A Lifetime of Habits

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

A lot of attention has been paid, in recent days, to Tim Keller’s words to a group of journalists about his views on gay marriage and homosexuality. Keller is the pastor of Redeemer NYC (Presbyterian Church of America) and a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, a group of neo-reformed church leaders from around the USA.

What interests me the most about Keller’s comments is not the content about sexuality per se, but rather his comments about the way in which many evangelicals a) read the bible; and b) practice their faith. In Peter Enns’ Patheos blog, he observes a significant issue at play. That is, for many who hold to an evangelical biblicism, for them to come around on issues like homosexuality or evolution. Keller puts the problem this way:

You’re going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible, completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You’re basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their faith out the door.’”

Too often, especially amongst those who consider themselves “more progressive” on issues of human sexuality, the argument is reduced to a change in thought: People just need to change their mind or catch up to others in their *thinking*.

As much as emergent theological voices want to push past the “propositional truth” paradigm, we continue to find ourselves stuck offering replacement propositions. New ways of *thinking* about human sexuality. And yet, what’s at stake here is not just a new idea, a new proposition, a new piece of information. What’s at stake is, in fact, a complete rewiring of an entire way of being.

This is no easy thing. Keller’s observation, “You’re basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their faith out the door,” is precisely what’s at issue. And it’s a big deal.

Stepping Back 

Over the course of the past number of years, I have engaged in numerous conversations with friends and strangers about their emerging / evolving faith. For many, this has been marked not simply by an epiphanaic change in thinking, but rather a change in practice. Often this looks like a denominational shift. Orthodox becomes Presbyterian. Evangelical becomes Roman Catholic, or Orthodox or Anglican.

But one of the things that has constantly struck me, is the way, in each instance, each convert brings elements of their childhood faith to their new ecclesiological home.

Most astounding to me, are the number of “Evangelical Orthodox” I’ve met – friends and acquaintances who have converted to Orthodoxy, but still bring that evangelical zeal to the tradition. Constant invitations to church, to become a part of the community, and eventually become a catechumen and convert.

It still amazes me to see this process repeated. And yet, in the language of evangelical faith, “If you’ve discovered the truth, why would you keep it from your friends?”

Such practice is completely foreign territory to classical orthodoxy, and yet, with a wave of hipster converts from Evangelicalism, somewhat unsurprising. They have been formed in a particular culture, and are bringing those cultural assumptions to a new place, even as they are being formed and informed by a new practice, a new system, a new way of being.

New Habit Formation

Old habits give way to new, but it is not an immediate transition. There may have been a Damascus Road experience, but there is no clean break between one way of being and the next. Paul did not completely discard his Pharisaic way of being when he became a Christ-follower. If anything, he brought that training with him. Romans 7 seems to be evidence of that internal struggle. Formation in one tradition will not be simply over-written by a new operating system. It takes time. The process is more organic than digital. The cells in our body replace themselves every 7-10 years. I wouldn’t doubt it takes that long for our ecclesial or theological (re)formation.

Returning to Keller’s point, any potential shift in worldview (if such a shift happens at all), will only happen incrementally, over time. In response to Enns’ post on a friend’s facebook wall, one commenter suggested: “the old worldview continues to exist beneath the veneer of the imposed/accepted for a LONG time.”

This is precisely what’s at issue here, because we’re talking about reforming a lifetime of habits.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

11 Responses to “A Lifetime of Habits”

  1. Chris Dowdeswell

    “As much as emergent theological voices want to push past the “propositional truth” paradigm, we continue to find ourselves stuck offering replacement propositions. New ways of *thinking* about human sexuality.”

    Not sure if I understand this quote from the article. Is the only alternative to propositional truth (foundationalism) absolute relativism (nonfoundationalism)? Surely we can make bracketed truth claims (postfoundationalism), or else we would be paralyzed in our actions and theological statements would have no intelligibility outside of the already-committed community of faith, a kind of in-house language game. I should say that I do appreciate what I think is the intention–to be wary of biblical literalism. But does the Christian faith have nothing to offer discussions of human sexuality?

    • andrew

      Chris – I think one of the things I’m struggling to articulate is a way forward. I’ve been reading James KA Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series lately, and wrestling with the idea (!) that our theology (and thus worship) isn’t just about what we (cognitively) know, but also incorporates what we (bodily) know.

      He’s talking about habit formation and an embodied faith. In Imaginging the Kingdom, Smith states:

      “Behind” or “under” the action, as it were, is not necessarily a chain of deductive reasoning or reflective deliberation. Most often, and most fundamentally, there is an unarticulated (and inarticulable) set of dispositions and inclinations that are activated immediately upon perceiving a situation (39).

      There’s something pre-cognitive going on. Before we reflect on something, there is this whole series of pre-cognitive cues that we pick up on, and viscerally react to. If a shift in perspective (on any issue) is going to happen, it’s about more than passing on more/better information – it requires a fundamental recalibration of habits and desires.

      In the case of Keller and the neo-reformed churches he represents, to fit LGBTQ folks into their world might require the dissonant practice of reorienting their understanding of how scripture means, and how it enacts its authority.

      If change is desired (and in this case, I don’t think that it is), this will involve both cognitive work, as well as a reformation of habits that allow scripture to still have meaning and authority, but in a different way.

      • Chris Dowdeswell

        Fascinating–the pre-cognitive bit sounds reflective of recent research I’ve read in cognitive science–how cognitive processing happens not only within the conscious, frontal lobe, but throughout the nervous system.

        Habits literally become a part of us, as recent research in neural plasticity has underscored. Thankfully the research has also renewed hope in the possibility to change them with practice.

        One comment about radical orthodoxy and some other theological movements that claim to be postmodern such as postliberalism (some argue they aren’t postmodern because they want to chuck the truth claims postmodernism claims to be constantly interrogating, which necessitates their retention as dialogue partner) is that they “ghetto-ize” theology—they take it out of the public sphere, out of dialogue with other knowledge domains such as the sciences. If we want to be integrated in our faith while embracing these other knowledge domains, our epistemology should encompass them rather than relativize them.

  2. andrew

    I agree. We need to be conversant with other knowledge domains. I’m fascinated to one day pick up McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary” for that very reason. On a more populist note, Charles Duhigg’s recent book on habits (both individual and institutional) has also informed some of my questions about “how we believe.”

    What fascinates me is the way in which individuals and institutions can change their way of being in the world by focusing on habit formation. Whether this is about changing eating habits, or approaches to organisational health and safety, there is something to be learned about how systems work, and how they are changed.

    In addition to the contributions of the enlightenment and modern rationalist thinking, there is plenty beyond just “thinking differently.” In fact, to think differently may actually require the formation of new pre-cognitive habits. Crazy.

  3. Chris Dowdeswell

    I think you’re in great company in the communion of saints seeking to embody your faith. Blessings!

  4. Chris Dowdeswell

    great article in the journal, btw

  5. B. Walsh

    Andrew, I wonder whether you have applied your Jamie Smith influenced notion of habits sufficiently to Keller’s comment. He says that such a shift will require evangelicals to “disassemble the way they read the Bible,” and “their whole approach to authority” in such a way that they will need to “completely kick their faith out the door.”

    Now on one level, this is, of course right, though terribly sad. I’m not sure why disassembling the way in which we read the Bible, and even the way in which we understand biblical authority should necessarily entail kicking our faith out the door. Now if that ‘faith’ is so tied to a particular understanding of the Bible and of authority that it cannot be transformed precisely through a reassembled reading of the Bible, then perhaps is should be kicked out the door. From a biblical perspective it was idolatrous anyway. This is similar to the point that Peter Enns was making in his blog.

    But let’s assume that folks who really do believe that all scripture is inspired by God and is, therefore useful for “correction” (1 Tim 3.16), might even be open to being ‘corrected.’ It might be that the scriptures themselves can lead to a transformation that in fact deepens faith, not jettisons it, precisely as it becomes more open, gracious and understanding of our sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ communities.

    And this leads me to what I consider to be the real import of our conversation about ‘habits.’ To put the point starkly: evangelical Christians will not embrace their LGBTQ brothers and sister because they have first come to a different understanding of scripture. That is not the way things work. Rather, they will come to a different understanding of scripture as they practice the habits of hospitality, as they embrace real, physical, in the neighbourhood, in the family, in the church, living, breathing, weeping and laughing friends who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and queer. Indeed, we will never be able to ‘know’ the scriptures differently, and to ‘know’ our God differently, until we ‘know’ these sisters and brothers first.

    Habits of living, rituals of inclusion, shape habits of reading.

    So why would an evangelical change his or her habit of living? Well maybe because she was a lesbian. Maybe because his dad has been gay all his life and is now coming out of the closet. Maybe because her best friend is transgendered. Maybe because his sixteen year old son just got beat up at school because he is bi-sexual.

    Maybe because the love of Jesus compels us.

    Maybe. Just maybe.

  6. B. Walsh

    As I just reread what I posted I want to add something to the last long paragraph. Maybe we would change our habits of living because we kept on meeting LGBTQ folks who so wonderfully and richly manifest the love of Jesus in their lives.

    Truth be known, that is the habit of living that I got into that changed my views on these things. It wasn’t that I came to a place where I decided that if I was to be a follower of Jesus, then I should be more hospitable to my excluded and persecuted LGBTQ friends. No, it was because I experienced first hand the faith of these friends, and was the recipient of their love, their wisdom, their encouragement in following Jesus. That was how I came to see the fruit and gifts of the Spirit in these sisters and brothers.

    Maybe I could put it this way – their habits of living challenged and transformed my habits of living, and that then entailed, a long way down the road, a transformed habit of reading the Bible.

    Faith kicked out the door? No, the open door of fellowship invited in a deeper faith, a deeper discipleship.

  7. andrew

    Brian – Thanks for this comment. The original post was much longer, and started to dive directly into Jamie Smith’s stuff. I realised I was being longwinded and opted to divide it into two posts, the second of which will now be rewritten in conversation with some of these comments.

    The word idolatry featured prominently in the second part of that blog post. It’s eerie to have you anticipating my every move.

    I like where you take this. Once we move beyond systems of belief, once we move past dogma to encounters with real people who challenge our preconceptions both emotionally and intellectually, we are more open to change. In such a way, our habits of living are changed by that affective (affected?) encounter with another.

    I think this is where Wendy Gritter’s notion of “generous spaciousness” is needed within the church. We need to create spaces where such mutually transformative encounters can take place, not least of which to allow the holy spirit to breathe into our lives and faith, and to call our idolatry for what it is.

    There is this feedback loop in a closed system – a loop that reinforces prejudice and idolatry – that can only be dismantled (and must be dismantled) by introducing new people, new encounters, new ideas and habits into the system.

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