Habits Have Consequences, Too: Finding Rest in More Than Just Ideas
We Christians love to talk about ideas and their consequences. Take R.C. Sproul’s The Consequences of Ideas. Or Richard Weaver’s 1948 classic Ideas Have Consequences, which has remained quite popular among conservative Christians ever since its publication. As one who was a high school history teacher for many years, I absolutely love the history of ideas, and witnessing students’ “aha” moments in seeing connections and impacts over time was one of the loveliest parts of the job. Certainly, ideas are very important; what we think impacts what we do. Christianity is most emphatically grounded on a set of specific ideas and truth claims as defined in the Scriptures, hammered out in the ecumenical creeds, and honed in the crucible of doctrinal controversies and confessional commitments ever since. But we would do well to note that what we do—the habits, behaviors, and formative forces of everyday life, the embodied practices that situate us in our context—are just as important as ideas. Our habits and ways of living can frame and define what ideas seem most reasonable and attractive, thus showing us that habits have consequences, too.
The Force of Habit
Carl Trueman points in this direction multiple times in his tour-de-force on the question of human identity, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. While the book primarily traces a genealogy of ideas about the self and how it is we’ve come to view the self as being plastic and constructed from one’s inner desires, Trueman also makes it clear at various points how technologies, tools, habits, and conditions of living make ideas about the self seem right and natural. When comparing living conditions past and present, Trueman concludes that today “we all live in a world in which it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires, and not something that we necessarily conform ourselves to or passively accept” (41).
Life’s daily experiences and practices shape one’s ideas profoundly. To build on an example Trueman uses, take the medieval peasant farmer: toiling in the field day after day, subsisting on the work of his hands, his status assigned by social custom, the boundaries of his world circumscribed by the transportation and communication technologies of his day. The practices of daily medieval living—which included confrontation with materiality and the constraints of nature, frequent experiences of the limitations of movement and the givenness of one’s social position—formed and shaped the horizon of ideational possibilities. These horizons of ideational possibilities are what Peter Berger termed “plausibility structures” in his classic The Sacred Canopy.
So too, today. Our practices and habits of daily living form a plausibility structure that make certain ideas about humanity and the cosmos seem possible, plausible, and palatable. Compared to the hypothetical medieval peasant, life today is filled with exponentially more choices. In an era where going to the grocery store can seem like an identity crisis, where we choose cars from dealerships filled with endless models or even more options online, where we choose from endless TV channels and online content providers, where kids are told they can choose to be anything and can pretend to be so online, the habit of choice makes choosing seem normal even in realms of life where there should be no choice. Consumeristic practices and habits of living enshrine the primacy of choice and make the idea of autonomous individualism the default mode for human existence today—to the point where around every cultural corner autonomy permeates our environment as something natural and normal.
Consider the centrality of bodily autonomy in the abortion debate. A United Nations document on women’s reproductive rights concludes that, “the right of the pregnant woman to access termination of pregnancy should be autonomous, affordable and effective.” This conclusion is made by prioritizing “the right of a born woman to her life, her health, her autonomy.”
So too, LGBTQ+ supporters employ the idea of gender autonomy. Legal advocate Jillian Weiss, writes: “The right to gender autonomy may therefore be defined as the right of self-determination of one’s gender, free from state control, and the right to self-identify as that gender, free from state contradiction.”
In the political realm citizen autonomy also looms large. Legal scholar Nancy Combs explains that basic to our understanding of democracy, “is the notion that the citizens who comprise a democracy are autonomous. We cannot speak of citizens living under law of their own choosing unless we assume that these citizens are free to make such choices” (692).
The technological capacities of contemporary society also reinforce habits of choice and make the idea of autonomy seem even more compelling and true. We rarely experience a sense of direct dependency on natural processes and seasonal rhythms, or the friction and limitations of materiality. Instead, we seem to be makers of our own destiny, defining the boundaries and content of our own identity along the way. The overwhelming daily experience of choice instantiates autonomous individualism into the very essence of one’s being, even before one makes a logical case for it. The idea of autonomy is assumed and seems so right, at least in part, because habits of modern living have formed in us positive intuitions about autonomy through constant experiences of choice.
Similar analyses could be done in relation to other ideas beyond autonomy that also seem so natural and normal today. There are habits, practices, conditions of living, and technological capabilities that make certain ideas feel right, which then makes the accompanying argumentation for the ideas seem persuasive. NYU Professor Geoffrey Shullenberger elucidates this point in relation to postmodernism and how it has gained prominence. While there is a place “to explain how ideas that first appeared in rather obscure and difficult academic tracts came to be widely assumed,” he says that we must also “try to explain what made the ideas intuitively appealing to so many people, most of whom have never read more than a handful of memeified slogans from any work of ‘Theory,’ if even that.” In other words, there is more than just ideas at work. This leads Shullenberger to conclude that the rise of postmodernism might be “more like an effect of profound material, social, and economic changes than of the influence of a few dozen philosophers.” Postmodernism, he concludes, “is just one attempt to account for and respond to the material, social, and economic conditions of the post-industrial information society.” The habits, practices, and plausibility structures of contemporary life have made the ideas of postmodernism seem more reasonable. Here we find another example showing that the “ideas have consequences” maxim, while important, is only part of the story.
Forming Habits and Finding Rest
We as Christians might have good ideas or arguments, but I wonder if those ideas are expressed through intriguing habits of living, or attractive forms of cultural production. In a moving essay “On College, Careers, and Aspirations for Home,” Sarah Soltis laments this exact dichotomy at a conservative college:
We students may speak of desiring family, but we do so while passing the career services office, fliers for the pre-law track, meetings for the med-school-interested, bustling groups of Business Management majors or Entrepreneurship majors or Design and Innovation majors. All these may be good resources and routes. Some young Christians surely ought to pursue careers in medicine, law, and business. In seeking polished resumes and prestigious titles, however, we must not confuse the value of an enviable LinkedIn profile with that of moral formation, the importance of a profitable career with that of vocation. In seeking success, we must not discard aspirations toward family and community.
Soltis is concerned that if ideas aren’t embodied in living habits, they lose their allure and plausibility with each coming generation: “When young conservatives pursue think-tank forms of conservatism, careerism naturally replaces traditional communal aspirations.” To put it another way using the idiom of my essay, the habits of autonomous living win out over the ideas of family and community—and even Christianity. Instead, there must be, “active participation in the communal and familial life we strive to conserve…. We must seek the specific (but not simplistic) task of forming lives in communities centered on true goods.” Here are some possible ways we might join ideas with habits, or we might say, participate in the ideas, even embody the ideas:
Treasure the Givenness of the World. We might consider devoting some attention to the relationships in our lives that are unchosen: ones with family, neighbors, church members, and co-workers. Fostering relationships with those who are in our lives not by our choice, but by necessity or circumstance can help us realize our deep interdependence with one another in a way that easily gets overshadowed if we only spend time in the tailored relationships of our own choosing.
Confront Reality. Engaging with the physical world can help ground us in real time and space, and remind us of our creatureliness. Submitting to the hard edges of reality brings a measure of humility as we encounter the in-built parameters of human existence and embodiment. Learning to thrive within these limits is a route towards human flourishing as the expression of human agency builds upon and strengthens itself with each new act. As Matthew Crawford writes in Shop Class as Soulcraft, “the satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on” (15).
Find Models Worth Imitating. Habits are so powerful in part because humans are mimetic (imitative) creatures. We imitate the habits and desires of others. Philosopher René Girard has developed this concept of mimesis perhaps more than any other recent thinker. “Nothing is more mimetic than the desire of a child,” Girard writes. So too, “cultural imitation is a positive form of mimetic desire,” and ultimately, “mimetic desire is also the desire for God” (64). Imitative desire has the potential to point us Godward and to the truth, goodness, and beauty he has planted in the cosmic order—and in our desires. Augustine’s prayer still rings true: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Find Rest in the Rhythms of God’s Work. Discussing the importance of habits and practices can quickly lead us into the twin temptations of pride or despair. The opinio legis (opinion of the law) is all too eager to creep back in: I’ve changed this habit. I’ve fixed that problem. My habits are better than your habits. Now my life is oriented properly towards God. No, that’s not the point. This is not a list of works to gain acceptance with God or magically solve all our problems. Instead, consider these as suggestions that might help resituate us properly as creatures in relation to God, and point us towards finding rest in Christ’s completed work and in the ways that work is given through the means of grace—where our work is to rest.
The weekly pattern of receiving Word and Supper is just the type of restful reception of pure gift that the sabbath rest first pointed towards. We are ushered into a foretaste of the eternal sabbath rest in the announcement of God’s good word, the sacramental eating of Christ, and the forgiveness we share with one another. This is much more than just an idea. Idea, rationality, logic, logos, Word itself, have taken on flesh in Christ—fully embodied in a life perfectly habituated towards God—whose perfection, practices, and person are given freely to us, as we the church become one with his body, not just in the realm of abstract ideas, but truly and mysteriously united to Christ in bodily participation, thick practices, and communal celebration.
For readers interested in digging deeper, I might suggest Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, and Every Moment Holy, a book of written prayers and liturgies for all aspects of life by Douglas McKelvey accompanied by thought-provoking illustrations by Ned Bustard.
Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture-maker. He is head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, Salvo, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.