The Disastrous Results of Fake-it-till-You-Make it Theology: The Habitus

I have been thinking lately of the deleterious effect that bad theologies have upon us. One of those theologies, that I think is bad, is of the type that believes that as Christians we ought to ‘fake-it-till-we-make-it’; that we ought to muster up enough faith or grace from God to respond to life-circumstances in such a way that an attempt is made (by us) to overcome hard stuff by faking feelings, by faking smiley faces, or faking whatever else with hopes that our souls will follow—a sort of masquerading Christian spirituality. For example, say Joe Christian is having a bad day at monkaquinaswork, instead of being able to admit that he is having a bad day at work he will attempt to overcome his circumstances by faking feelings that he perceives are in line with what a genuine “biblical” Christian response ought to be in the face of said circumstances. Joe Christian believes that over time if he fakes it enough he will begin to instill into his life a Christian character that transcends his daily circumstances, no matter what those circumstances might be.

This approach to Christian sanctification and spirituality has a heritage in the history of ideas. Aristotle introduced a concept known as habitus which medieval theologian par excellence, Thomas Aquinas appropriated and synthesized within his own moral theology. Omar Lizardo describes it this way:

In its initial Aristotelian formulation, the notion of habitus is captured in the idea of hexis (habitus is the usual Latin translation of this Greek word). This refers to the state of possessing (or “having”, Latin habere) an acquired, trained disposition to engage in certain modes of activity when encountering particular objects or situations. For instance, the essential capacity to regularly engage in virtuous action was understood, in the context of Aristotelian ethics, to be the primary exemplification of habitus. Aquinas would refine the application of the concept to ethical reasoning in further specifying the nature and content of the moral virtues. In Aquinas’s rendering, the full virtuous personality is one who has, through effort and training, cultivated the proficiency to act in the morally required manner without effort; that is, a person for whom moral behavior becomes second nature.[1]

Richard Muller defines it this way as applied in a theological context: “habitus infusa: infused habit or disposition; i.e. a disposition of mind or will not present naturally in a human being, usually because of the loss of the imago Dei (q.v.) in the fall, that is graciously instilled or infused in mind or will by God….”[2]

So it is an ‘acquired’ disposition, and understood theologically, it is something given to the elect by God so that they might have the capacity to habituate in virtuous behaviors that will lead to a transformed character (this is akin to what has been called ‘virtue ethics’, an ethical system rooted in the habitus theology of both Aristotle and Aquinas). The emphasis of the habitus is an outside/inside approach to moral/holiness transformation.

Coming back to Joe Christian; when we, like Joe Christian, think that we must fake it till we make it in order to transmute our ‘old-fallen-nature’ into the ‘new-created-nature’ we have in Christ we miss the freedom of the Gospel. The emphasis, because of habitus-like thinking, is now on my effort (yes, with God’s help) to mould and shape ‘my’ character into the character of Christ; Christ is the exemplar I am trying to imitate then through the disposition of the habitus (given by God of course). This might fit well with a view of salvation that works from a declarational emphasis—i.e. or a forensic emphasis—that focuses on the outside of things (like the forgiveness of sins through a paid penalty), but it does not jive well with a participationist theory of salvation.

A participationist theory of salvation emphasizes a view of salvation that sees ‘saved’ persons in deep and intimate union with Jesus Christ (I Cor 6.17); that realizes that we as saved persons have been given new hearts (II Cor 3), and these hearts are not our own hearts but Christ’s. A participationist theory of salvation focuses on God in Christ moving from outside of us into us, as he becomes us (see Irenaeus; II Cor 5.21; etc.), and re-creates our humanity in and from his vicarious humanity from the inside out. A participationist salvation understands that our characters aren’t transformed by focusing on what we can do, or how we can habituate in certain ‘moral’ activities; instead it focuses on who God in Christ is for us and in us. It focuses on His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these other things are added to us and through us from there.

I was reminded today how a habitus theology can set someone up for failure. You can only fake-it-till-you-make-it for so long, and then burn-out ensues; and unfortunately often back-sliding takes over in that person’s life. The problem is, is that we all know that we never really do make it; so it is important for Joe Christian and all of us to set our eyes on the one who has made it for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Omar Lizardo, “Habitus,” accessed online June 9, 2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 134-35.

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5 comments

  1. Bless you Bobby for this wonderful reminder to set our eyes always on Him.

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  2. Indeed, this is a very common approach to spiritual growth/sanctification. Two examples that come to mind are N.T. Wright in “After You Believe” and J.K.A. Smith in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. Smith explicitly endorses the language/concept of ‘habitus’, although he funnels it through the research of Pierre Bourdieu.

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  3. The energizing force to not slump in the universal faking conundrum might be that as Christians we don’t want to ashamed before God all the time and eventually especially at His Coming at the conclusion of our pilgrimage. This covers all surmise as to God’s nature, His providence and His pertinent indwelling of and in the human framework?

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  4. Rein,

    Yes, and I’m trying to highlight ideas that might stand behind some of our performance driven Christian spirituality and sanctification models. I’m not a fan of pilgrim theology, I’ll have to write a post some time explaining why.

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  5. Jonathan,

    I have both of Smith’s books, but I’m not much of a fan.

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