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Instinct, Practice, Grace, Works

August 12, 2019

As an atheist, I’ve thought a lot about trying to analogize religious concepts into an accessible secular schema. I think my Sunstone presentation on Grace, Works, Devotion and Video Games ended up being a good starting point in this vein. (You can purchase the session audio now…it’s session 137, but realistically, I’ll probably do a more concise cover story on my YouTube channel as soon as I get around to arranging a music cover.)

The concepts I’ve been thinking of are instinct/talent and practice/discipline. I analogize these concepts to religious concepts like grace and works. Instinct or talent is an unearned gift — there’s nothing a person does to get whatever set of talents and instincts they have. At the same time, talent must be activated, and this is through practice.

To me, this illustrates the proper relationship of grace and works. You need the works. If you have talent and do nothing with it, then you won’t get anywhere…

And yet…relying solely on works misses the mark. Even if practice makes perfect, practice is enabled or force multiplied by talent. If I have talent, then even with a little practice I will rapidly increase. If I have little talent, then all the practice in the world may result in little progress.

I was feeling good about this schema at Sunstone…like I had come up with a good analogy with my video game analogy…and then less than a day after, doubt creeped in.

Chris Carroll Smith raised up a point at dinner one day that I hadn’t really considered…the concept of locus of control.

My grace-first (or talent-first) analogy relies on an external locus of control. That ultimately, what will be comes from without.

…but a works-first or practice-first analogy assumes something different. It starts from an internal locus of control, that one can control one’s own fate.

This by itself isn’t necessarily a problem…but as I read more about locus of control, I kept finding articles that suggested that internal locus of control is…better. Or at the very least, it’s more practical. Most articles talked about the benefits of having an internal locus of control and the steps to cultivating more of an internal locus of control.

I am not saying I disagree with the articles…but having such an external locus of control, it seems…unreal.

And yet…I know people who have the internal view, and who seem to be able to make things happen for themselves. There really is something to say that practice makes perfect. And people with internal loci of control don’t hedge that by talking about talent first.

In each of my hobbies I have hit a metaphorical brick wall…where I have been gifted with a certain level of talent…a certain instinctual understanding…and that has carried me a certain way…but now I have hit the limits of that talent. I am at the place where I now should develop further through practice.

But oh! it’s so painful! I’ve gotten by so far skating around easily, that now that there’s real work involved, I struggle. I want to sink back to my habits, my instinct. I gnash at the idea of work that doesn’t come easily.

Grace breaking in from works

Someone tweeted a provocative question: what if the goal of all of the works and commandments and checklists of Mormonism was to explicitly try to break you. What if it is a sort of “confusion hypnotic induction” — it gets around your ordinary senses by overwhelming them, and once overwhelmed, you enter the intended suggestible state.

In this case, after trying to juggle all the balls and check all the boxes, the idea that everything comes crashing down would be a feature, not a bug.

I liked this question, and the proposed answer. I liked the idea of grace breaking in from works.

My only issue was: Mormonism institutionally doesn’t seem to accept it. Rather than welcoming the weary member whose balls have fallen to the ground and are rolling away from them in every direction…rather than taking these members and wrapping them up in a hug and telling them they have arrived at the second half of life, where a new way of thinking is yet to begin…Mormonism simply gives them the unsustainable hope that they can always gather the balls back up and try again. (Isn’t the atonement grand?)

Practice breaking in instinct

I like to write, and I like to present. I even won a medal at the national US Academic Decathlon for the speech event one year.

But there was a point in time when I realized that my way preparing and performing speeches was flawed. It was based on an instinctual concept for the way words should flow into sentences, and sentences should flow into paragraphs. Even here on this blog, I usually write each post in one draft, with minimal edits. There is no outlining, no care for organization beyond what flows instinctually.

For speeches, I would write every word, and I would keep reading it aloud with all intended gestures until the entire speech was memorized.

I liked this way of presenting. I thought it gave my speeches a controlled regularity…every motion and every emotion was practiced in advance.

…but it wasn’t a perfect strategy.

One day, in a business case competition, I froze in front of the judges, having forgotten my lines. Since I was so dependent on memorization, I stood there for a good 15 seconds with nothing to aid me but my own retracing of my presentation. I then regained my place, and continued in my performance, wishing no one would remember that too long dead space.

But even that wasn’t enough to break the habit.

I took a public speaking class for college. Since I thought I knew everything I needed to know about public speaking, I deferred the class until a compressed summer school session. All of a sudden, the material that most students would learn in 18 weeks was compressed into 6. This included 4 speeches.

All of a sudden, it was not feasible to memorize 4 speeches in 6 weeks. So, I gave up on that. But there was something else that happened.

In the speech class, we learned about rhetorical and literary devices. We learned about the same sorts of things I had learned at an intellectual level in English classes. We learned about metaphors and similes; about repetition; about asyndeton and polysyndeton and all these other Greek terms for things that were either instinctual to me or not.

And during that class, I gained an appreciation for the checklist. Instead of relying on instinct…this gift of memorization…I thought instead about rhetorical devices to anchor me from point to point.

I saw the effectiveness. I made it through the class with another way.

Still…the class also scared me…and it scared me in a way that music theory also scares me. I know that literary and rhetorical devices are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are descriptions of things that have worked, rather than prescriptions for things that must be done. And the same is true of music theory.

…and yet…I like to feel that things are not so scientific. That you cannot tickle the heart through predictable steps.

…and yet…there is a heart, closed off to me. It is the collective heart of my prospective audiences for my music. I want to open its secrets. I want to believe that’s a matter of good instincts, talent, grace, and am not willing to practice the recipe that will make the magical into the mundane.

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