The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Desiring the Kingdom by James K A Smith: A Summary

(Review here.)

Our daily activities have lasting effects on our souls. Somewhere inside us, we each know this is true, but we have a hard time understanding how it happens and why. It doesn't help that we tend to believe that the body and the soul have nothing in common. James K A Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, sets out help us think clearly about these issues. But for him, it begins in an unexpected place—worship.

Worship is the product of desire. That thesis is at the heart of Desiring the Kingdom. We worship what we desire.

Worship is also the tool of desire. We use worship to pursue what we desire. Thus, for Smith, when we worship, we act. Worship is all the activities we do to get what we want. In the same way that we work in order to eat, live, buy, travel, or retire, our worship is the active pursuit of what we want.

Many will consider this notion of worship a bit odd. For them, worship is a state of mind or heart. Many believe worship is an attitude. But for Smith, worship is much more than that. Worship is active, not only mental or spiritual. At the bottom of Smith's perspective is a holistic, integrated understanding of being human.

Human beings are not spirits caged inside bodies, like Plato believed. We are spirits and bodies, minds and mouths, hearts and hands, fused together and inseparable.

Being fused liked this means that who we are influences what we do—our identities drive our actions, from soul to body. Our identities, which are comprised of thoughts and ideas, but also visions and passions, motives and wills. Being fused like this means the it also works in the opposite direction, from body to soul—what we do shapes who we are. That is, our activities shape our identities. Our activities, which are comprised of social events and personal hobbies, but also habits and practices, rituals and routines. Smith simply calls them "liturgies."

Lliturgies—where habits and practices shape desires—are what Smith sheds light on in his book. He shows how our daily activities have lasting effects on our souls. These liturgies may be "religious," but they may also be "secular." Either way, they are all still liturgies. What we do really does shape who we are. You could even call it "spiritual formation."

Most would look at the practices of worship and believe that we humans have a lot of control in the process. Not Smith. Smith draws our attention to the environments around us. He looks at four environments in particular: the mall, the "military-entertainment complex," the university, and the church. He looks at each one and explains how it influences what we do and how they, in turn, shape our desires. Those desires, in turn, point our hearts toward certain objects, which ultimately become the aim of our worship. Yes, it's cyclical.

The more we practice the liturgies of the mall or the university, the more we desire certain objects (which those environments typically offer). This is worship—the practice of wanting. And practice makes perfect.

Simply put, Smith outlines a process of formation that looks something like this:

environment —> social practices —> a person's habits —> a person's heart —> desires —> actions for obtaining the object (that is, worship) —> identity (because we become what we behold)

Now some might bristle at the individual's seeming powerlessness in Smith's process—we are pressed into the mold of our environments—but this impotence is not the end of the story. If Smith's outline is right—the better we understand these dynamics, the better able we are to subvert the process and practice counter-formation. Power is not always a matter of resisting but of redirecting. (Paul's ambition for the gospel was redirected ambition.) If we understand the process of formation, we will be better able to use it for our own purposes. Understanding it will also reveal how the common environments of our daily lives are already shaping us and our worship. More on those environments later.

First, a question. We've all experienced times when our "heart wasn't in it." We know the disconnect that can occur between our actions and our desires. Sometimes we do things out of obligation or tradition or habit. How then can activities really shape the heart? This is the objection I've heard evangelicals make against Catholics most often. "Traditionalism."

For all this talk about worship and formation, James K A Smith began his book discussing education, and specifically pedagogy—the practices and activities involved in education. Students can easily identify the most common teaching method—lecture. There are a few exceptons—in childhood education, for example, children hear stories and engage in guided-play, and in the sciences, students often have some sort of lab practice. However, lecture predominates today's classroom. This is normal pedagogy. We even have "lecture halls."

Pedagogy seems like a far cry from worship and human formation, but not in Smith's view. Smith argues that pedagogy is actually a set of practices, an environment itself. A lot like liturgies. This means that education and its methods could be understood according to Smith's paradigm of formation above. It also means that pedagogy shapes human identity toward its own ends. A lot like malls and universities do. Those ends, for most contemporary education, are, Smith argues, based upon a certain theory of spiritual formation—how identity is shaped

In the educate-by-lecture paradigm, knowledge and information are primary. Modern education assumes that what we know shapes who we are. It is a rationalist approach. Thus, education focuses almost exclusively on informing students. Information provides knowledge, and knowledge forms identity. In this paradigm, humans have an iron will, one that is not easily distracted once you "set your mind to it." Therefore, if we give people accurate information, they will make good choices. The problem is, it doesn't happen that way. People have plenty of information, and still make choices contrary to "common sense." Why? The answer is related to the answer to the "traditionalism" question we were asking earlier—How can habits really shape the heart?

For Smith, the answer is imagination. Imagination is not purely knowledge or information. It carries values with it. There's a dimension of desire to it. Imagination uses knowledge and ideas and creates a picture from them, a vision we call "the good life."

The good life is "an implicit picture of what human flourishing looks like" (52). It is a set of hopes for relationships, justice, play, nature, work, family, and more. It is everything we love and want, so we pursue it. In our pursuit, we act in ways that we believe will bring about our vision of the good life. This action is worship. Imagination directs our worship.

We are made to love. Our imagination furnishes us with a picture of what to love, what to pursue. Our habits and practices work at bringing that picture to life. This is worship.

So where do our pictures of the good life come from? Culture is constantly presenting us with some version of its own, hoping to motivate us to pursue (i.e., worship) this picture. Smith looks at three of these cultural environments: the mall, the "military-entertainment complex," and the university. For each one, Smith observes the rituals and routines of each environment. Then he identifies what objects those routines are pointing us to. Typically they are objects that justify the existence of the environments and reinforce their priorities. Yes, it's cyclical. After analyzing these three, Smith moves on to discuss an environment for counter-formation: the gathered church.

For Smith, the church is the place where the desire for God can and must be shaped. It will not happen otherwise. In an long chapter, Smith examines 14 practices of the church and layers each one with extensive theological meaning: The Church Gathering, Liturgical Time, Call to Worship, Greetings, Song, The Law, Confession and Assurance of Pardon, Baptism, The Creed, Prayer, Scripture and Sermon, Eucharist, Offering, Sending Out, and Beyond Sunday. Smith's church practices are decidedly sacramental, foreign to many evangelicals, but in keeping with Smith holistic understanding of human nature.

Finally, Smith returns to education, and to his opening question, where the book began: "What is education for?"

Ultimately, for Smith, a Christian education is about forming, not informing. It's about forming students into "radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city" (220). They are formed as God's image bearers (which he defines convincingly, on 163-4, appealing to Richard Middleton) whose task, empowered by God's Spirit, is to help creation realize its potential as God had intended it. Nothing less than a restorative work.

So what sort of "Christian university" is Smith envisioning that could accomplish this? What's his vision of the good life at college? Smith sees student life as being segmented in at least three ways, and he advocates removing these partitions. Removing the first partition means reintegrating the local church with college chapel services with college classrooms. The second means reconnecting the classroom, dorm room, and community. The last means reuniting body and spirit for students, contra Plato. Removing these partitions works toward holism in a student's life.

It's a holism that makes sense in light of Jesus' answer to the religious teachers of his own day. "You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength." We commonly call it love, but it could also be called. And it's a worship that involves our whole being.

(Find a review here.)
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