish until the story finishes and we are ‘glorified’ (Romans 8:28-30). But in the meantime, rather than rules shaping our lives, I’m interested in the idea that we are more shaped by story.
Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was really helpful for me both in how it framed the alternative worldly ethical system to virtue, particularly a sense that we’re all part of some big system which has to be managed via bureaucratic processes (or economic ones — so that, for example, we don’t form children as people but as economic cogs), and more than that, in making this connection between virtue and story:
“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” — MacIntyre, After Virtue
I’m also convinced (in part due to James K.A Smith) that we are affectionate creatures before we are intellectual creatures, and that we cultivate our affections by habitual actions directed towards an ‘end’ by a story that we participate in; and by philosopher Iris Murdoch who suggested that a fundamental ‘virtuous’ habit is to give ‘loving attention’ to others and the world as a habitual orientation.
“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair… Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.” — Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
There are a few convictions underpinning the following habits… I’m convinced that my formation as a person, the formation of my children and my pastoring of a church, should involve helping people habitually live in the story of Jesus, so that we are shaped by our telos to do the work God has called us to do (and that by habitually living in this story we are doing the Great Commission work, which involves our purpose; namely, to ‘glorify God’). I’m convinced this is about forming people who love God and believe we are loved by God; that it isn’t just about intellectual virtue but about our affections (and that the contest in this world is a contest about who or what we worship and the end we are living for). I want my kids to love God more than they love sex, money, or the pleasures of this world — I want to love God more than I love sex and money and the pleasures of this world. I’m convinced that one of the things that has happened as our view of world has become ‘disenchanted’ is that our imaginations have been stunted; that when Paul says ‘do not be conformed to the patterns of this world’ but ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2) part of this is about idolatry, but part of it too, is about what idolatry does to our thinking and imagining (Romans 1), and that Colossians 3 (where many of these habits are derived from) encourages us to re-imagine the world by changing how we see it, and our place in it, and this is part of what Paul is saying when he says “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
I’ve been reading a bunch of books around practices and habits (largely because though I love Smith’s You Are What You Love, I found the practices, which I’d describe as ‘medieval’, left me wanting something else, see my series on ‘the Worship Wars’ for more on this). I particularly enjoyed Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Practices That Shape The Church For Mission. These books are chock full of habits and practices and ideas for cultivating a new way of seeing and being in the world. I’d like to do lots of them, but I felt like some of them required some sort of ‘ground clearing’ exercise first — that I couldn’t jump from zero to 100… and some of them seem, frankly, beyond my modernist-influenced-propositional-logic shaped rational brain; I feel like I have to become a more affective person before I could effectively adopt them.
The next seven posts will explore some of how I’m thinking about these in the categories of myself, parenting, and pastoring. It might take me a while to unpack them, so here’s the list.
1. The habit of story (telling, listening, and playing)
2. The habit of singing, reading and listening to poetry (starting with the Bible)
3. The habit of silence and space (including digital silence, and working less)
4. The habit of giving
5. The habit of ‘gathering’ with the body (including feasting together)
6. The habit of presence and encouragement
7. The habit of prayer
If you’ve thought about practices/habits, and especially about cultivating your affections — I’d love ideas for what could bump any of these off the list.