We’re Talking about Practice

Jonathan SBy Jonathan Storment

For the past few weeks, I’ve been blogging through James K.A. Smith’s great little book “You Are What You Love” and today I want to end that series with one more observation.

I have recommended this book to a lot of people. I think Smith is on to something that is good and needed. I also see a serious deficit in virtue and general confusion about what it means to be disciple of Jesus and why we, as churches, are not doing a better job of creating virtuous Jesus people. The goal of Smith’s book is to help us diagnose the problem of our lack of virtue, and also give us some practical solutions. Smith wants us to begin practicing habits that help us develop virtue.

Like Alistair McGrath and N.T. Wright before him, Smith is trying to help us in practical ways to reconsider how we go about spiritual transformation, and Christian education. Instead of throwing books and lectures at our hollowed-out character, consider taking seriously the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount …”Anyone of you who puts these words of mine into practice.”Here is how Smith says it:

Education in virtue is a kind of formation, a retraining of our dispositions. “Learning” virtue – becoming virtuous – is more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory: the goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play “naturally,” as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.

I couldn’t agree more with Smith’s diagnosis and prescription. I am serious when I say that this is one of the best books I have read in a while.

But there is a danger to this approach as well. I have caught myself intentionally not recommending this book to a few people in my life, not because I disagree with the book, but because I think it might do the opposite of its intended purpose.

I think it is possible for some people to do most of what Smith suggests and it works against them becoming like Jesus.

Let me explain…

There’s a point in Jamie’s book where he tells a parable from the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (who is also voted most likely to be named after a vampire) in which Balthasar points out that it is only “After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, that she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge.”Smith’s point in this quote is that we are loved into loving. We love because God first loved us. Ideally, Jesus people practice certain habits in order to become transformed to being like Jesus and living for and from the love of God.

But what happens when we practice the right things for the wrong reasons? St. Augustine is right. The most important things about us are our desires, our loves, and the secret to a true Godly joy and life is ordering our loves correctly.

But what if you love the wrong stuff in the wrong ways and still do the right things? What happens then?

A little background might be helpful, I come from a tribe of Christianity that I love, Churches of Christ are my people, and I belong to them, and am proud of the great things that God has done through us, but we also have had a tendency toward legalism.

For the past couple of hundred years, we had a great concern for restoring historic Christian worship, we took communion weekly, we made a big deal out of the Sacraments (and rightfully so). We cared a lot about trying to do what the early church would have done (way before Robert Webber made Ancient/Future Church cool). But whenever there is an over-emphasis on form it is very possible that we can lose the spirit of the form.

I have seen people sneak out of church right after taking communion, completely disconnected from community of the saints, but safe because they were digesting a wafer and some Welch’s. I have seen people treat baptism like magic water, and watched as their search for finding the perfect/correct worship form trump their love for God and neighbor. I have seen people treat their quasi-virtuous habits like a badge they cultivated to protect them against the wrath of God.

I have a concern that to hand a legalist a to-do list might actually keep the grace of God at arms length, and that for some people to hear about the need to form habits through practice can slowly become a way to “clean the outside of the cup” and make a white-washed tomb.

I am not saying this concern in theory, I’m saying it after 35 years of watching it happen to some people I cared a lot about, who did the right things for the wrong reasons, including myself.

To be clear, this is not what Smith is advocating. Since we come from different traditions I think we are reacting to different things. And there are certain points in his book that he argues against precisely this way of thinking about practicing virtuous habits.

But because the human condition is so sinister, we are crafty at not telling the truth about ourselves, even to ourselves…maybe especially to ourselves. If you start trying to practice and cultivate habits because you love God and have caught a vision of the good life (telos) that the Gospel brings, you are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven. However, if you start practicing habits because you love your own righteousness, then this can lead to, in C.S. Lewis words, “The worst kind of bad man…a religious bad man.”

If you are a recovering legalist or want to be, then by all means read Smith’s wonderful book. But just remember the way of Jesus is all grace, we love because He has first loved us.

And then by all means, and for the love of God, practice it.

 

 

 

 

 

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