December 4, 2020

The “Automaticities” of Faith

Butterfly. Photo by Chris Burke

In his book You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith references the work of Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, writing:

At one point Wilson wagers that only about 5 percent of what we do in a given day is the outcome of conscious, deliberate choices we make, processed by that snowball on the tip of the iceberg that is human consciousness. The rest of our actions and behaviors are managed below the surface, by all sorts of learned yet now unconscious ways of intending and navigating the world. Psychologists refer to these acquired, unconscious habits as “automaticities,” for the same reason Aristotle called them “second nature”: because these are ways that we move in the world without thinking about it. The language of automaticity isn’t meant to reduce us to machines or robots; it’s meant to describe how we acquire ways of navigating the world that become built in, so to speak. (pp. 34-35)

As an example, Smith observes the nature of a common daily activity: driving. When I first learn to drive, it seems a rather mechanical process, and as a driver I tend to think through each move, each decision. But after time I do these things without having to consciously think about them. I develop driving habits.

In like manner, we develop personal character — “…your character is the web of dispositions you’ve acquired (virtues and vices) that work as automaticities, disposing you to act in certain ways (p. 36).

The next step is to realize that we acquire some of these disposition consciously — like when we decide to take up driving, or playing the piano, or learning to play golf. However,

…we can acquire automaticities unintentionally; that is, dispositions and habits can be inscribed in our unconscious if we regularly repeat routines and rituals that we fail to recognize as formative “practices.” So there can be all sorts of automating going on that we do not choose and of which we are not aware but that nevertheless happen because we are regularly immersed in environments loaded with such formative rituals.

…Some cultural practices will be effectively training your loves, automating a kind of orientation to the world that seeps into your unconscious ways of being. That’s why you might not love what you think; you might not love what that snowball of thinking on the tip of the iceberg tells you that you love. (pp. 36-37)

Smith notes that we are immersed in all sorts of natural and secular “liturgies” every day, character-forming environments in which we participate by engaging in “practices” that have become, essentially, second-nature to us. Not all of these are bad, by any means, but many of the liturgies and practices that shape us in a flawed and foolish world mold our hearts to long for an improper or incomplete view of the “good life” God intended when he created us. The process of spiritual formation, then, must involve immersing myself in other liturgies, other practices that form our hearts around love for God and our neighbors.

In this light, I thought Mule’s comment on yesterday’s post was particularly enlightening:

A priest told me that good works don’t make you righteous like paying your bills and saving makes you solvent, but more like exercise makes you strong. Doing the right thing at any particular juncture makes it easier to do the right thing in the future. So does doing the wrong thing. It makes it easier to do the wrong thing in the future.

For me, “Living like Jesus. Loving others. Loving God” too quickly devolves into doing what I please and looking out for those closest to me. That’s where I appreciate the ascetic teaching of the Orthodox Church. For me, the twice-daily prayer rules, the twice-weekly fasts, and the weekly collection for the poor, along with the cycle of fasts and feasts are like training wheels. It makes me attend to what I’m doing.

Add to that the total prohibition against evaluating myself and my ‘progress’ and it works pretty well.

This can only be deemed “legalism” and contrary to the gospel of grace if one makes these kinds of practices “boundary markers” that set off the “saved” from the “unsaved” and enforces them as requirements for anyone who wants to be part of the Christian community. Paul’s message was that the Jews should no longer see themselves as “righteous” because they had the Law and observed it. Instead, righteousness came from trusting in the Messiah and being united with him in a community of faith. And, he continued, Gentiles should not be forced to become Jews and submit themselves to the requirements of the Law. They too were accepted through faith in Jesus apart from law-keeping demands.

But that doesn’t mean that following Jesus happens without us actively participating in a life of “liturgies” and “practices.”

Paul also said he worked for his children in the faith so that “Christ would be formed” in them (Gal. 4:19). He described his pastoral mission in Colossians 1:28-29 in these terms: “So, naturally, we proclaim Christ! We warn everyone we meet, and we teach everyone we can, all that we know about him, so that, if possible, we may bring every man up to his full maturity in Christ. This is what I am working at all the time, with all the strength that God gives me” (JB Phillips translation).

In general, then, Christ being formed in us and becoming conformed to the image of Christ will involve first learning to see through the (mostly unrecognized) liturgies and practices by which we have become formed and to recognize the toxic environments in which we have been immersed. As Smith says, “We need to become anthropologists who try, in some way, to see our familiar surroundings with apocalyptic eyes so we can recognize the liturgical power of cultural rituals we take for granted as just “things we do” (p. 40).

Second, by the enabling power of the Spirit, in the fellowship of the faith community, and with the wise counsel of spiritual guides and directors, we immerse ourselves in new liturgies and practices that are designed to shape our hearts and, out of them, our habits.

• • •

Photo by Chris Burke at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. A long, slow process, to be sure. After five or six decades of turning away from this kind of work on oneself, out of laziness or fear or in pursuit of immediate pleasures or whatever, I wonder how much hope one may have to see good fruits within one’s lifetime from the endeavor. For me to seriously embark on this journey at this time in my life, I think I need to two things to anchor and stabilize me: 2) a community of support (which I don’t have in my daily life) and b) trust that God accepts me, and won’t turn away from me, even though I fail in the process (which I have in my better moments, which don’t come with any regularity or predictability, given my failure for so many decades to enter on the process of change commended in this post). Ah, well!

    • You have fairly accurately described the ditch that I find myself laying most of the time.

      • The professional righteous have passed us by but perhaps the Good Samaritan is carrying us even now, unconscious in his arms as we dream our tormented and tawdry dreams. Let us pray.

    • Robert and Ron, though I don’t want to credit this with too much efficacy, I hope that regular participation in discussions on Internet Monk will prove to be one small “heart-forming” experience for you and all of us.

    • Ah, but what seems impossible for us… you’re really not in any different position than the whole lot when viewed from a vista farther away. The foundational point as always is that the finished work of Christ and His living inside of our beings is the beginning of everything. We are all complete before we even start. We are searching out our completeness which we just can’t see because of basic dimwittedness. It isn’t a standard behavior modification program but rather a search for a reality that we are overlooking. Seeing that expressed in behaviors is, no doubt, a critical aspect of the Christian experience but it is a state of being that we seek. In that context we are already, altogether, “seated in heavenly places” with the term “seated” denoting a position of rest. He is looking for our hearts first, not our activities. I guess I’m just saying that no matter how old we are or how ingrained the patterns of our life, if we recognize more and more the Christ in us, all worldly bets are off and the Spirit of God does amazing things that we don’t even know are happening.

      • Yep. The only answer is Christ. I do believe that’s the message of the Scriptures, from OT to New.

        • Yes. While I am a huge proponent of the psychological arts or sciences, whichever you may call them, I do not see the Christian life as a B.F. Skinner box. Certainly if there is time in one’s life to develop and instill good habits that is a very positive thing and that is essentially what this post is about. Christ, as opposed to Skinner, will take decades of bad habits and misbehavior and still give you Hope as you fix your eyes on Him. At whatever point in our life we embrace Christ, meaning and redemption are brought to bear. He redeems the lost harvests. The whole meaning of my life may come down to one act of kindness that occurs two months before I die. Who knows but there is hope and our lives are of consequence as we embrace him. It ameliorates the fretting over lost time and lost opportunity to know that he will take what we have right where we are and accomplish His purpose in elegant fashion. He just wants our love. The whole meaning of John the Baptist’s life came down to a few months. Nicodemus’ found a crypt for Jesus. If there was nothing else that one act would have given eternal meaning to His life. Always and everywhere He brings redemption so there is never a bad time to get on our horse.

  2. Burro [Mule] says

    In general, then, Christ being formed in us and us becoming conformed to the image of Christ will involve first learning to see through the (mostly unrecognized) liturgies and practices by which we have become formed and to recognize the toxic environments in which we have been immersed.

    I have always been v-e-r-y interested in how these “liturgies and practices” evolved historically. At one time, if reading through the extent literature serves me, the human world once moved to the rhythms of the Church year, admirably adapted to the ebb and flow of natural cycles in the Northern Hemisphere, so that the bright solstitial ‘St. John’s Eve’ or the somber autumnal ‘Martinmas’ carried with them a host of associations and connotations now as ‘irretrievable as Lyonesse’.

    In their place have arisen a host of “liturgies and practices” which have at their root the necessities of commerce, of the tending of the return of compound interest. The desacralization of civic time, initiated by the Reformation, gathered speed after the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the final triumph of the bean counters over the courtly Rosary-clackers.

    • I’m fascinated by “the total prohibition against evaluating myself and my ‘progress’”. What? No navel gazing? Please elaborate.

  3. one step at a time
    out under the rain filled sky
    you’ll surely get wet