This morning I want to lay out a basic argument and then have us discuss its implications for us as individuals, families and a church.
Humans have undergone quite a transition throughout it’s history especially in the way that we think about ourselves. Modernism is a word that we use to describe that kind of thinking over the last few centuries. One of the the key understanding of modernism is that humans are basically ‘thinking things.’ One of the influential philosophers of that time was Rene Descartes. He was famous as a deconstructionist. Basically wouldn’t believe anything at face value. He wouldn’t even believe that he existed. He is famous for deconstructing his own existence down to one sentence. That is “I think, therefore I am.” And then his arguments would be built on that phrase. For him, all of life and things we see can be explained by starting at that sentence, starting with the fact that he is a thinking being. From this point humans have generally established that their primary function is ‘thinking.’
Within the church we see this kind of mentality have a very strong prominence. The church in many ways has put all its focus on ‘what you believe.’ If you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord then you are saved. Massive battles are waged on religious and political stages about ideology and what people actually believe and being upset about what others believe. Entire other religions (like atheism) become large movements because they are rejecting a certain way of belief. For the most part it matters very little what you do as long as you believe the right things. It is fair to say that the church has tricked itself for many centuries now that as long as they have the right doctrine, the right beliefs then they have successfully done the work of a human for God, they are doing the good and right thing.
But we need to look back further into what the Scriptures and first Christians would say about this. It does seem to be quite different how they understood their humanity and role in the world.
Augustine was a bishop in 4th century and is probably the most influential theologian of Christianity after the author’s of the Bible. And what he would say is that humans are made to love. And what we love defines us. He is quoted as saying “we are what we love.” He looks at communities, societies, countries and churches as groups of people who are associated “of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love.” So in direct contrast to modernity which would say that we are people because we think, Augustine would say that we are people because we love. That we are not defined by our minds as much as we are defined by our hearts.
Societies for Augustine are created around “common objects of love.” Now what distinguishes the church, is we claim that we worship the creator of those objects rather than the objects themselves. So this way that when the church is truly the church we create a different kind of community, a counter-community that worships God rather than what the empire worships. So for Augustine, what binds all people together, is love. So for him when we look at conflict in human society it’s because our loves are not properly aligned and the result is chaos and violence. By aligning our love to the creator and not to the created objects, ourselves or pleasure then then we allow ourselves to be formed properly into the way our creator made us.
So we can look at specific gatherings around the world and we can see how they are formed around these common objects of love. James KA Smith, a reformed theologian out of Grand Rapids (a Canadian though!) looks at cultural gatherings like shopping malls, sporting events and how they are built around loving something rather than our creator. So by participating in these types of rituals built around these objects of love we become formed by those practices. If we shop every day at a supermarket where we become formed by these places and these practices into the kinds of people that shop at supermarket.
What Smith says that is we need to start recovering proper places where counter-formation can take place. He recognizes that we are bombarded and being formed by things counter to the Kingdom all day every day, and that the church desperately needs to create institutions and places that counter what this does to us as Christians.
If we are shaped by what we love, what do we love? What shapes our heart?
“We are what we love precisely because we do what we love.”
– James KA Smith
So I think this gets us a little bit closer.
So then what do we do? What do we love?
Well I think we do all sorts of things. We do work, we spend time with friends, we raise our families, we go on trips, we brush our teeth, we read books and we play sports. So does that mean we love all these things? Well not quite. I think though what it means is that we allow all these things to shape us, and form us into certain kinds of people who love certain kinds of things.
So this is where it gets interesting. Because we as Christians stress to much that we are saved by faith and not by works and only by the grace of God, we have always pushed back on this idea that it really matters all that much. We think that faith means a certain belief and so we think that if you hold to the right faith then all is well. But the Bible, Jesus and Christianity is quite clear that the right beliefs without the right action is dead. No point. We generally choose to shrug this off and continue to emphasize grace. But in doing that we have fallen prey to the idea that we are what we think, what we believe. But we aren’t. Rather we are what we love and we love what we do. This really should make us ask ourselves if we are Christians at all?
It also is interesting because we know that thinking about something doesn’t mean that we are going to do it. We all know this. In fact there is a pretty convincing theory called Cognitive Dissonance that basically says that if you are confronted by a contradictory belief that we will seek to avoid situations in which we get continually confronted with that belief and always seek to be consistent with the way we think. So what ends up happening in this theory is that slowly you will start to think the way you start living (not the other way around). So let’s say you eat McDonalds every single day and at first you thought this was a bad idea. Overtime you will slowly start to change the belief to match the action, rather than change the action to match the belief. A famous author Michael Pollan who writes extensively about food as many times given great evidence about how eating at Mcdonalds is unhealthy and we’d be better off every time eating at home.
So because of this reality. It is suggested that we learn to do the right things so that we can think the right thoughts. So many people teaching us things that we should know about certain things we do (driving, smoking, eating etc). The call for awareness seems to be the main goal of many public media campaigns. Look at the labels on smoking cigarettes. There can’t be a person left in existence who doesn’t know the risks that come with smoking, and yet it is still a multi million dollar industry.
The response to such a situation is not simply pressing people to think more about what they’re doing. If I am intellectually convinced by Michael Pollan but still have the default disposition to pull into the drive-through at McDonald’s, the solution is not to be constantly thinking””that approach is unsustainable and thus, ultimately, inadequate. It’s not a matter of thinking trumping dispositions; it’s a matter of acquiring new habits.
– James K. A. Smith
The answer is not to be more aware of the damage and consequences of bad living.
So the Christian church since the beginning has always acknowledged certain disciplines that have a forming effect on Christians to counteract the kinds of things people would be doing all day long anyway. We’ve seen that we don’t just wake up one day and love rightly and many times we don’t make decisions on what we love. So we’ve instituted many different things that are meant to exert a shaping force on us and our love. Our hearts are shaped by practices (or liturgies) that we immerse ourselves in.
Sometimes we are left wondering why in the world we do what we do? One of the questions that William Cavanaugh asks us is “How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world to kill people he knows nothing about?” It’s not because he has thought about it and thinks it’s a good idea. It’s because he has been raised in a culture that has formed the way he thinks. This could be a bunch of things. It could be video games, propaganda, religion, but in most cases this is not a rational thing to do. We could look at this with raising kids. We could wonder why our kids don’t eat healthy food even though we tell them over and over again that rationale behind it, while other kids only eat fruit and vegetables and they know nothing of why they are being healthy. It’s not about how they think about it, it’s the habits that have been formed in them from early on.
This means that that the Christian church was onto something by giving us things to do that are different from the cultural norm. Watching Monday Night Football every single week does something to us. Taking communion every week also does something to us as well. Watching three hours of TV every day does something to you. Staying always connected to the internet does something to us. So does singing songs together once a week. So does reading the bible. So does praying. So does studying. So does intentional relationships with the poor.
Q: By taking an inventory of your own life, are the things you do the kinds of things that will shape you into a lover of God, Jesus and the Kingdom?
The ironic part of this sermon is that I can explain this over and over again but because it’s just beliefs and it has and will have no effect on actually pointing your desires to Christ. Our desires are formed by what you do, not by what you believe.
This is one of the main reasons that I have become more skeptical of our 45 minute section on a Sunday morning that is focused purely on belief and what we think about the world. I make an argument to teach you something and increase your knowledge, but really, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how much you or I know, it doesn’t necessarily reflect how we are going to live our lives. What matters is the habits we’ve formed, the liturgies that we participate in day and day out, that is what is going to change us into people that desire the kingdom and look more like Christ.
So we can continue as theStory to keep coming once a week for an hour and participate in the liturgies we have outlined here. But really what is going to shape us, and shape our kids is so far beyond one hour a week that unless we own up to that we are going to inevitably be shaped by everything else that we do. The schools we send our kids to, the extra curricular activities, the friends, the obsessions with money, the pets, where we live, how we interact with our families, our hobbies, our jobs and the list goes on. Unless we as Christians make conscious decisions to be formed by Christ-centered habits then we have no chance at actually being part of the kingdom of God that we think, talk and know so much about. This is what the church calls discipleship, it’s a process of discipline that shapes and molds us into these kinds of people. Daniel Bell wrote a book called Economy of Desire which was an excellent book that built off James Smith’s ideas in Desiring the Kingdom and contrasted our capitalist system with the Christian ethic where he says this:
Discipleship is about the Christian community living now in accord with God’s economy in the midst of the worldly economies. This is to say, we labor and produce, acquire and distribute, buy and sell, trade and invest, lend and borrow, but we do so in a manner that is different from others insofar as we do so in a manner informed by a desire schooled in virtues such as charity, justice, and generosity. This means that in many cases, our laboring and producing and acquiring and exchanging and investing and lending will look very different from that of disciples of the free market. In this way, as we journey through this world and its economies, we hope others will see how we order our pots and pans, how we deal with material goods, and so turn and join us on our way in giving thanks to God in heaven, who is the giver of every good gift.
– Daniel M. Bell Jr
So I’ll leave you with this. If you are a Christian and the only intentional practice you are engaged in is coming here for an hour a week, then you are being shaped by a lot of other things unintentionally. Coming to church once a week will stick with you for a long time, just look at some of the mainline churches and they are full of folks who have created a habit of one hour a week, and for many, that hour is the entirety of their spiritual formation. Our churches today are full of younger families that are at risk of the same future unless we take this into our own hands and start creating habits and liturgies that form us rather than letting the practices of the world shape us. So unfortunately, coming to church isn’t enough to turn you into the kind of person a Christian should be. Sorry if that’s what you were hoping. But my guess is if this is all you got, you won’t be much of a Christian in ten years.
I don’t heap this onto you to make you feel guilty and tell you to start reading your Bible every day. I tell you this as a warning, that the inevitable end of all humans is that they turn into what they love, and you always love what you do, so if you aren’t doing the things of the kingdom, then you won’t turn into one that loves the kingdom. This isn’t about where you are going when you die, this is about fulfilling the call of discipleship here and now, and it’s your choice, follow Jesus and be shaped by the things of the kingdom, or follow yourself and be shaped by the things of this world. This is about how you are going to die, not what happens when you die.
So may we be Christians who participate in life shaping rituals and liturgies and practices that form us into the people that God called us to be. May we understand true freedom in Christ through the disciplines. May we do the hard work now of discipline so we may reap the benefits in the long run.
So I’ll end with a verse from Paul that I think is a good benediction to a sermon like this:
Romans 6:15-23 (MSG)
So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!
I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing, not caring about others, not caring about God, the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.
But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.