the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Discipleship: The Life of Faith

This was the third of three talks at the Learning Christian Living: The Task of Catechesis workshop, which was held at All Saints' Margaret Street on Nov 8 2017. The other two were on Beginning Catechesis and Doctrine

About a year ago, I began despairing at the possibility that preaching was a waste of time. I mean this in a specific way: that preaching is an ineffective means for encouraging and motivating Christian moral living. It is, after all, one thing to persuade people of the truth of some theological proposition on Sunday, and quite another to make a difference in how they live all week. God knows, we all have our hypocrisies: the question is whether we can do better, and how?

Social psychologists have always known that there is a chasm between self-reported attitudes and observable behaviours. So, it was natural for me to turn to my own academic area in thinking through the possibility and potential of discipleship, seen as the cultivation of Christian virtue. 


St Ignatius probably never said “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man”, but the American psychologist John B. Watson did express a related sentiment, even even stronger terms [1]: 

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. 

There is an attractive optimism in this view—Watson and, more famously, B. F. Skinner’s behaviourism—which held sway in psychological science for much of the first half of the 20th century. They believed that human behaviour could be shaped through schedules of reinforcement and punishment, which they called conditioning. Behaviourism is the diametric opposite of genetic determinism, and the spectre of eugenics that that beckons forth. It is the faith in human potential and the ingenuity to actualise it for the greatest good, which I suppose makes it a quintessentially American view of human nature. But even we can see the appeal, I think, this side of the Atlantic. After all, if human aptitudes and appetites are shapeable in the way that the behaviourists suggest, we have ways of effectively cultivating whatever virtues we see fit. Indeed, Skinner went so far as to compose a utopian novel based on these ideas, which he titled Walden Two, in obvious reference to Thoreau. In it, Skinner describes a society in which individuals are conditioned into peace, productivity, and happiness. It’s not quite as a creepy as it sounds. Or maybe it’s just unwittingly creepy. Then again, words like discipleship and formation are equally distasteful to different ears.

In any case, there aren’t many card-carrying behaviourists left. Psychologists no longer think of human beings as blank slates upon which dispositions can be etched by fiat. Even our view of dispositions have changed, in ways that pose problems for the common understanding of virtues that we have inherited from Aristotle and his Christian interpreters.

But I am getting ahead of myself.


I am taking for granted that catechesis is the name we give to the entire task of making disciples; and in this, I have John Paul II on my side. And I am focussing on the part of discipleship that is about the cultivation and acquisition of virtues, as distinct—though not divorced—from the teaching and learning of orthodox belief. Virtues are, as I have already suggested, dispositions or habits: they are often thought of as behavioural dispositions, which is fine, but it is important to remember that behaving is in large part about desiring. It follows from this that discipleship—and thus, catechesis—is about the ordering of our desires. Skinner, meet Augustine, through Aristotle and Aquinas. 

How, then, do we cultivate good habits in ourselves and one another? 

The old view—by which I suppose I mean Aristotle’s—is that virtues are acquired by repetition: in other words, practice makes morally perfect. The catechists’ job would therefore be to motivate or otherwise support moral practice. Skinner and other behaviourists would add to this that practice plus reward makes perfect; and insofar as virtuous actions make us happy, as they are theorised to do in the Aristotelian tradition, virtue should be self-reinforcing. There is, unfortunately and surprisingly, no good empirical research on this specific topic, but I am generally sceptical that the eudaemonic joy virtuous living brings will triumph over hedonic pleasure insofar as these conflicts; and they often do. 

Now, we come to how psychological research might give us cause to be more broadly sceptical of the traditional view. 


Virtues are meant to be relatively broad and stable traits; indeed, there are—in the tradition we have received—only four cardinal virtues (courage, temperance, justice, and prudence; the latter of which is where intellectual and moral virtues meet). Even in modern psychology’s Moral Foundations Theory, there are only five basic moral domains: care, fairness, loyalty, respect, and purity. However, as far as we can tell, our actual behavioural tendencies are narrow rather than broad. For example, in studies on children, psychologists have found only weak consistency across different kinds of honesty, such as lying, cheating on tests, cheating on homework, or stealing. In contrast, children who do not cheat in one test tend not to cheat in other tests. In other words, our habits seem to be situation specific, and we do not seem to learn how to generalise beyond those specific situations. [2]

There is, furthermore, a famous “predictability ceiling” in the assessment of character and behaviour: in statistical terms, individual differences in “personality” or “character” account for only about 9% of the variation in behaviour.[3,4] This is not actually as terrible as it initially sounds—it allows us to predict binary decisions about 65% of the time—but it does nevertheless seem that our actions are shaped in large part externally, by the situations in which we find ourselves.  

This is now a truth widely—if not universally—acknowledged by social scientists, and even applied by governments and corporations. This year’s Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics went to Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago, whose work on “nudges” has inspired the Behavioural Insights Team—the Nudge Unit—originally set up within the Cabinet Office in 2010, to improve government policy and services. Other countries, including the US and Australia have since adopted similar initiatives. A nudge is a small cue in the environment that predictably affects people’s choices, without punishing unwanted behaviour. For example, switching to an opt-out system from an opt-in system appreciably increases organ donation rates. Similarly, having people sign at the start of a form rather than at the end increases people’s honesty in the details they provide. To increase healthy eating, cafeterias can deliberately display the healthy options at eye level, and within easy reach. 

It seems odd to put Aristotle and B. F. Skinner in the same category, but behavioural science departs from both in the same way. Aristotle and Skinner were both interested in how persons can be shaped, by repetition and reinforcement respectively. In contrast, behavioural scientists are now interest in how situations can be tweaked, subtly to subconsciously manipulate behaviour. 

It is, of course, an empirical question: which nudges do and don’t work? And our guesses are much more often wrong than not: it is only the successes that get reported on, but the experimental psychologist’s “file drawer” of failures is very large indeed, and the effects we do find are often weak and inconsistent. 

If I sound like I’m saying that behavioural scientists don’t know how to cultivate virtue, it’s because that is exactly what I am saying; I am, of course, also saying that no one else does either. 


It’s not as though you don’t know this, those of you who are already doing the work of making disciples and all of us who are trying to be good disciples. Behaviour modification is hard, and the realignment of desires is certainly no easier: of actual desires, as opposed to stated ones. Talk is both cheap and predictively poor. Hard words for preachers to hear, to be sure. 

Maybe our attempt to cultivate virtue is wrong-headed: Aquinas was certainly aware of the limits of acquired virtue over infused ones, given directly by God, about which psychologists have nothing to say. But this pessimism lets us off the hook too easily, as fatalism usually does, and we should be even more sceptical of convenient answers than pollyannish ones. 

And so, I offer at least two ways forward deliberately chosen for their differences, as suggested by the psychological research, which holds some promise even as it reveals to us the enormity of the task before us:

The first suggestion from social psychology comes from the large body of work on our desire for perceived self-consistency, which we will all recognise as a dislike and fear of hypocrisy. [5] This desire for perceived self-consistency also explains why we all find the notion of virtues and character and personality traits so appealing in the first place: we want to believe that our behaviour is sensible across situations, and not that we are fickle, easily and unconsciously affected by external situational factors, such as the weather or the kind of background music playing in wine shops or the absence of clocks in shopping malls. 

Left to our own devices, we pick up habits in bits and pieces, and fail to integrate them in ways that the virtue ethical tradition would like us to do. But we might be able to encourage the expansion of local, situation-specific habits into broader virtues. One way to do this, which has been shown to have at least short-term effects in a wide variety of contexts, is to explicitly label people in virtuous terms. It turns out that telling people that they are generous makes them behave generously; telling people that they are tidy makes them tidier; telling people that they are more cooperative makes them so, and so forth. Relatedly, there has also been research on how the exposure of hypocrisy can motivate behaviour change. In the studies, people are first asked to publicly advocate for some behaviour, and then asked about their own actual behaviour in that domain; this helps them see that their past behaviours were inconsistent with their stated values, which induces them to change their future behaviour to maintain consistency between their stated values and their lived ones. Furthermore, this effect seems to be greatest when the profession of the value in question is made publicly and the confrontation with hypocrisy is made privately. This suggests, at least, that while preaching about our hypocrisies—a topic to which I frequently return, as some of you can testify—is just the first step in a more involved process of helping each other see the inconsistencies in our lives. 

My second suggestion is somewhat more oblique, albeit deliberately so, and comes from the growing literature on “conscience development”: it is to focus on the home, and familial and other close personal relationships, and to enable families to foster what psychologist’s call secure attachments between parents and their children. There is increasing evidence that secure attachment is important in the child’s ability to internalise moral values, learn appropriate moral emotions, and develop empathic concern for others’ distress. [6, 7]

The social conditions of secure attachment are manifold and complex and go beyond the scope of this talk, but they involve consistency and sensitivity from the parents in responding to children’s needs, which most parents can recognise as good things to do anyway. This does not mean that parents should strap their babies to themselves at all times, and pick them up at every peep—as seems trendy these days—but it does mean that parents should interact with their children in a responsive manner, and offer opportunities for the children to respond to them. I am not a parent myself, but one doesn’t need to be to see that this can be difficult in practice. 

Modern society is unhelpful in many ways, applying immense pressure and unrealistic expectations on parents while abandoning them to fend for themselves in their nuclear families, that oddest of Western industrial products. If we are interested in the development of virtuous persons, we—as a Church—need to make up for the failures and traps of modern society, supporting families as best we can. Children’s ministry must therefore come also with parents’ ministry, if it’s going to be effective: and parents’ ministry had better not be yet another set of responsibilities and expectations on them, as if they are not already busy enough. This is unrealistic for most vicars and admittedly idiosyncratic, but I think we should start counting baby-sitting among our pastoral duties: perhaps something for curates to take up, he says, toward the end of his curacy. 

This second suggestion leads me to make a broader point about catechesis, discipleship, and the cultivation of virtue, with which I think Aristotle would agree. To be sure, the cultivation of virtue requires a lot more than what can be accomplished via sermon series or discussion groups or penny catechisms. In fact, I would go further to say that such activities with which we so eagerly (or reluctantly) busy ourselves probably very often have approximately zero effect, if other environmental conditions are not met. (This reminds me of a related subject: the relationship between church activities and church growth, the latter defined in predictably crass ways. According to Church Mission Statistics from 2012, the magnitude of the zero-order correlation between having an Alpha Course and church growth is exactly the same as that of using email to contact parishioners, r = .059) We know this already, of course—that the social conditions of teaching and learning are crucial—which is why seminaries, monasteries, and convents exist vas crucibles of discipleship. Even those of us who gained little by way of theological education from seminary will admit that it was a formative experience, for better or worse. The parish church is not a convent, nor should it be. But it is and should be a society, a polity, so arranged to bring the best out of people, out of each other. We might not want to return to the otherwordliness of the early Church, but nor should we pretend that we have lost nothing after Constantine. So even if we don’t like the idea of the Church sorting out the mess created by capitalist individualism and its offspring, the hegemony of the nuclear family, we might think of other ways in which we can reorder society with the end of reordering our desires in the direction of virtue. The job of catechesis is therefore the onerously broad one of forming a community, and not just individuals; and not just a speaking and listening and even praying community, but a living one, one that is enabled to act like Christians by the support—spiritual and intellectual, as well as practical—of the Church, our mother. 

  1. Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People's Institute Publishing Company.

  2. Hartshorne, H., & May, M. (1928). Studies in the nature of character, Vol. 1. The nature of deceit. New York, NY: Macmillan Company.

  3. Ross, L., & Nesbitt, R. E. (2011). The person and the situation (2nd ed.). London: Pinter & Martin. 

  4. Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York, NY: Wiley.

  5. Stone, J., & Fernandez, N. C. (2008). To practice what we preach: The use of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance to motivate behavior change. Social and Personality Psychology Compass2, 1024-1051. 

  6. Govrin, A. (2014). The ABC of moral development: An attachment approach to moral judgment. Frontiers in psychology5, 6.

  7. Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science11, 191-195.

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