Today we begin a year of Christian habitus formation.
We are in a season of the Body of Christ where the holy disruptions accompanying the dawn of the internet, new generations formed in their thinking, character, and ethics in the internet age, a global pandemic, racial unrest, loss of trust in trusted institutions, a strangely neo-pagan zeitgeist (spirit of the age) and more are being used by the Holy Spirit to reorient Christians to what it really means to follow Jesus.
Since the beginning of time, the Holy Spirit has been stepping into the middle of chaos to bring God’s loving order, meaning, and purpose to the cosmos—and to humankind. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit do the same, at all times, and are doing it now—we can and must rejoice!
I want to throw in my lot in the work being done on that divine reorientation, and begin work toward a new book on the topic based on my doctoral research, work that integrates a holistic view of the Christian way of “new life” (Acts. 5:20) with worship-as-it-was-and-could-be, personal spiritual practices, and the long-game of cultural influence by transformed hearts.
What is habitus, and why does it need to be (re)formed?
The late Alan Kreider, in his moving and profound book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (see below for recommended books through the year), suggested that the transformation of one’s habitus was at the center of becoming a follower of Jesus in the earliest centuries of the faith.
His book is a history of the early Church, a stunning exploration of how followers of Jesus worshiped and were trained into Christ-likeness in a pagan world. It is a book for our times—one I believe every Christian should have on their reading list.
Kreider uses the term, habitus, in his work. Habitus is a sociological term coined by Pierre Bourdieu, which literally means our “system of dispositions” (Bourdieu 130), or, as the late Alan Kreider put it, our “embodied behavior,” behaviors that form our deepest impulses and responses to the world (Kreider 2).
“So how were Christians made? By a process of formation that, as time progressed, was increasingly self-conscious. It was rooted in the habitus of the communities—their reflexive behavior. It was embodied knowledge rooted in predispositions that guided the Christians’ common life and expressed themselves in practices. These predispositions shaped worship practices that became essential, formative parts of the communities’ habitus” (Kreider 134).
“When challenged about their ideas, Christians pointed to their actions. They believed that their habitus, their embodied behavior, was eloquent” (Kreider 2).
“Above all, habitus is formed by repetition, by the sheer physicality of doing things over and over so that they become habitual, reflexive, and borne in our bodies” (Kreider 39-40).
In other words, the early Christians knew that if you just assented to belief in Jesus, you were barely in the doorway of the faith. Transformation was, and is, a process of habitus change.
You had habits, impulses, half-baked virtues and anti-virtues, philosophies and ideologies, all at work in your subconscious from your upbringing and life training that ran against the way of being human in the Way of Jesus.
To retrain one’s habitus to be Christ-like instead of pagan, they employed worship practices (Eucharist, singing, prayer, lifting hands, confession, teaching), community life (caring for the poor, sharing things in common), close mentoring, teaching, practice, and much more.
The goal was to transform one’s “natural” habitus into a Christ-like series of dispositions.
They wanted one thing—to be like Jesus in the world—thinking, feeling, and acting like Jesus. That, they knew, would take a serious form of discipleship, over years, that involved the entire body, mind, emotions, and dispositions.
Jesus told them to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), i.e. apprentices of His Way of being human, and so they did. Paul told them to go into training (1 Tim. 4:8) to transform their ways of thinking, of feeling, of acting in the world.
They would emulate Jesus in the Gospels, they would emulate the Apostles’ way of life, they would seek to live from the fruits of the Spirit, moving in the gifts of the Spirit, for the sake of others becoming whole.
The Church developed worship practices to participate with the Holy Spirit in that formation.
Truly, they had as much to unlearn as they had to learn, and it would take years (sometimes up to 3 years of training) before Christians in the first few centuries could even take their first Eucharist as a Christian.
The world was in them when they came to faith. They came to Jesus soaked with the culture in which they had been raised.
Now, Christ was in them—and they no longer lived, but Christ lived in and through them (Gal. 2:20).
In the first few centuries, habitus-ingrained values, character-traits, dispositions, and habits orbiting around power, nationalism (patriotism tied to emperor worship), ideology and philosophy, greed, sexual immorality (among the married or single), a judgmental view of the poor (the gods had forsaken them), affluence, ambition, status, wealth, impatience in all things, and more were normalized in pagan culture.
When a culture normalizes a way of life, the Way of Jesus must be learned by every convert in such a way that, over time, a heart, mind, and body becomes increasingly His.
When anti-Gospel (it is not hard to understand why Jesus Way was such good news in the first-third century worlds), “natural” habits were at war with Christ’s nature now at work within them, the Holy Spirt was moving to reveal the brokenness (revelation), offer healing (consecration and the gifts of confession and repentance), and bring about a new person on the other side (transformation and the gift of a living hope!).
They needed Jesus, within them, to transform them from the inside out, and to change their ways of approaching the world.
Can you feel where this is going? There is an emerging call, across the Body of Christ, to be reformed by Jesus in our habitus—our series of dispositions.
That Christian habitus will be set in contrast with our neo-pagan habitus (we all have remnants of it at work in us, to one degree or another), and we will be invited to come to Jesus (Matt. 11:28), engage the gift of repentance and turning, and practice being human in the way of Jesus.
Spiritual practices will help us along the way, as we realize, together, just how “half-way” many of us have been changed in our habitus along the journey. I include myself in welcoming this revelation, for my own heart and life.
Let’s learn again what it means to be like Jesus—together.
I look forward to the journey.
Recommended Reading for this Week:
Recommended Follows for this Week:
Works Cited in this Post:
Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford University Press, 2000.
Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Baker Academic, 2016.
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