“You are what you repeatedly do.” - Aristotle
“Imagination taking shape.” – Play Doh
I often have the opportunity to work with young actors. Sometimes I’m their director, sometimes I’m their friend, sometimes I’m their teacher. I always run into the same issue with them. As an example, one time I was directing a show and a very emotional and difficult scene came up and the rehearsal got rough. The scene was awkward, strained, and uncomfortable. When I talked with the actor who was having the trouble with the scene afterward, the conversation went something like this:
Me: So tell me about that scene.
Actor: I don’t know… I just wasn’t feeling it.
Me: What do you mean, “feeling it?”
Actor: I mean I just couldn’t get inside the character’s head. I couldn’t feel things the way he felt.
Me: And why do you think you have to feel things the way the character feels them?
Actor: Because it won’t be true otherwise.
Me: What do you mean by, “true?”
Actor: Well I can’t act emotions that I’m not feeling onstage.
Me: So you’re trying to feel what the character feels and you can’t?
Me: Hm. What are you doing in the scene?
Actor: I don’t understand.
Me: Physically. What are you doing?
Me: No, with your body, and your hands, and your voice.
Actor: Uh… I’m being angry with them?
Me: No. See, “being angry” isn’t something you can do anything about. In this scene you’re raising your voice, you’re pacing around, you’re squeezing everything you touch, you’re clutching at your clothes, you’re raking your hair. These are the things you’re doing. Because that’s what you do when you’re angry and arguing.
Actor: But I can’t do those things if I’m not feeling angry.
Me: Of course you can. You can do all of those things that I listed regardless of what you’re currently feeling. Here’s what I want you to do: imagine that you’re angry. Don’t try to feel something that isn’t there. Imagine it. And go through the physical motions that I described above. Do it today. Then do it tomorrow. Then do it in every rehearsal. I assure you, in time, by nurturing your imagination and practicing the right actions, your “feelings” will be there.
Actor: Okay… I’ll give it a shot.
What was the result? Of course it was a great performance given. The poor young actor had been afflicted by what is known as “Method” acting, a technique popularized by Lee Strasberg and inflicted upon countless actors ever since. It is a way of acting that does nothing so well as produce crazy people. (Please note authorial bias.) This technique that the young actor was trying to reproduce was faking a real psychotic episode or realizing a fake psychotic episode depending on how you look at it. The young actor thought that if he could just conjure up the right feelings, the actions would take care of themselves and if he didn’t feel the right things, the scene would be condemned to failure.
Enough about stagecraft. Let’s talk about acting. I’m in the midst of a Sunday School series about the role of doubt in the life of the Christian. I’ve been making a case that doubt is not antithetical to faith, but rather it is a vital part of the life of faith. Faith is not a synonym for certainty; rather, by its very nature it implies some uncertainty. And I’ve said that we need to make room in the Christian community for doubts of even the most basic and foundational kind without breaking fellowship or making people feel that their doubts are unwelcome. So what now? What do we actually do with that idea?
I am here to propose that the answer is in acting. No, not on stage, in our actions. Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. That’s a sobering thought. For the Christian, that would mean that our identity is only found in what we do rather than what we say we believe. Orthodoxy takes a back seat to orthopraxy. As I quoted before, David Dark said is his book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, “Show me a transcript of the words you’ve spoken, typed, or texted in the course of a day, an account of your doings, and a record of your transactions, and I’ll show you your religion.” How many of us would like to have someone define our religion only by examining what we’ve purchased? But why shouldn’t that say everything about what we value?
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12-13: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” This idea, that we will be always faced with uncertainty while here on Earth, must not paralyze us. Even in the face of that doubt, Paul says that faith, hope, and love remain. Love is the greatest. And love is not a passive sentiment, as Paul described in the first part of the chapter. Love wasn’t passive to Jesus either. ”Love your neighbor” was not a theological position; it was a call to action.
At the beginning of the series I promised not to try to soothe everyone’s doubts and answer everyone’s questions. I hold to that promise. What I hoped for us to gain was a framework by which to process and understand our doubts better. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to have a direction in which to go. We’ve got to know what to do with our doubts. My suggestion is that if we want to understand God better, we must act as if we already do. If we want to know if Jesus is really both God and man, we’ve got to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we want to know if God really exists, we’ve got to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. If we want to know if it’s all true, we’ve got to put to others before ourselves time after time after time.
Ultimately, what I suggest is that in repeatedly doing what a Christian does, we will be a Christian whether or not we have theology sorted out in our heads and our hearts.