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Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith is written by the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship.

Thinking, praying, and living the faith is at the core of ministry in the Office of Theology and Worship. In the following videos, learn more about what thinking, praying, and living the faith means to the leadership of the Office of Theology and Worship. Discover why it matters and what difference it makes in our lives, work, and worship.  

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June 26, 2013

Habits & Holiness, Practices & Personhood

"Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.  Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."  1 Peter 1:13 – 16 (which is quoting Leviticus 19:2 at the end)

Could it be that cognitive science helps us understand the Christian way of life?  Does the Christian emphasis on spiritual practices, done repeatedly, like a habit, have scientific support?

Alva Noë (a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of UC's Institute for Cognitive and Brain Science) has written about the importance of habits for being human.

Habits, Noë comments, are much maligned.  Habits are often said to be ruts in the road that confine our free self-realization.  Sometimes, of course, they are (Noë has written a follow-up post on how habits go wrong: “How to Live Forever! Or Why Habits Are a Curse” (with a title like that, you owe yourself at least a quick look!).  But there's so much more to habits than the ways they go wrong.

Habits enable us to be fully human.  "A habit-free existence would be a robotic existence; it would be one in which nothing could be taken for granted."  Consider language, Noë suggests.  "How could you talk if you couldn't take your own fluency, that is to say, your own habitual master of words, meanings, and ways of talking, for granted?"

But it's more than language.  Habit shapes the brain.  Scientists have identified regions of the brain that appear to be dedicated to processing particular kinds of sensory information: regions where visual stimuli are processed, or auditory stimuli, or other kinds of information.  But it turns out that regions of the brain can be utilized for other kinds of thought.  "What explains the assignment of visual function to a cortical field?  Answer: experience.  The assignment of function is the result of species-wide habits of dynamic exchange with the environment.  This is why when an individual mammal is born blind, its 'visual' structures get conscripted to perform non-visual functions . . ."  Habitual patterns of interaction with the environment impact the brain and its functioning; the brain and its functioning impact habits and interaction.  "This is a virtuous circle."  There is an interaction of brain anatomy, behavior, and context that shapes each.  And when it shapes these things in us, it shapes us, our selves. 

Noë summarizes: "We like to think that we can explain what we are, and what we can do, in terms of the brain.  But it turns out that the brain itself, and its role in consciousness and cognition, is best [understood] in relation to what we are and what we can do.  Either way, habit plays a basic role in making sense of what we are."

Christianity is a fabric woven, in significant part, of habits - what we often call ''practices".  We worship weekly.  We follow basically the same liturgy.  We celebrate the sacraments - the same ones.  Again and again and again.  We pray together and individually.  We say the Lord's Prayer and the creeds.  Again and again and again.

We do so in the belief that some habits/practices are wired in to holiness.  These practices are ways of seeking to "be holy yourselves in all your conduct," as 1 Peter calls us to do.  The practices are habits for helping us grow in holiness.  Habits that help us grow into a life fully shaped to the holiness of God.

Those who focus on spirituality have called us to see the value and importance of spiritual practices in living faithfully.  Lectio divina, centering prayer, retreat time, praying while walking the labyrinth, and others.  Christianity's commitment to practices embraces and extends well beyond these spiritual practices.  Gathering for worship, prayer together, preparing and attending to sermons, together confessing our faith and our sins, hymn singing, celebrating baptism and the Lord's Supper, building Habit houses and water purification systems, being active citizens seeking God’s will for the city and the countryside . . .

Practices are a way of shaping our very selves, body and mind, to inhabit this world in a particular way.  In a world of violence, they shape us to follow Christ in a love that declines violence.  In a culture of consumerism they are shaping us for contentment and peace.  What a surprise: life in the church so often gets focused on the details of how these habit-actions are going to be carried out (what’s the order of worship, who will volunteer for the food pantry, who will provide leadership, who’s going to clan up afterward, and [you can fill in the blank]).  In the midst of all that activity, may we remember that that can be a good, even vital place to be, preparing conditions in which these habits can work their good in ourselves and other.  Being right in the midst of just such things is deeply human, and doing such things runs deep in God’s purpose for us and all people: "You shall be holy, for I am holy." (1 Peter 1:16, Leviticus 19:2.)   

Tags: alva noe, habit, habits, holiness, liturgy, personhood, spiritual practices


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