Bad habits tend to involve things we do with our bodies, but spiritual and religious cures tend to involve intangible, unseen things like prayers, beliefs, and will-power.
Habits are developed, maintained, and broken in the brain, according to this research from MIT.
The spiritual and religious cures that deal exclusively with intangible, unseen things ignore the full picture of human nature.
The spiritual and religious cures seem to be dualistic, making the body like oil on top of the mind’s or spirit’s water.
The assumption is if the mind or spirit gets right, the body will get right, too.
Is this dualistic view orthodox? Difficult to answer. In Christianity, the believer is promised a resurrected body.
Can we really overcome a bad neural pathway in the brain without directly engaging the brain? Tough question. God does seem to empower some people to overcome temptations.
No matter how you answer those questions, consider this: if our bodies engage with material things for bad habits, our bodies should also engage with material things for good habits.
Good rituals, and habitual engagement with good symbols, might not replace a bad habit, but rituals with good symbols would be better than no bodily engagement at all. (Along those lines, see my argument in favor of Montessori-based Christian education here.)
What starved senses in a man who can only think of his body as engaged in the bad, and only think of some intangible part of himself as engaged with the good.
How does this non-material, non-biological view of change track with the Incarnation? If flesh and bone is, in and of itself, sinful, how could He who knew no sin have taken on flesh and bone? I think “flesh” would include the brain.
As researchers interviewed for this MSNBC article said, humans can strengthen good habits.
Imagine Christian spirituality this way: At the bottom, we have natural law, or the moral law that C.S. Lewis describes in an appendix to his book The Abolition of Man. This is the moral law that seems to have been consistently intuited by humans throughout history. However, it is also a moral law that we all, to greater or lesser degrees, have violated.
At the top, we have God’s help, God’s power that enables people to do truly good things and overcome selfishness. As G.K. Chesterton said in his book Heretics, the only requirement for selfishness is to have a self (which is why “education” in information and basic knowledge won’t make better people).
At the bottom, the moral law. At the top, God’s help.
Here’s what’s in middle: family traditions, ritual practices, ceremonies, liturgical celebrations — the habits and cycles, associated with Biblical stories and Christian symbols, that write new neural pathways into our brains.
As noted in the New York Times article Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?, good changes in the brain are possible.
Let me jump back to a wide angle on this topic: I seriously doubt that Christian evangelists and apologists can adequately engage the world without some understanding of brain research. What makes us human? What’s the norm for being human? What do we assign to the intangible, unseen realm that is actually tangible, if located in the dark cave of the skull?
While my hope is in the free gift of the New Covenant, I do not believe that God controls everything we become. As it turns out, as humans, as biological beings with brains, at least part of who we are, at least part of who we make ourselves to be, depends upon what we do. We can be staunch believers in that New Covenant and still have no pattern of life or practice that associates with Biblical patterns or Christian symbols.