‘I want to do what is good but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway’. So says Paul in Romans 7:19 (New Living Translation). Christian adult educators are only too well aware of the gap which often opens up between faith and action (and I’m only too well aware of it in my own life).
So it was interesting to receive today’s weekly mailing from Synaptic Potential, a neuroscience coaching organisation run by a colleague on a Trust-funded project, Amy Brann, and her husband Stuart. In it, was this interesting article by Dr John Parkinson from Bangor University (http://www.synapticpotential.com/uncategorized/nudge-wink/), exploring how the gap between what we aspire to do and actually do is partly rooted in the processes of the brain, and particularly the fact that our spontaneous or habitual actions are controlled by a different area of the brain than that dealing with social norms and conscious choices. The automatic or implicit often wins out over the explicit/consciously chosen, hence we may aspire to something but find it more difficult to do in practice. The trick in closing the gap between aspiration and reality, says Dr Parkinson, is to try to ‘nudge the habit system in the right direction’. There are some interesting parallels here with Aristotle’s idea that to become virtuous, you put yourself in the path of virtuous things and people, and it kind of rubs off on you (I’m paraphrasing a little here!). It also suggests that purely theoretical learning in churches has its place but is unlikely to create transformative communities by itself. We must nudge our collection of habits and daily practices in such a way as to put ourselves in the path of what which we aspire to. In terms of the action-reflection cycle, we don’t wait too long until we get into action mode – further reflection can follow from there. What would churches’ discipleship-deepening strategies look like if we really took hold of that thought? Of course, there’s an added dimension here – the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives – which means that discipleship can’t purely be put down to understanding and acting upon the neuroscience. But might it sometimes give us some help along the way?