You are what you love (or How to Develop Your Love Life)

YOU ARE WHAT YOU LOVE by James K A Smith

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading. I’m trying to do some work on love in the Bible and later this year I’ll be teaching a course on Faith and Contemporary Culture that spends quite a bit of time thinking about what we love, what Augustine teaches on love, and how it all works out in a consumer culture that is relentlessly after our hearts as it bombards us with things to desire & love (and therefore buy).

What do you think? Maybe more students would take the class if I called it ‘How to Develop your Love Life’?

Anyway, these are exactly the sort of themes that Jamie Smith is exploring in You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. I’m going to work through the book.

Here I’m summarising – feel welcome to comment. How persuasive do you find his proposal? Are we primarily lovers before we are thinkers?

In the opening chapter he asks questions like these

What is discipleship?

How does spiritual growth and transformation happen?

What has the church got to do with either?

More fundamentally, who are you? What are human beings?

His answers are different to standard replies of how learning and discipleship work. Drawing from his Desiring the Kingdom, You Are What You Love is a manifesto for rethinking our thinking from modern paradigms that don’t work.

Modern enlightenment rationalism tells us you are what you think. It imagines us as primarily intellects. Discipleship is depositing the right information in our brains and assuming learning and change will happen. This tends to have an anthropology that we are little more than ‘brains on a stick’. Descartes “I think therefore I am” taken to its logical end …

But, says Smith, this is neither true to what we are nor does it tend to work very well as a model for Christian discipleship.

Rather, we are lovers before we are thinkers. “You are what you love” means that we are what we worship and we worship what we love. We are what we desire and want. We are creatures of the heart more than the head. (Prov 4.23)

“So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” (2)

Jesus is not lecturer-in-chief teaching students with text-heavy powerpoint slides. This is a ‘banking’ model of learning. As if action happens via a ‘withdrawal’ from this bank of information. This imagines our actions as the outcome of pure rational intentional and planned abstract choice …! Sanctification by information transfer. (4) As if character change happens by filling our intellectual wells with biblical knowledge.

For Smith we are not just ‘thinking things’. What if the problem is NOT just our lack of knowledge?

He’s not saying thinking is bad for you – heck this book represents a lot of hard thinking. He is arguing that thinking is very limited in and of itself.

What we also need to recognise who we are – we are not ‘just’ thinkers, we are far more shaped and defined by what we desire, by what we want, by what we love. The centre of human personhood is not so much the abstract intellect, but ‘the gut-regions of the heart’.

Augustine got this many centuries ago.

“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”.

Three things to note:

  1. We are made by God, for relationship with him. To be fully human we need to find ourselves in relationship to the One by whom, and for whom we are created.
  2. We are made for something. We are made for a particular purpose, an end, a telos. We are teleological creatures.
  3. The heart is the centre of our longings and desires – not a modern sentimental, soppy idea of the heart, but the core of our most fundamental longings “a visceral subconscious orientation to the world” (8). We are made to love.

This is no intellectual puzzle to master, but more a craving, hungering, thirsting for meaning and purpose and identity.

The heart is the chamber of our love – and it is our love which orientate our lives and point us towards some end or purpose. It is this which we are committed to and shape our lives around.

chSo it is not a question of whether we will love, it is much more a question of what we love. We can’t NOT love. We can’t not be committed to something. We can’t not be on a journey to somewhere. We can’t not desire some kingdom.

Now here’s the key thing – much of this operates at a subconscious level. It is often unarticulated. We are creatures of imagination and story – we are captivated and motivated by a vision of the good life – whatever that good life is for each one of us.

Habit and Virtue

In Colossians 3:12-14 Paul says ‘put on love’ over the other virtues

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

If virtues are good moral habits – an internal disposition that works itself out in practice – then to become virtuous is to internalize the law so that it is followed as a matter of habit, a sort of second nature that works without thinking as result of the person we are. In this sense Paul talks about fulfilling the law in love … it is part of who you are as a person.

How to acquire such virtues? Not through thinking says Smith (17). Virtue is acquired affectively. Law is easier to follow since it is outward and measureable. Rather:

  • Through imitation: Paul in 1 Cor 11.1, follow me as I follow Christ. Phil 3:17 – follow my example.
  • Through routines, habits, being enacted over and over again. Since virtues are not natural, they need to be embedded in discipline.

If love is a virtue, then love is a habit that can be practiced and improved and developed.

So how to re-calibrate the heart and point it in the right direction? (19)

Discipleship, says Smith, is a re-habituation of your loves. A reformation of your love life. Here’s a definition of discipleship you don’t hear very often:

“The learning that is fundamental to Christian formation is affective and erotic, a matter of ‘aiming’ our loves, of orientating our desire to God and what God desires for his creation.” (19)

If the heart is like an erotic (eros here as desire, not sexual) compass – an aiming device – then how aim it in the right direction? We need to recognize that our desires are learned and if love is a habit, then through imitation and practice our hearts can be recalibrated. Not necessarily through learning new information, but through practices that form the habits of how we love.

For our desires and longings certainly need to be re-directed. They are already pointing somewhere. We are trained every day to love something – we live in a world that is in competition for our heart.

Smith uses “liturgies” here for these secular cultural practices since love is really a matter of worship. Calvin called the heart an idol factory. Luther “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is your god.” (23). Our idols are not intellectual ideas – they tend to be affective desires. We all worship something.

Smith goes back to Colossians 315-17. How are our love lives to be reformed and re-directed? This is where the church comes in – desires are reformed within a worshipping community.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The ‘virtue’ of love is ‘put on’ by letting the word of Christ dwell in us, by teaching and admonishing one another, by corporate practices  …

Christian worship (not just singing songs) is counter-cultural to secular liturgies that attempt (and succeed) in capturing our hearts and imaginations. We cannot counter their power by abstract information – we can reform our habits of love. “Learning to love takes practice.” (25)

And this sets up how later he will return to how re-learning to love is a corporate exercise, not a lone spiritual pilgrimage.

But before that, he shifts attention in the next chapter to consider those secular liturgies that are competing for our love and commitment.

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