You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

By James K. A. Smith, 2016

Review for Emmaus Anglican Church

By Ryan Scruggs

In an attempt to spark our imaginations, this year the Discipleship Team will be reading James K. A. Smith’s book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. There are many classic works on discipleship, or “spiritual formation” as the case may be: Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation to Christ and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship come immediately to mind, but there are a host of more recent authors who have made their mark as well: Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, and N.T. Wright, to name but a few of the more popular. So what does Smith offer that’s new in a field saturated by worthy reads? Not a great deal, to be honest, and while I don’t think he would argue otherwise nor do I think he would view such an evaluation as reproach. I’ll explain in a moment.

One of Smith’s gifts is as a summarizer and populariser of more difficult works. A good example is his recent book How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, which offers an interpretive lens on Taylor’s massive A Secular Age as well as practical guide to Christian living within such an age. Although less explicit, You Are What You Love is also indebted to another author, Robert Webber, whose work Smith notes in the “Acknowledgements” has “had a significant impact on me at a crucial phase of my life, and in many ways I’m simply writing in his wake. This little book is a dinghy bobbing along behind the ship of Webber’s ‘ancient-future’ corpus.” For those who have read Webber, the idea that a lack of novelty might be praise will be understandable. For example, in his “Introduction to the Ancient-Future Series” Webber writes that “The way into the future, I argue, is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past.”

All that said, Smith brings his own considerable skill as a professional philosopher and able cultural critic to the table. You Are What You Love is in fact a condensed version of his more ambitious and scholarly project in his three-volume work on the theology of culture: the first of which is Desiring the Kingdom, the second, Imagining the Kingdom (both of which have received high praise), and the third which has yet to be published. So if you’re into Coles Notes, this is it! It’s also worth noting that Smith is an engaging writer who seems to have his finger on the pulse of Millennials (he’s a movie-buff, understands social media, and loves David Foster Wallace).

At its core the book is about worship, for “worship is the heart of discipleship” (25). And while worship is significantly what takes place on Sunday morning, it cannot be reduced to this; in fact, it’s central to Smith’s thesis that all of life is worship of one thing or another. Here’s a few lines from David Foster Wallace that I think drive much of Smith’s argument: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive” (23).

Smith’s argument is largely in opposition – sometimes in an unbalanced way – to views of discipleship that focus on the mind. A key question he poses is this: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” (5). He’s trying to tap into postmodern sentiments (he is, after all, first and foremost a philosopher of postmodern French thought) that are tired of the Cartesian heritage and what he calls “thinking-thingism.” This entails offering a fresh (actually, as he acknowledges, an old, Augustinian) theological anthropology that understands humans as lovers at their core rather than knowers. Descartes thought of humans as “brains-on-a-stick,” whereas Augustine (and Jesus for that matter) was more interested in appealing to the human heart, “[b]ecause the heart is the existential chamber of our love, and it is our loves that orient us toward some ultimate end or telos” (9). Such a premise, however, has significant implications for discipleship: much of what shapes us for good or evil will be at the level of subconscious desire. In fact, in what is probably his most original (and interesting) chapter, entitled, “You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read ‘Secular’ Liturgies,” Smith offers an exegesis of cultural liturgical sites (the mall is his primary example) that shape our loves often without us ever being aware of it. “The mall is a religious site, not because it is theological but because it is liturgical. Its spiritual significance (and threat) isn’t found in its ‘ideas’ or its ‘messages’ but in its rituals. The mall doesn’t care what you think, but it is very much interested in what you love. Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart” (41).

I think Smith would agree with Woody Allen (and, Google search informs me, Selena Gomez) that “the heart wants what it wants,” but none of this means that (fallen) nature is destiny. In fact, the good news is that there is something called virtue, which Smith, following Aristotle and Aquinas, calls “second nature.” In this sense, Smith argues, “character is destiny,” and “your character is the web of dispositions you’ve acquired (virtues and vices) that work as automaticities, disposing you to act in certain ways” (36). Here then is the missing link in the process of discipleship we’ve been discussing thus far: if worship is at the heart of discipleship, and worship is a matter of orienting our loves to a particular end or telos, then the way we do so is through character forming habits. (It’s here that Smith fails to give sufficient credit to the mind: the move from fallen nature to second nature, i.e. virtue, requires the work of the mind in directing the will toward a particular telos. This is why Smith writes books – to convince the minds of his readers that the kingdom of God is a worthy end, and that spiritual habits are the best possible means to that end. He doesn’t deny all of this, but his approach could be more balanced.) In the same way that one learns to play the piano, or shoot a basketball, or to drive a car – by conscious practice that matures into unconscious response – so the spiritual life is largely a matter of acquiring spiritual habits that mature into virtuous living. These habits shape our hearts and orient our loves toward God’s kingdom.

The rest of the book (chapters 3-7) is a guide to how this might look on Sunday morning, in the home, and at work. Much, if not all, of his suggestions harken back to ancient (and well-known) Christian practices: corporate confession (he has a deep appreciation for the Book of Common Prayer), prayer and song, preaching and offering, baptism and Communion. Why, we might wonder, should we learn from ancient Christians rather than developing our own practices? The answer he offers is that “[b]ecause the rituals and liturgies of their [ancient] surrounding culture were much more overt—for example, their civic political spaces were unabashedly temples, whereas ours traffic under euphemisms (stadiums, capitols, universities)—early Christians were more intentional about and conscious of the practices they adopted for worship” (79). (I would add that each of these is theologically grounded in Scripture.) Especially counter-cultural is his suggestion that these practices should be repetitive. Rather than a sign of inauthenticity, he thinks repetition in worship and prayer is vital for growth in the same way that scales are necessary for the pianist, or batting practice for the baseball player: repetition builds neural and muscular pathways that make performance look easy.

So if you’re looking for a book to challenge your mind for the sake of your heart, join us this year in reading You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and let’s take a liturgical audit of our lives so that we might reorient our loves to the kingdom of God.