Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do? Have you ever found that new knowledge and information don’t seem to translate into a new way of life? Ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night? You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness. Why is that? Is it because you forgot something? Is there some other piece of knowledge you still need to acquire? Is it because you’re not thinking hard enough?
What if it’s because you aren’t just a thinking thing? What if the problem here is precisely the implicit model of the human person we’ve been working with in this whole approach to discipleship? What if Descartes was wrong and we’ve been hoodwinked into seeing ourselves as thinking things? What if we aren’t first and foremost “thinkers”? Then the problem isn’t just our individual resolve or our lack of knowledge. The problem is precisely our thinking-thingism.
But what’s the alternative? If we question the primacy of thinking and knowledge, aren’t we going to slide into an anti-intellectualist embrace of emotion and feelings? And isn’t that precisely what’s wrong with contemporary culture? We’ve embraced an “if-it-feels-good-do-it” rationale that encourages us to “follow our passions” and act on whatever whim or instinct or appetite moves us. Isn’t that precisely why Christians need to focus on thinking—to acquire the knowledge necessary to counter the culture of impulse?
Well, how’s that working out for you? Aren’t we right back to our problem? Has all of your new knowledge and information and thinking liberated you from those habits? As anyone who has ever attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous well knows, “Your best thinking got you here.”2
To question thinking-thingism is not the same as rejecting thinking. To recognize the limits of knowledge is not to embrace ignorance. We don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. We need to recognize the power of habit.
That’s why we need to reject the reductionistic picture we’ve unwittingly absorbed in the modern era, one that treats us as if we’re only and fundamentally thinking things. Instead we need to embrace a more holistic, biblical model of human persons that situates our thinking and knowing in relation to other, more fundamental aspects of the human person. We’ve become so used to reading the Bible with Cartesian eyes—seeing the world through Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” lens—that we see it confirming our intellectualism and thinking-thingism. But on a closer reading, when we set aside those uniquely modern blinders, we’ll find a very different model assumed in the Scriptures.
Consider, for example, Paul’s remarkable prayer for the Christians at Philippi in the opening section of his letter to them: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9–11). Notice the sequence of Paul’s prayer here. If you read it too quickly, you might come away with the impression that Paul is primarily concerned about knowledge. Indeed, at a glance, given our habits of mind, you might think Paul is praying that the Christians in Philippi would deepen their knowledge so that they will know what to love. But look again. In fact, Paul’s prayer is the inverse: he prays that their love might abound more and more because, in some sense, love is the condition for knowledge. It’s not that I know in order to love, but rather: I love in order to know. And if we are going to discern “what is best”—what is “excellent,” what really matters, what is of ultimate importance—Paul tells us that the place to start is by attending to our loves.
There is a very different model of the human person at work here. Instead of the rationalist, intellectualist model that implies, “You are what you think,” Paul’s prayer hints at a very different conviction: “You are what you love.”
What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? How would that change our approach to discipleship and Christian formation?
Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press: A Division of Baker Publishing Group.