You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. 224 pp)
James K. A. Smith is the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview at Calvin College. With a background in philosophy focused on French thought, Smith engages as a public intellectual and cultural critic. In addition to his published books, Smith has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and The Hedgehog Review.
A Divided World
We live in a divided world. The obvious unpacking of this statement surrounds divisive politics or schisms between worldviews. But, our experiences are divided even at a metaphysical level.
In other words, a great distance emerges between our thoughts and actions. With a new year just starting, consider the distance between your new year’s resolutions and the accomplishment of those actions. The brain continually reminds the body about how important it is to improve dietary habits and to be active. The body doesn’t listen. Or, if it does listen, it doesn’t listen very long.
When we learn new things, we must practice them. Without that daily repetition, the knowledge remains dormant. Do you remember the languages you learned in high school or college? When was the last time you spoke in those languages? In all likelihood, the people that continue to speak the language are the ones immersed in the language, either through relationship, job function, or location. Without that repetition, the words, phrases, and rules of conjugation recede to the background of your memory.
James K. A. Smith’s book, You Are What You Love unpacks this idea and links it to the spiritual realm, pointing us toward rhythms and rituals that helps us to flourish.
What Do We Love?
The core of You Are What You Love argues for the implicit relationship between our thoughts and actions. Even more, Smith suggests it’s quite easy to know what we love; just look at what we do. He suggests,
“Because if you are what you love and if love is a virtue, then love is a habit. This means that our most fundamental orientation to the world—the longings and desires that orient us toward some version of the good life—is shaped and configured by imitation and practice” (19).
In other words, our daily habits—the things we do when we aren’t thinking—truly represent who we are. While society focuses on thought and learning, we too often disassociate our knowledge from our action. And yet, our action orients us toward what we think is most true. So if we want to work toward improvement, we most focus on more than just what we think; we have to also consider what we do.
For this reason, liturgy is an important concept and it influences us no matter how we engage with it.
“’Liturgy,’ as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for” (46).
With this understanding, liturgy is the football game on Sunday, the mall on Friday, and the fast food restaurant for lunch on Wednesday. Liturgy is also worship on Sunday. But all of these external elements form us.
Therefore, Smith suggests the importance of ritual as a grounding mechanism for a flourishing life. The sacred practices, in this understanding, root us toward something bigger than ourselves. In a spiritual sense, Christians ought not belittle tradition, but instead embrace for the value it provides in rooting us in grounded and productive habits.
The Habits of Work
These principles govern our work lives as well. Most organizations hold to a mission, vision, and values. But how many organizations build these principles into their daily actions? Much like our ability to speak Spanish falters the further we move away from using it every day. The further away from intentional actions around mission, vision, and values, the more the ideas falter in the actions of your employees.
This is why “on purpose,” is so important. Living your mission, vision, and values requires daily intentionality. The development of methods and organizational check-ins that allow a team to “practice” its mission, vision, and values daily is of vital importance.
Implementing these rhythms might feel strange at first. When we do things “on purpose,” the first few times can feel strange and awkward. Think about how you feel once you begin a running regimen. But, with consistency, these practices become needed and desired, just like your body crazing a good run once it becomes a habit.
You Are What You Love reminds me to be “on purpose,” with my mission, vision, and values in my daily work. It’s the only way to translate ideas into action, from brain to heart. This book is highly recommended.
Verdict: 5 out of 5