Jamie Smith’s blog refers to a NY Times column by David Brooks, in which Brooks reviews new musical, “The Book of Mormon.” The whole review is interesting, as Brooks argues against the “lowest-common-denominator” kind of spirituality embraced by the pluralistic, vaguely spiritual, well-educated American middle classes, in which all religions are acceptable as long as they are teaching us to be kind to each other and promote world peace through tolerance.
Brooks suggests instead, that theological rigor and particularity is necessary for many reasons. This one in particular stood out to me:
Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.
As Smith points out, this is exactly what he argues in Desiring the Kingdom. And while it made me feel slightly guilty (my giving up Facebook for Lent didn’t exactly last til Easter) it did inspire me that the small things we do can make a big difference. We are tempted to think that these little things don’t matter because we view them in isolation. (It’s only one person I treated that way, only one negative attitude, only one bitchy comment I made…) But in reality, these small habits interlink, reinforce each other and create patterns of behavior that become the foundation of our character, who we are.
The things we habitually practice are as important as the things we try to refrain from. The seemingly small spiritual disciplines we carry out as believers, such as attending church services, reading the bible, singing our theology, fasting, speaking words of encouragement, all add up to create and reinforce our ways of being in the world as the people of God.
As Smith says
…what comes to mind is Pascal’s advice after his infamous wager: “Can’t find yourself able to believe?,” Pascal asks. “That’s OK. Just fake it for a while. Go to Mass. Try on the rhythms of a believer. Practice your way into faith.”
It’s encouraging to realize that the rituals, routines and rhythms we are so familiar with are not mindless and repetitive, but a vital part of shaping who we are, especially when times are hard and answers are scarce. We are instructed to keep doing these things because they make us into who we were always created to be.
Considering the difference our practices and habits can make also means re-examining how we faithfully inhabit our culture as disciples of Jesus. My friend Aaron Rathbun has compiled a list of resources that highlight ways in which we can live intentionally and unplug from systemically unChristian institutions and practices. I highly recommend you check some of them out here.