Lately, I’ve been reconsidering one of the central themes I was taught as a young man: “Good doctrine produces good works“. It’s argued that when a person has the right knowledge, right actions will necessarily progress from that knowledge. Over and over again, I was told the cure for bad behavior was simply knowing that the behavior was bad and choosing the right behavior that I knew was right.
If this sounds anything close to circular reasoning, that’s because it is circular. Right knowledge leads to right choices leads to right behavior leads to the beginning again. I’ve thought this was ridiculous for a little over a decade. This is not the reason for reconsidering it, though. I’ve felt there was a certain level of truth to it, if it was perhaps reductive and circular, at least it was an idea that should help people get knowledge.
“Information does not equal transformation.”
The reason I’ve been reconsidering it is because I heard that great phrase from Sky Jethani on the Holy Post podcast about 6 years ago, and it has worked its way into my vocabulary increasingly ever since. The phrase captured my imagination; it was a balm to my skeptical heart which found problems with an unworkable theory of change. Only recently did I begin to work out what the alternative is.
Information on its own is just… “stuff”. It’s good to know, it can be helpful to relate it to my world, and it is necessary to survive. It’s just not complete on its own. Though I have the knowledge that overeating is bad for my health, and this knowledge is good, the knowledge alone does absolutely nothing for my figure. It leads to nothing, it is just dead weight like the fat adorning my body.
For transformation to happen, I must embody that knowledge.
This word, “embody”, is what finally caught me. It excited me the moment it came to me, and it despaired me of my past failures. Over and over again, I have shared information, statistics, facts, figures; all with the expectation that somehow this education that I had received would be life changing for others. I recognized my own failure to mentor others.
I had lived my life thinking that rational thought and education would lead to changes in other people’s actions.
My whole life, I have lived as if that foundational lie taught to me in bible school, in churches, in skeptic organizations, in anarchist and libertarian communities was the truth. At the same time, my mother and great-grandfather taught me as well the theme that “practice makes perfect”, that right behaviors don’t come from knowledge, but instead by repeatedly embodying those right things over and over again, one day at a time.
I have much to repent of in my interactions with others, especially those I’ve mentored and led. Christianity is not a pile of knowledge from which emanates the right order of things. Christianity is a set of practices which we learn to embody over time by repeatedly exercising the behavior of our Savior, Jesus Christ. The more we manifest those practices in our body as well as our mind, the more we are like Jesus.
In the words of the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher,
Take a sharp-cut young saint, just crystallized, as many-pointed and as clear as a diamond, and how good he is! How decided for the right, and how abhorrent of wrong! He abhors evil rather than loves good. He has not yet attained to the meekness and gentleness of Christ. But years will teach him that love is more just than justice; that compassion will cure more sins than condemnation; and that summer will do more, with silent warmth, to redeem the earth from barrenness, than winter can with all the majesty of storms and the irresistible power of her icy hand.Henry Ward Beecher, Life Thoughts, First Series (London: Blackwood) p 158
Does knowledge matter? The skeptic in me knows that the right facts matter because facts inform behavior. But all the right facts in the world won’t stop bad behavior without practice. Please don’t just know the right things in your tradition.