René Descartes, the French philosopher of the early seventeenth century who is often called the father of modern Western philosophy, and who had a great impact on the studies of mathematics and geometry as well, is best known for a single philosophical premise: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes was attempting to create from the ground up a wholly new organizing principle for understanding the cosmos. This organizing principle would be rooted solely in the deduction of truths that could be known without a doubt. What was the one thing the existence of which Descartes could not doubt? Thought. Thought exists, he realized —because he thought it. And that thought could not be separated from him because without him that thought would not have been thought. Therefore, because his thoughts existed, Descartes was able to deduce that he, too, existed. In fact, he reasoned, if he had any doubts about his existence, even that skepticism served to prove his existence.
Now it was left to establish the extent to which he existed. He could claim that he existed as a physical being, but that knowledge was based on his sensory perception. The senses could be deceiving, or at the very least unreliable, and his philosophy left no room for doubt. So Descartes determined that the only indubitable knowledge was that he was a thinking thing. The hyper-rationalism of Cartesian philosophy would become foundational to later philosophical development, to the scientific method, and even to theology. Perhaps Descartes himself failed to realize how theologically revolutionary his philosophy was; but in shifting the debate from “what is true” to “of what can I be certain,” Descartes had shifted the authoritative source of truth from God (or scripture or “the heavens” generally) to human reason.
And, if I may say so, he was dead wrong.
In the opening paragraph of his most famous book, Confessions, Saint Augustine wrote,
“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Far from the “thinking thing” to which Descartes reduces human being, Augustine’s ontology — that is, his study of the nature of beingness and existence — was rooted firmly in our creatureliness. We were created not as brains on sticks, but as beings in relationship — to one another, to the rest of creation, and, mostly importantly, to God. In fact, Augustine is not so much concerned with ontology — the nature of being — as he is with teleology — the point of being. What’s it all mean? What’s a human life for? He answers this at the start of his most famous book, with his most famous quote: You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. It’s not our thinking that makes us most human, it’s our hearts’ longing for communion with God (and, by extension, one another) that marks us as the bearers of God’s image.
Author James K. A. Smith explains this beautifully and at length in his new book, You Are What You Love. As Presbyterians, we come from a centuries-long tradition of intellectual wrestling with systematic theology and biblical studies, as though we were on a quest to know more about God. Ours is, in that sense, a very Cartesian tradition. We behave like thinking things; brains-on-a-stick. My own early adulthood could be characterized as a relentless search for knowledge about God, as though by such knowledge my soul would be saved. The more I knew, and the better I understood systematic theology, I supposed, the more holy I would be.
And, if I may say so, I was dead wrong.
Instead, Smith points out that it’s not what we know that makes us holy, but what we do. No, this is not me (or Smith) trying to make a case for works righteousness — I’m pretty much allergic to the notion of works righteousness! But ask yourself this: do you ever experience gaps between what you know and what you do? Let me give you some personal examples. I know that exercise would be good for me. I know that a lot of the food that I put in my body is bad for me. I know that I should never read the comments section on a social media website. But there’s a gap between what I know and what I do. And that’s because, despite what Descartes tells us, we are not, first and foremost, “thinking things” but creatures of habit.
We’ve entered the season of Lent, a time of self-reflection and repentance wherein we should be examining ourselves for shortcomings in our morality and ethics, and finding concrete ways to become more Christlike. When people ask me if I believe in the Devil, I say, “Yes; and my evidence is that Shamrock Shakes always come out during Lent.” How am I supposed to deny my own appetites when the only good thing McDonald’s produces is only available during Lent?
And the season is beginning with a reading from Matthew about Jesus’ own brush with temptation: the temptation to use his authority in ways that were self-serving, showed a lack of trust in God’s Word, and that would have put his own desires before God’s. What I realized about this story is that no one — perhaps including Jesus himself — knew how Jesus was going to respond to temptation until he was actually tempted. This story is the first narrative evidence of Jesus facing temptation and making the choice to be… well… Christ-like. We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood (at least, we don’t know much that is scripturally authoritative); but it is apparent that by the time he was 30 years old, he was practiced enough in living faithfully to God’s will for him that he was able to overcome the temptations of Satan.
Filling our brains with scripture is not what makes us Christian, no matter what we believe about it. Actually practicing Christ-like behavior is what makes us Christ-like. My high school band director used to ask us, “How do you achieve excellence?” to which we would respond, “Master the fundamentals.” “How do you master the fundamentals?” he would ask. And we responded, “Practice, practice, practice.”
No matter how many books a person reads about how to play the French horn, he will not be able actually to play the French horn unless he practices. No matter how many books about woodworking one reads, one will not be able actually to work wood unless one practices. Olympic gymnasts don’t win gold medals because they’ve watched instructional videos about gymnastics — they win medals because they’ve practiced gymnastics, honing their bodies and their skills.
What on earth makes us think that we can learn to be Christian simply by reading a book and showing up to church less than once a week? In his book, Smith describes how liturgy — a word that means “the work of the people” — shapes us and forms us. When we hear the word “liturgy,” we, of course, think immediately of Sunday morning worship (and perhaps you think of it as “the most boring part” of worship). But liturgy is any repeated practice that forms our self-understanding through story-telling. Smith uses an example common to all of us to make his point: shopping at the mall. Some shopping mall architecture is deliberately designed to give us a sense of transcendence as we enter and walk through. He describes how stores are analogous to chapels and alcoves in a cathedral, devoted to our favorite saints, where we can procure the objects of our desire through a sacrificial transaction with a priest (usually called a “cashier”), and all because we have been led by advertisers to believe that we will find self-fulfillment or self-worth in the object we’ve purchased. Then, when the “shine” wears off of that particular object — be it an article of clothing, or new electronic gadget, or a regimen of cosmetics — and we find our sense of fulfillment once again wanting, we return to the cathedral to participate again in the secular liturgy of consumerism.
Now hear me, and hear me well: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with buying things. (You may be surprised to learn that I also own things!) Smith describes our shopping rituals and attention to advertizing because they comprise a secular liturgy that shapes our sense of self, forming our hearts to be consumers in search of fulfillment. But as Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God,” not in a new dress, not in an Apple Watch, not in a Subaru. In God. That doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t buy a new dress, an Apple Watch, or a Subaru; but one should do it for the sake of ownership, not for the sake of personal fulfillment. To the extent that we thoughtlessly participate in consumerism because we’ve fallen for advertisers’ insistence that such objects “say something about who we are,” we delude ourselves and are deformed by this secular liturgy.
The church offers a different liturgy that shapes us according to a different narrative about who (and whose) we are, and the purposes our lives serve. Even as we are tempted to believe that we’ll find bliss or personal fulfillment in the next Android phone, the next book, the next Shamrock Shake, the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us that our chief end “is to glorify God, and to enjoy [God] forever.” If Augustine and the Westminster Divines are correct, we don’t exist in order to achieve self-fulfillment, regardless of what Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Joel Osteen may have told you. We exist for God’s good pleasure, and our hearts will not know the peace that passes all understanding until we are drawn by what John Calvin calls our “mystical union” with Christ into participation in the life of the Triune God.
That liturgy is the liturgy that we enact each and every Sunday. Many may wonder why worship is, by and large, the same experience every Sunday. It’s more or less the same because by participating regularly in a regular liturgy, we are practicing the gospel story. In my congregation, the first liturgical thing that happens is that we hear God’s Word read to us (and I even overemphasize this by placing the first scripture reading at the beginning of worship, though most churches don’t do this). Being called to worship — not by the liturgist, but by the very Word of God — we then ascribe praise to God with singing.
After this, and in response to the grace of God freely lavished upon us in and through Jesus Christ, we are able to confess our sins — not out of a sense of guilt or out of fear that our salvation depends upon it, but as a moment of honesty with ourselves and with God. We are forgiven and reconciled to God before we confess anything. Our confession is a check on our ego: we are reconciled to God, but that doesn’t mean we get life right all the time. We’re reformed, but we’re also continually reforming. We can and should strive to do better each and every day, because each “better” day better glorifies God.
Scripture teaches us that God’s ministry of reconciliation is about more than just our relationships with God, but also includes our relationships with one another and with the rest of the creation. So, having been reminded of God’s grace and unflagging love despite our flaws, we are invited by the liturgy to also offer grace and unflagging love to all the other flawed creatures sitting around us — even, and perhaps especially, those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us. That’s what makes the Passing of the Peace so deeply, deeply important to our worship liturgy.
From there, we hear the Word proclaimed — both in art and in discourse, as the choir sings, and preacher preaches. Following this proclamation, we respond in a variety of ways: by offering of ourselves materially, temporally, and spiritually, acknowledging that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God; by renouncing sin and being baptized; by answering God’s call to ordained ministry; and by gathering together around one table at Christ’s invitation, and entering into the very mystical union for which we were created.
Finally, after singing a final hymn, we are charged to leave, intent to do better this week than we did last week. This liturgy, practiced over and over again, is the beginning of being formed by the Word (or being re-formed after having been de-formed by the secular liturgies of the world). But it is only a beginning. We spend most of our time, money, and energy looking for love in all the wrong places. If we want to be as good at following Christ as we are at consuming products; if we want to be as good at taking up our cross as we are at picking up the TV remote; if we want to be as good at loving our neighbors as we are at loving every athlete in Pittsburgh who’s wrapped in a black and gold uniform, it’s going to take practice. Not weekly practice, but daily practice. You think Jesus overcame temptation because he went to synagogue once a week? His self-understanding was shaped by the traditions of his Jewish heritage and ethical practices every day. And Lent is the perfect time for us to pick up new daily habits to form us and shape us into something more Christlike.
Discipleship is not a hobby; nor is it a course of study. More than knowledge, what we need is wisdom; and wisdom comes with experience; and experience comes with practice. If we aspire to be Olympic-level followers of Jesus, we’re going to have to practice more than once a week.