Tag Archive: habitus


Matthew 7.1 is a well-known biblical text. It’s up there with John 3:16. But the former is used more like a club than the latter.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. This is now an American ideal.

The work of sociologist Christian Smith shows just how much it pervades the average American’s imagination when he writes about emerging young adults in his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. In the interviews with young adults that constitute a portion of that book, Smith highlights a certain common characteristic among many of them. Instance after instance an interviewee utters the common statement, “who am I to judge someone else?” or some form of the same. Smith and his co-authors are rather disturbed by the lack of an ability among young adults to offer a rational evaluation of circumstances. While individuals seem to make certain decisions for themselves, they are unwilling to presume that the decision they have made for themselves is the same decision others ought to make too. “Who am I to say?” they will ask.

Following from a point Smith makes in an earlier book, one which draws on the same longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion as does Lost in Transition, Smith argues in Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that much of what American young people claim as their spirituality has been handed down within the tradition they have experienced in their family life. In other words, that “tradition” is most likely meant to mean “from their church.” But, more importantly for my argument here, at any rate, it is from one’s parents. If a young person (teenager or young adult) is regularly articulating such utterances as “Who am I to judge?” we ought to be prompted to think of Bourdieu and his point about habitus and disposition again. Such regular utterances come with practice, and practice occurs in an environment which fosters it. If the family is handing down this value to mimic, it’s no wonder it has taken such a strong hold.

Clearly it is important for us NOT to judge. And to justify our position, we’ll point to Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a problem here that causes us quite a bit of consternation. It’s a bad interpretation of the text. We should ask ourselves, is Jesus really telling us it is utterly sinful to judge? Are we really to make no evaluations whatsoever in this life?

That seems a very thin interpretation of this text, and it gets us into some real trouble. This was the concern of Smith and his co-authors in Lost in Transition. They wondered if young adults could make any substantive evaluations at all. If making judgments seemed to them to be somehow “all wrong,” then how were they going to get through life when faced with kind of moral conundrums one has to face from time to time? How, in fact, if such young people were to eventually start families, would they raise children or discipline them or teach them to lead a particular kind of life if they could not decide on how someone else (in this case, their own child) ought to live?

Mind you however, a good interpretation of Matthew 7.1 doesn’t simply free us to sling at others whatever judgments we want.

What we ought to realize is that we make evaluations and judgments all the time. Evaluations of good, bad, and everything in between are necessary for our very safety and survival, much less for our moral navigation through life. We know in our bones how to stay out of danger (by making judgments of dangerous situations, and doing so without “thinking”). And we know at times moral right and wrong in utterly viscerally ways–situations make us “sick.” But we also make other kinds of judgments. Very often, like I’ve written in the previous three posts, our judgments are of the sinful variety. They are negatively judgmental. They’re not particularly helpful, and certainly not necessary for our safety or survival. And for that we ought to repent. Otherwise, the world is right in calling us hypocrites. It’s that simple.

The rest of the time, to the extent that we are followers of Christ, we are learning to judge rightly and well. I learned early on in my Christian journey a particular term for this: discernment. It’s something of an art. Decisions, evaluations, judgments—they’re often hard. Sometimes they’re borderline undecidable. Maybe that’s why Luther said “sin boldly.”

A few things I’ve found helpful:

  1. Good judgment and evaluation happens in community, not alone. Don’t assume you don’t need help. Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out. Don’t assume you’re done learning.
  2. Good judgment and evaluation takes time. It’s never snappy. It’s never hasty. It’s always aware that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Every time. Period.
  3. Good judgment and evaluation begins with listening and exploring. And perhaps this practice never ends.
  4. Good judgment and evaluation requires habitus formed in the crucible of worship where the people of God have gathered.

Trained to be Judgmental?

Our world forms us to become judgmental. This happens simultaneously with our ongoing training as Americans to be non-judgmental—that is, tolerant—of everyone else. That we’re taught it is important to be non-judgmental (tolerant) is rather obvious. It’s an explicit value articulated in the media and our educational system, and even (perhaps often) within the Christian tradition. So I won’t say much about that here.

To make my point, however, that we’re formed to be judgmental, I must reflect on something that’s not so obvious. And to do that, I have to say a few other helpful things first.

A book that’s been critically important to my thinking about Christian formation (and cultural theory) in recent years has been Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I’ve suggested it to so many people who’ve also liked it—and with the help of some colleagues made it required reading at my seminary for worship students. But it’s not the simplest read. It takes some wrestling and pondering.

I’m now using it with my undergraduates to think about how culture has formed us. In the book, Smith argues that culture often forms us unwittingly through ingrained habits and rituals that function like liturgies. He calls them “secular liturgies.” The analogy to the church’s liturgy is quite intentional. And if you read the book, his argument that culture can be understood as constituted by “secular liturgies” is quite compelling. So I encourage you to read it. And I promise you’ll get more out of it than that if you invest the time in reflecting on Jamie’s work and the various sundry applications of it to your life. He makes it easy, using examples from popular literature, movies, the mall, TV, the university, sports, and even the Pledge of Allegiance to make his points concrete.

One of his main arguments is about how we are formed as human beings to be particular kinds of people in a manner that operates at a pre-reflective or pre-conscious register. On this point, he means to push back against the rather staid position in Western thinking that, as autonomous agents (which we imagine ourselves to be, since that is what we’ve been taught we are in the story of Western anthropology), we deliberately come to believe everything we believe by choice. Or, in terms of the things we do, they are done as matters of intentional deliberation. Jamie rejects this position. And he is not alone in pushing back on this view. Even recent NYT bestsellers are telling us otherwise—mind you they’re doing so by making the case scientifically borrowing from psychology, neurology, and cognitive philosophy: check out David Brook’s The Social Animal and/or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (I recommend both).

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has also argued convincingly that our formation as human beings is not primarily a cognitive phenomenon, but something much more bodily oriented. Thus, for Bourdieu, our thinking and reflection emerges from our primal and chief means of engagement with and comportment toward the world—our bodies. He uses the language of “practice” to help us understand this. His work gives an account for why we do what we do, not by accounting for our “thinking and deliberation” regarding our actions, but by accounting for how the logic of practice is pre-cognitive and pre-reflective. Bourdieu describes our embodied lives as trained toward certain dispositions through regular habitual practices in which we participate. These dispositions structure our engagement with the world. He gives a name to these dispositions, calling them habitus. Our habitus governs our actions at a level below the cognitive and reflective register. The focus isn’t on our brains or minds but on our bodies.

At the risk of scaring some readers off, it’s worth quoting Bourdieu on this very central idea within his work. If this passage doesn’t seem very clear, keep in mind part of the problem Bourdieu has in his writing is that he is trying to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions, ways of thinking that we simply take for granted and which have been rooted in the West for three centuries. Our present condition as captive to a certain way of thinking about and imagining “why we do what we do” prevents us from understanding him easily.

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor. (The Logic of Practice, 53)

Here we see Bourdieu explicitly pointing up the nature of habitus as an ordered, structured and structuring register of our lives that functions explicitly at a non-cognitive level. There is no need for a “conductor.” There is no need for the intentional “following of rules” or “aiming at certain ends.” These are not, however, ruled out as impossible or dismissed, but Bourdieu’s point is to reorient our imagination of what it means to be human actors who explain why we do what we do, forcing us to take into account a substantial part of who we are that does not emerge from our “free will,” our freely made decisions, or rational deliberations about what is to be done.

From the time each of us was very young—I mean, from moment after we were born (and now we ought to be paying attention to our formation in the womb it seems)—our dispositions were being created. We were developing a habitus, or better, a habitus was happening to us, on account of how we were engaged with others in our experience of the world. In the same way, this still happens. In fact, it’s ongoing throughout our lives. Our habitus continues to be shaped as much as it shapes our engagement with and comportment toward the world. We constantly engaged with the world in a variety of ways and this engagement is always rubbing off on us. Our world is full of “liturgies” according to Smith—that’s part of what constitutes and forms “culture” in his argument—and human beings are always formed by the cultures in which they participate. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom argues that our engagement with the world, as it is inevitably communal, shapes our dispositions, and thus forms us to be certain kinds of people. Liturgies of any kind foster habitus.

Thus I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to make my suggestion of how we are passively trained to be judgmental.

Our culture provides many opportunities for us to be trained—to develop a disposition, a habitus—to become judgmental. Since this post has gone on for some time, in the next day or two, I’ll supplement this one with some concrete examples of how I see this happening.