Almost 400 years ago, the French philosopher René Descartes proclaimed, "I think, therefore I am." But what if he was wrong? In this photo, a man stands in sneakers on an empty asphalt road.

Are We Doers or Thinkers? What the Modern Church Gets Wrong About Human Nature

Back when I was in college, I was a part of a Christian student group on the University of Utah campus called Utenited. Every Tuesday night, we would meet together in the Chase N. Peterson Heritage Center for a forty-five-minute study break that entailed exceptional worship and a five- to seven-minute Bible-based message to encourage and give life to everyone gathered, whether or not they believed in the doctrines of Christianity.

As powerful as these nights were, though, they were not the essence of our mission. Our mission was to be the group that serves, and throughout the school year, we would engage in various activities both on and around the University of Utah campus to serve the University of Utah, its students and their groups, and the broader community in which it exists.

We tore down tables and chairs at PlazaFest, long after most of the other student groups had left. We rearranged an entire ballroom from theater seating to a dining room in record time and left the University’s Orientation Office perplexed at how we did it so quickly and with such joy and enthusiasm.

A group of eight Utenited members serve at the University of Utah's Student Preview Day.Because of our service to the campus and its students, we had both students and non-students from a variety of backgrounds joining us each week. From agnostics to Mormons, Calvinists to Arminians, daters to courters, Catholics to Evangelicals, people were drawn to Utenited not because of what we said, but because of what we did and the manner in which we did it. We were changing the dialogue around Christian faith not by talking about Christianity, but by actually doing it, and we quickly grew to be the largest Christian student group on the University’s campus.

And the funny thing is that of the eighty or so students who showed up at our weekly study breaks on Tuesday nights, less than ten would show up at the various service opportunities throughout the school year. Brought up in a faith that was obsessed with talking about Christianity instead of doing it, many of these students loved to talk the talk but didn’t want to make the small sacrifices to actually walk the walk. They didn’t want to get up at 7am on a Saturday to rearrange a ballroom, or give up an extra hour of their time to tear down after PlazaFest. They could check their doctrinal checkboxes and talk your ear off about “the Gospel,” but their behavior suggested that nothing about their faith had actually changed the way they lived.

Looking back on my experience with Utenited, I’m blown away that a group of fewer than ten students could actually have the kind of impact we did by simply walking the walk of Christian faith.

Nevertheless, the couple that was leading the group weren’t paid by the group or by any church to lead the group. They were a self-employed team of elves who often worked more than forty hours a week, in addition to the time they spent getting together with students who were a part of Utenited. But when the Great Recession hit back in the fall of 2008, it became increasingly difficult for this couple to spend time with the students who were a part of this group, and many of the students who loved to talk the talk stopped showing up on Tuesday nights.

This raised concern with the church that was financially supporting Utenited’s activities. The church was your typical conservative Evangelical church, with an unwritten “No Democrats Welcome” sign and an annual “church service” celebrating the 4th of July, this church considered butts in seats to be the truest measure of “success,” so when those seventy or so students who loved to talk the talk but had little interest in walking the walk stopped showing up on Tuesday nights, the church yanked our funding, and though the few of us who believed in what the group had done tried our best to save it, Utenited entered a season of dormancy and has yet to return to the University of Utah campus.

“I Think, Therefore I Am”?

Almost 400 years ago, a French philosopher by the name of René Descartes, doubting his own existence, locked himself in a dark room and emerged with a thought that would form the foundation for Western philosophy: “I think, therefore I am.

Descartes’s idea was simple, really. Every doubt of one’s own existence is a thought in one’s mind, so by being able to think that thought of doubt, it proved that one did, in fact, exist. But what if Descartes was wrong?

Terry Pearce, a man considered by many to be the preeminent scholar in the study of leadership, writes in his book, Leading Out Loud, that (simplistically speaking) the human brain can be divided into two parts: the prefrontal cortex, where all of our judgement and rational thinking occurs, and the limbic system, which processes all of our experience and accounts for the vast majority of our brain matter. Thus, the mind, as Descartes understood it, is not so simple.

Another book that I’ve mentioned quite a bit in recent posts is Christine Pohl’s book, Living into Community. In her book, Dr. Pohl insists that you and I are not primarily thinkers, but doers, shaped not by our rational constructs by by our habits and practices. And in light of what we understand now about the human brain and how it works, Pohl’s assertions make sense. The limbic system makes up the vast majority of our mind and is where all of our aesthetic experience is processed. Thus, the neurological pathways in the vast majority of our mind are shaped not by our doctrine, but by the practices you and I engage in every day and the things we experience while doing them.

I think there can be little doubt that Christianity is falling into disrepute in the West, with young people leaving the Church in droves and finding more meaning in the Eastern philosophies of yoga and Buddhism than they do in the doctrines that once formed the bedrock for Western life. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said so famously, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” and Ravi Zacharias, the leading Christian apologist in the Church today, wrote in his introduction to Beyond Opinion that while Christianity has won the battle of intellectual argument, we’ve lost the war, precisely because we assumed that what we thought—vis-a-vie doctrines—was far more important than how we lived. Jesus himself told us that the world would know we are His disciples not by our bulletproof intellectual arguments but by the way we loved one another—by the way we lived, not by the things we thought.

For over six hundred years, the Western (Protestant) Church has believed in the truthfulness of Descartes’s famous statement, “I think, therefore I am,” but this statement was, in truth, a fraud. It is not our thinking that shapes our mind and proves its existence, but our doing. We are not thinkers, but doers. We are, in Pohl’s terms, homo liturgicus.

Walking the Walk of Christian Faith

The question then shifts away from, “What do we believe?” and “Are our doctrines true, in an intellectual sense?” to “How do we structure our life in a way that cultivates faithfulness to God?” and “Is our faith true, in a behavioral sense?” What habits or practices should we, as Christians, be doing in our everyday lives to shape us more and more into the people God has called us to be?

I’ve already written about what I think it means to cultivate faithfulness to God in dating, but moving beyond that, I think there are basic practices that you and I can and should be doing each and every day to transform every part of who we are into the people we were created to be.

Prayer

One of the biggest and most overlooked practices of Christian life is that of prayer. Far too often, we don’t pray today for our daily bread but only in those times and those seasons where our daily bread seems scarce. If we are to be the people God has called us to be, we can and should be praying on a regular basis, and not complex, wordy prayers, but simple petitions made to a God who long before he’s a judge is a loving father.

Gratitude

Among the practices Dr. Pohl articulates in her book is the practice of gratitude, and as part of my class this quarter on the practices of Christian community, we had to read through the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy takes place on the plains of Moab. The people of God, shaped by forty years of dependence on Him in the wilderness, stand ready to grab hold of an inheritance promised to them over four hundred years before.

There, on the plains of Moab, Moses recounts the story of how God brought the people of Israel out of slavery in the land of Egypt and shaped them into a people ready to live life as He intended in the land he promised their ancestors he would give them. Through these sermons preached on the plains of Moab, Moses calls the people’s attention to God’s faithfulness before and behind them, and invites them to acknowledge God’s faithfulness by responding with faithful obedience.

That is the practice of gratitude: seeing and acknowledging God’s faithfulness before and behind us. By thanking God in our daily prayers, we come to see his faithfulness all around us, even on our worst days, and in so doing, we become empowered to respond with faithful obedience to the do’s and don’t’s of God.

Service

I think one of the most overlooked practices of Christian faith is the practice of service. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” yet Christians get so caught up in our doctrine—in our thinking—that we completely miss out on the primary practice of Christian life. Instead of taking off our robe and washing the feet of those who disagree with us, we end up fighting with them over the truthfulness of their intellectual beliefs. We have, in truth, given more weight to the words of Descartes than we have to those of the Man we call our King.

If Utenited taught me anything, it’s that to change the dialogue around Christian faith, to really have any impact on the world around us and usher in the very Kingdom we claim to preach, the Church must part with the words of Descartes. We must do more than simply think about Christianity; we must actually do it.

God didn’t yell to us from a mountaintop that he loves us, but in Christ, gave up his rights as God to meet us in our context and show us through his death on the cross that he loves us more than we ever dared to dream. If God Himself chose not to talk but to do, then it’s about time that we did, too.