Just a few days ago, I celebrated my spiritual birthday--the day, at age 18, when I confessed faith in Christ for the first day. (Recently, I was interviewed by To the Best of My Knowledge about being "born again," which helped me remember and recreate this significant event in my life. See what you think.)
In a reasonably hard-line evangelical college group, I was once taught to formulate this as the most relevant question for spiritual discernment: Am I really 38 years old in Christ? Decades later, I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think it’s more illuminating to ponder how I’ve lived now two-thirds of my life as a follower of Christ (counting, of course, my infancy in that math) and the ways my life has been formed quite substantially around Christian doctrines, practices, and community.
All this leads me to reflection on being an American and our fixation on a conversion date, which represents a vestige of the American history of revivals. We need to own a specific day and time that we came to faith, and more broadly, when our life changed forever. As if that’s all there is.
I admit that there are some salient elements to a conversionist approach to faith and life. There are moments that change us forever. There are moments where God meets us decisively. But most of my life has been lived by slow, incremental change, by the habits of the heart.
That last phrase finds its way into the profound 19th century study of our culture by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He wrote in French and his exact phrase was “habitudes du coeur." Cœur sounds a lot like core. In commenting on Tocqueville, Parker Palmer, in a captivating video, notes heart shares an Indo-European root with Latin cor or cord—which echo core and coeur. Finally, to round this out, habits derives from habitus, which means things we do continually. That leads me to what I’ve learned from the science of change via Charles Duhigg and the other commentators on research about changing habits. It's slow and gradual. It's about forming habitual practices at our "coeur." Or habits of the heart.
The past few years, after years in large, evangelically-oriented congregations that highlight the excitement and event-nature of worship services, Sunday mornings Laura and I are now in a quiet, smaller Episcopalian Eucharist service. Every Sunday we confess our sins and find Christ’s forgiveness and reconciling love in the bread and wine. Whether we particularly feel sinful or not. Whether we sense God’s immeasurable love or not. But we do it every time we're there worshipping.
Worship, in this mode, seems more about creating habitus than conversion. That’s working for me... as I try to keep the change.