Everyday Evil, Part 7: Beyond Catechesis: Habit and Improv

Recall, this series was intended to be delivered to church leaders in Portland but my blog, alas, was deemed to be too controversial for some at ACU. But the point is, once I had the church leaders work thorough all this material (Parts 1-6) what was I going to say next?

Up to this point my project has been wholly negative. That is, I've been trying to cite study after study to illustrate one basic point: Our virtue is fragile and contextual.

But this is a negative conclusion. In a positive vein, what are we going to do about it?

How do we combat everyday evil? My suggestion is not novel, I am borrowing. My recommendation is that churches move beyond catechesis and begin to invest in habit formation.

The main spiritual formation tool in my church is catechesis, religious instruction. Basically, we are exposed to preaching and bible study. And that is about it. It's a pretty cerebral exercise. But given what I've shown you in this series I hope I've convinced you that catechesis isn't enough to support good intentions under contextual pressures.

So, what I'm suggesting is that we recover the notion of habit formation in kingdom living. You will recall that our friend William James wrote a very influential chapter on habit in his Principles of Psychology. Specifically, James used a variety of metaphors for habits:

A Savings Fund: Habit is "to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund."

A Tax: "...do every day to two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws neigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin."

James knew the dangers of everyday evil. If the fund or tax has not been paid then good intentions will not suffice to allow us to escape the pressures we have encountered in this series: The Stanford Prison Study, Obedience, Conformity, the Bystander Effect, and Hurry. As James states: "No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved."

Note James's suspicion of moral catechesis, his dismissal of merely learning moral "maxims." Memorizing bible stories doesn't create good character.

So how do we acquire habits? James gives some specifics:

First, change your life to reinforce the habit: "Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know."

Second, prevent lapsing at all costs: "Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again." These lapses add up to a failed character-formation project: "The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way."

This notion of habit formation is undergoing a resurgence of interest in Christian ethics (yet again we see how James anticipates us). For example, in his excellent book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Samuel Wells places habit at the center of moral formation.

Specifically, Wells suggest that ethical living is like being an accomplished improv artist. To the audience, the improv artist looks like she is "making it up" as she goes along. But the truth is, improv only looks spontaneous and effortless because of years of hard work and habit formation and the part of the artists. That is, improv isn't really about talent. It's about hard work. Improv is all about acquiring good habits, habits that allow you and your partners to take the story coherently forward given the situation posed to you.

Wells argues that Christian living/ethics is like an act of improv. That is, every day life throws "a situation" at us. Just like the improv artist is thrown a situation from the audience. And we need to take that situation and move forward with it in an improvisational way. There is no clear script, but we must act. And yet, as Christians we want our actions to move the story forward in a way that is distinctly Christian. So, for example, you go into work and your boss blames you for something not your fault, or you find a co-worker undermining you in the workplace. Well, life just threw at you, the improv artist, the "situation." Now you have to take it from there. You have to take the story forward in a distinctively Christian way.

But to move the story forward, to morally improvise, you have to have the rhythms and movements of the Christian life habituated into your body and mind. If these habits are not in place at the moment of moral crisis you can't take the story forward in the Christian way. You'll act of course, but you'll be lashing out in defensiveness, anger, or self-protection. The story moved forward but not in a way you are proud of.

The point is, to be a good Christian is to be like a good improv artist. Which means we need to have put in the time and hard work which allows us to be poised and ready when the lights come up. Because once the lights are up--once the moral crisis hits you square in the face--you don't have time to think. You have to act. And your actions will need habits to guide you forward instinctively.

Let me end this series with some of Wells's words:

"The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." The Duke of Wellington's famous reflection on the climax of the Napoleonic wars was not a statement of personal modesty. It was a recognition that success in battle depends on the character of one's soldiers...

The argument of this chapter is that the moral life is more about Eton than it is about Waterloo. Eton and Waterloo represent two distinct aspects of the moral life. Eton represents the long period of preparation. Waterloo represents the time episode of implementation--the moment of decision, or "situation." ...[I]t has become conventional to study Waterloo without studying Eton...Ethics has become the study of the battlefield without much recognition of the training ground.

Ethics is not primarily about the operating theater: It is about the lecture theater, the training field, the practice hall, the library, the tutorial, the mentoring session. There are two times--one, the time of moral effort, the other, the time of moral habit. The time for moral effort is the time of formation and training. This is "Eton." Training requires commitment, discipline, faithfulness, study, apprenticeship, practice, cooperation, observation, reflection--in short, moral effort. The point of this effort is to form skills and habits--habits that mean people take the right things for granted and skills that give them the ability to do the things they take for granted. The time of moral habit is the "moment of decision." This is "Waterloo," or the "operating room." Waterloo and the operating room separate those whose instincts have been appropriately formed from those whose character is inadequately prepared. In every moral "situation," the real decisions are ones that have been taken some time before. To live well requires both effort and habit. There is a place for both. But no amount of effort at the moment of decision will make up for effort neglected in the time of formation.

The moral life should not be experienced as an agony of impossible choice. Instead, it should be a matter of habit and instinct.

Hope you have enjoyed the series!

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9 thoughts on “Everyday Evil, Part 7: Beyond Catechesis: Habit and Improv”

  1. A solid and practical ending to a solid series. Those elders don't know what they were missing. Unless they read this blog, of course.

    In any case one minor quibble. The Bible suggests that meditation on the Word is of some value in developing moral character, and not without wisdom, I think. I'd argue we don't just need maxims/ideas nor do we just need practical fortitude and habituation. Both of those seem to come together in the reformation of our desires.

    I wonder if church can be a place where we teach and learn to want the right things rather than the wrong things, and where we show each other how to want them. I think that's the role that biblical/theological study can play. If we can do that, along with the practical disciplines you point towards, then I think we'll be well on our way.

    Unfortunately, we seem to have focused a lot on the cerebral and in so doing I think we've really dulled the effect of ideas and stories on our hearts and actions. We've (most of us) desensitized ourselves through years of dissonance between thought and practice.

    Btw, I wonder if there have been any studies done on variables that make us more or less likely to act on our beliefs vs. just believe them but act inconsistently.

  2. If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.

    These blogs have helped me in many ways that I cannot express now. Thanks for sharing, and God Bless.

  3. This brings to mind the old Protestant criticisms of Catholicism as being too heavy on ritual, custom, "vain repetition" etc. To some extent, I think Catholics figured out the value of "habit formation" a long time ago, and ideally that's what all the ritual and fasting and so on is supposed to accomplish. However, I think by the time of the Reformation there was some grounds for criticism if people were doing it simply out of conformity (that word again!) without getting mind or heart into it. Which I guess supports Spaceman Spiff's point. The hard part is getting the right balance.

    As to Spaceman Spiff's question, that seems related to the series of studies on cognitive dissonance -- how people justify when they say one thing and do another. I'm kind of surprised they haven't come up in this series, actually (but of course you can't cover everything!), because the results are kind of disturbing for those who value moral consistency. I don't remember anything directly addressing the question though. Richard is no doubt more up on the current research than I am.

  4. I did indeed enjoy the series, Richard. Thank you.

    The metaphor of Christian living as improve reminds me of NT Wright's idea of how to consider 'the authority of Scripture' - it's the authority of the unfinished play. Well worth a read - ah, here it is: How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?

  5. Spaceman,
    I agree that there is a pedagogical aspect to moral training. I know I've personally been impacted by simply reading the gospels and some very good sermons have changed me for the better. So, I guess we could say the road ahead is catechesis plus!

    Thanks for the encouragement. It is, believe me, greatly appreciated.

    As I was writing I was trying to put my hands on a great quote from Stanley Hauerwas. In the quote he argues that the genius of Catholicism is how it has been able to teach the faith to “peasants.” He means that well. Basically, he is saying that Catholicism found a way to build faith into the bodies of her members, non-literate members for a millennia or so. Belief is with and through the body. Just as you describe, the Catholic church has done this via habit formation.

    I had not seen this book. Actually, I have not read Wright at all. It is a duty I have yet to fulfill. Thanks.

  6. Richard,

    Mimesis, repetition--that is doing the same thing over and over again with heart, mind, and body and getting the same (good) results. We starting out pretending, then tending, then tending to.

    It might be interesting to consider how men and women differ from one another in responding behaviorally to their habits. Nel Noddings' Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education has some relevat insights. She begins not with a concern for principle but with what she calls a deep hunger for contextual goodness and justice--something similar to the work of Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and (not certain if she is related) Emese Nagy.

    Thanks for the series of posts.

    George C.

    P.S. I finally got around to concluding my first series of blog posts and ended in Paradise.

  7. Richard,

    I dunno, but it sounds like you've got some real competition: George's blog posts "ended in Paradise." Not bad!

    Now to Paradise lost...

    "The moral life should not be experienced as an agony of impossible choice. Instead, it should be a matter of habit and instinct."

    I think I know, and agree with, the gist of your point, but it also seems to leave out the gist of the gospel message as first understood: "...the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Gal. 4:24--I like the KJV's "schoolmaster.") And, ""Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bandage." (5:1)

    Who gets to define "goodness" for me? And if I don't have to hand over my freedom to think for myself to someone else, what is to prevent me from defining goodness in a self-serving way--and feeling fully justified, since, after all, my actions are "good?"

    The main point I have in mind--and I will try not to be preachy--is that historic Christianity might well take a "Been there; done that!" attitude to the idea that goodness can be habituated by following a religion's precepts. In fact, if the question were to be posed to me, "What does faith in Christ save you from?" my answer would be "From myself" more readily than "hell." (The bugaboo of folk theology--and I think that you'll agree with me here, since hell doesn't make your list...)

    This is a huge, central, crucial nexus of questions for all Christians--and a contribution to human understanding unique to Christianity, I think. Now I have a tendency to ask you to take bigger bites out of the theological pie than you would otherswise choose to do--but in this case it is the smaller point that is easier to choke on, I think, meaning I won't apologize for my tendency this time, even if the points are unfair, since it would require a book to make an adequate reply...

    BTW: I deeply appreciate your ability to pose ideas that get me to think critically and creatively about my faith. I know that some people take the presence of faith to be indicated by complacency with one's beliefs in the face of tough questions. I, on the other hand, think that faith is just as well represented by persons who believe that faith benefits from stimulating perspectives that challenge Christian complacency. Thanks for being a great gadfly! The Church needs more people like you!

    Well, off to Paradise!


  8. I agree that we need to stay more focused on the practical methods of transformation. I also think Buddhists have done a good job of weaving that logic into their tradtions. I've posted a link to an article highlighting the Buddhist approach to practice here. It is an interesting comparison and we can all learn from it.

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