Creatures of Habit

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

There tends to be a large gap between how I think about Mormonism and how I experience it. I find Mormon theology to be innovative, imaginative, and exciting. I find Mormonism in practice…rather dull. Take the “primary answer” for every question: go to church, read your scriptures, pray. Three hours of church isn’t exactly my definition of excitement. I love studying the scriptures, but only when it includes commentaries and such. Merely reading them in their archaic King James English doesn’t exactly get the blood flowing. Prayer makes me feel silly and unproductive. But we can extend this to other activities as well. The temple is a snooze fest. I hated Family Home Evening growing up and hoped that my parents would forget or be too busy. Home teaching strikes me as largely a waste of everyone’s time.

Having confessed all that, my appreciation for these monotonous and seemingly pointless activities have slowly grown over the last couple years. It’s been especially heightened over the last week as I’ve been reading through James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Smith argues against the modern idea that we are simply “brains on a stick” and that Christian life is achieved by downloading the right spiritual data into our heads. We are not so much thinking creatures as we are lovers, i.e. creatures of desire and habit. He points out the gap between what we think and what we actually want. More disturbingly, he notes that we may not actually love what we think. Our wants are often shaped by what he calls “secular liturgies”: repetitive practices and rituals that orient our desires and shape our habits. Take for example (as Smith does) the mall: the mall doesn’t tell you what to think. It doesn’t hand out a tract with a list of propositions that the mall believes. Instead, it shapes your consumerist desires as it assaults your senses with sights, smells, comforts, etc. This is why Christian liturgy is important and necessary. Christianity is not just a rival worldview, but a rival set of desires. And those desires are shaped through repetition.

Harvard business professor and fellow Mormon Clayton Christensen has touched on how one practices Christianity within the Mormon Church:

What I appreciate about the Mormon Church as an infrastructure for Christian living is that it puts me in touch with people I can help. I told a friend once, “If you truly want to live your life as Christ taught, then start coming to the Mormon Church. You don’t even have to believe what we believe. But if you want to practice Christianity, this is where the state-of-the-art is practiced.” This is why I choose to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the October 1972 Conference, Franklin D. Richards quotes from Joseph Smith’s infamous letter to Nancy Rigdon: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” Despite the controversial context, the line rings true: this is a path of repetition as we continually reorient our hearts toward God. “There is tremendous power in focusing upon an ideal,” says Richards. “People are inclined to become like those whom they admire. As we increase our knowledge and love of the Savior and indicate our willingness to do his will, we necessarily become more perfect and like him.” As we take what Smith calls a “liturgical audit,” we’ll begin to “realize that temptation isn’t just about bad ideas or wrong decisions; it’s often a factor of de-formation and wrongly ordered habits. In other words, our sins aren’t just discrete, wrong actions and bad decisions; they reflect vices. And overcoming them requires more than just knowledge; it requires rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves.”1 According to Richards, as we continuously seek to have a “Thy will be done” mentality “we will know God’s will and have the desire and courage to conform. This doctrine or philosophy requires one to deeply love the Lord and have great faith in his judgment.”

Sterling W. Sill seems to support the need for repeated action in shaping our character and achieving happiness/the good life (what he calls “the most abundant lives”):

The religion of Christ is not just an idea; it is an activity. It is not just something for us to think about; it is something for us to do. These words also constitute the world’s most powerful success formula. The best way to be a good doctor or a good lawyer or a good teacher is to be a good man. These three words [“keep the commandments”] serve as the shortest, the most pleasant, the most direct, and the only road to the celestial kingdom.

I’ve written multiple times about the common Conference theme of the gospel and “the good life.” It’s a nice reminder that the sacred is not often found in earth-shattering theophanies (though there is obviously a place for those), but in the mundane. It’s found in worship (altar), home life (tent), and work (well). It’s not found necessarily in intricate theologies or philosophies (though there is obvious a place and need for those as well), but in the daily, repetitious, habit-shaping liturgies we participate in.

Maybe I should go do my home teaching…

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!