Practice Makes Perfect
Constructivism, deconstructionism, structuralism, poststructuralism, modernity, modernism, postmodernism, postmodernity, etc. are useful methodologies that help our understanding of human nature and the way they situate themselves in the world. Habermas, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty are some of the familiar names who dominate these fields of knowledge. While studying some of these experts in the book Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner, I realized two things, perhaps a shared experience that shaped these men: Marxism and World War I. This paper will not delve into the intersection of these two narratives except to make a simple observation.
“The war to end all wars,” originally idealistic, now used sardonically, was a very dark time in human history. Most wars until then were fought on a local level, tribe against tribe, nothing of the sort that involved multiple nations fighting each other under the banner of alliances. In an ideal sense, that war, as heinous as it was, exposed human depravity in unthinkable ways that it was inconceivable to imagine something much worse.
Marxism, on the other hand, predated the great wars and appeared on the scene when no other competing views of human development, structure and functioning (social theory) existed , or at least was not in vogue. Karl Marx in the early 19th century was successful in capturing our collective imagination to frame and map our shared experiences at the time. When the “war to end all wars” failed to end wars, it was no surprise then that the thinkers following it were forced to rethink their ideas about human nature. This is, my opinion, what has led to the interdisciplinary art and science of social theory.
Fast forward to today. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College has done a great job of introducing some of these postmodern thinkers to the project of discipleship and new ways of thinking about apologetics, albeit in subtle forms. However, his avant-garde ideas about human flourishing and behavior are not without its critics.1 Nevertheless, he brings fresh perspective to the conversation that can no longer be ignored.
Evangelicalism has been a strong force for Christianity since the Reformation, and deservedly so. Its adherents helped us focus our attention to the primacy of God’s mission (Missio Dei), the Gospel, which literally means “good news.” This focus has lost its meaning in recent days and we as followers of Jesus must seek relevant ways to once again partner with God in his mission to save souls. For far too long we have imbibed in the notion that all our actions are a result of a process of deliberations in our minds, choosing the best options for the eventual outcome in our behaviors. This is wrong headed. This is where Smith is helpful as he directs our attention to social theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu who claim that there is another way of knowing and behavior is not primarily located in or generated from the mind.
The claim that our behavior originates from other than our minds is unpopular. But there appears to be inchoate, tacit order to our actions that we can say it literally resides in the very core of our bodies. Karen Rouggly wrote a pithy reflective blog explaining this phenomenon.2 It’s important that Evangelicals warm up to the idea that we are not simply “brains on a stick” because it just might be the missing ingredient to our sanctification.
Here is something to consider. Devoted followers of Christ seek to be like him. We read books, pray, attend conferences and conventions to better understand why we behave the way we do. If all we do is focus on the mind’s ability to go through a process of deliberation to arrive deductively at a conclusion that forces our action toward righteousness, then we are deluded. If right behavior is contingent upon right belief then we ought to expect greater sanctification in our personal lives than we have already experienced. The fact that this is not the case tells us there is another method we have not considered.
Perhaps we ought to consider Smith’s project in his book Imagining the Kingdom where he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies; or Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus”3 that is an inculcation that works deeply in pre-reflexive ways to the glory of God. Since all truth is God’s truth, Evangelicals should not be afraid but press forward with courage to use tools like social theory to usher in the next revival.
We are not anywhere close to another world war, God forbid, but we must not take these ideas for granted. No one wants to go through terrible human suffering just to get us to adjust our thinking.
1“EPS Blog,” EPS Blog – Evangelical Philosophical Society, , accessed November 08, 2018, http://blog.epsociety.org/2014/08/interview-with-r-scott-smith-in-search.html.
2 “It’s in the Bones,” DMINLGP.com, , accessed November 08, 2018, https://blogs.georgefox.edu/dminlgp/its-in-the-bones/.
3 Bryan Stanley Turner and Anthony Elliott, Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory (London: SAGE, 2001), 321.
6 responses to “Practice Makes Perfect”
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Wow, what a historic and well cited perspective. While I have not read what you have read, nor perhaps understand as you understand, I appreciate your intent to marry your passion for the Gospel with your capacity to understand the complexities of our societies. Your gifts of reason and communication are deeply appreciated. Blessings, H
Harry, I was pleased to read your blog for several reasons. One that I want to mention is your reference to Karl Marx. I was very much intrigued by our reading of him, although I did not go there in my writing this week. I hear his name tossed about and have had a vague notion of what he espoused. This book gave me more of a handle on Marxism; I understand better why he was so influential and is still referred to today. I was even surprised by how much of what he purported made sense to me. I saw him as more of a human trying to make sense of the world; I guess reading his works, even a little, humanized him. Not sure if I explained myself well but your blog was helpful and insightful. Thank you.
I appreciate this Andrea. You’re absolutely correct, he is still a current and major influence in a lot of our thinking today — for good or for bad. I’m no expert in Karl Marx, Marxism or Neo-Marxism but it appears he captured people’s imagination in the mid 19th century and still does by exposing class structures in society. I think he’s wrong in providing solutions, but he does a good job of raising the right questions.
I’m also convinced that a lot of the polarization in politics going on in the U.S. right now traces its roots to Marxism. We know the Gospel is the answer to the problems Karl Marx identified. However, we as followers of Christ must be careful not to withdraw from these charged conversations and respond in loving ways confident in the fact we have the truth. This doesn’t excuse the fact that we have to continue to do our homework and seek to understand where our secular neighbors are coming from. Even if it means helping them understand where they’re coming from.
Thanks for the post Harry ( I could hear you coming through the writing :0). I hadn’t considered that Marx was the first which always gives you a “step up” on others who follow. Thanks for pointing that out.
If I’m following your train of thought correctly, “renewing the mind”, is not all about quoting scripture but is a process of transformation. I find in my stream of faith, people think if they can say a lot of text (scripture) they are changed but are not willing to go through a process of changing. On the contrary when I look at becoming like Christ process is the name of the game!
Thanks Mario. I could be wrong on Marx being the first to point it out. But he certainly got credit for it–I’m talking about the division between the proletariat and the bourgeois.
As far as the “renewing of the mind” thing, I’m glad you mentioned it. I try to write everything with the dissertation in mind, a la Dr. Harvey. And so this is no exception. My research interest asks the question: how do we change our behavior, especially bad ones. Romans 12 has a lot of good things to say about this. The part about offering our bodies as living sacrifices gets overlooked a lot. When we read or hear “bodies” we think other things such as flesh (sinful nature), our being, our nature, etc. I think Paul literally means our bodies, i.e., skin, bones, muscles, eyes, literally the physical thing about us. This is where some of the French social theorists get it right.
We don’t think it strange to train our bodies for sports. Why shouldn’t we do the same for our non-sports actions? They both involve bodily actions; they both have measured outcomes; etc.
Our problem in Evangelicalism is that we’ve over spiritualize everything. Who can blame them? That’s what has been taught in churches for far too long. I didn’t grow up in any liturgical church but I see the value in the exercise of spiritual disciplines, i.e., fasting, prayer, solitude, etc. These kinds of “doing” help us in pre-reflexive ways of behaving.
So many good questions Harry! I love chewing on how my body, my physical presence in the world must undergo a process of sanctification as well as my mind. So much of the physicality of faith has been dropped. When I kneel to pray, it is uncomfortable, so I reason that God doesn’t need me to kneel to hear me. Which is true, but I forego the blessing of training my body when I relent. What I notice when I fast, is that it often doesn’t feel spiritual. I don’t necessarily feel close to God; sometimes I’m just hungry and grumpy. But learning to control my focus in the midst of bodily discomfort is an instrument towards sanctification isn’t it? What do we lose when we elevate the mind and lessen the import of the body in the process of sanctification? Does this contribute to the lack of faith-motivated action?