Skilled Faith?

In Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein, he discusses the work of Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, who did research in the 1960s on how we develop skills. They broke the process into three stages: 1. The cognitive stage in which you intellectualize the task, defining its parts to work out what to do; 2. The associative stage in which you concentrate less and make fewer major errors; and 3. The autonomous stage in which the skill no longer requires great concentration (think the way most of us experience typing on a keyboard or driving).

For this third stage, Foer offers additional nomenclature:

“As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the ‘OK plateau,’ the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.” (p. 170)

If you’re like me, the faith analogy springs out of that quote. How often have I settled for less in my level of intimacy and relationship with God? How often have I stopped at the OK plateau?

A lot of us feel the sting of the OK plateau with respect to our faith. But with it comes a sneaky assumption – that faith is a skill and that it’s something in which we should always be improving.

It’s not surprising when you think about it. Culturally, most elements of our lives can be converted into some form of “expertise.” We want to be better. We watch the Cooking Channel and wish we could make crème brulée. We read blogs about parenting and want to start 15 new traditions every holiday. We watch people whose faith we admire and conclude that we just need to _______ (pray more, read more Scripture, attend church more often, fill in the blank).

Expertise, having the skills, is a comfortable idea. We’re familiar with all manner of ways to measure it (return on investment, accurate predictions, sheer output).

So it’s easy to forget that faith is not about expertise. It’s about experience.

Intimacy with God poses problems; it’s not always linear or “up and to the right.” It takes twists and turns, as our lives do.

Faith as experience invites us not to develop more “Christian skills”, but to enter mystery, to enter the very life of God. Jesus reminds us that to enter that life, we have to give up on becoming better.

Ultimately, our goal has nothing to do with surpassing some kind of OK plateau; our goal is far richer, deeper and truer than that because it’s found not in a skill set, but in God himself.


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