Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Desiring (and Knowing?) The Kingdom

James K.A. Smith
Desiring the Kingdom
Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic 2009.

It is a ubiquitous question for thinking and engaged Christians everywhere in every age: How do we understand the tension between the influence of the culture upon the church and the influence of the church upon the culture? In much of the recent evangelical literature on this subject, the focus has been on worldview. The big ideas have been ideas, beliefs, and doctrines and how Christians ought to transform theirs or recapture a distinctly Christian set. Smith sees the project in a different light. In fact, he sees the matter of influence to be upon our ideas and not necessarily through our ideas.

In many ways, Smith reaches back through modern and enlightenment-influenced theology and philosophy to Augustine and his belief that we are primarily affective creatures before we are rational creatures: we love before we think. And if the central questions about our character and formation are about our loves, we ought to get to what forms and shapes our loves. Smith’s fundamental claim and the one that drives the book is that “liturgies” form our loves, and thus, form us. Early on he notes, “The core claim of this book is that liturgies – whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people and what defines us in what we love.” (pg. 25)

Though the primary audience of the book is Christian education, Smith is aware, and I wholeheartedly agree, that his work has far-reaching application outside of the academy. If his premise is true, then this work has implications for the form and shape of the church as much as the university. I will briefly summarize the two sections of the book with some of his major points, and then offer some questions and analysis.

The first of two sections is devoted to an expression of anthropology, focusing on humans as loving/affective creatures and how those loves are formed. Cultural liturgies are examined and exposited as Smith makes the case for loving as the fundamental act of the human being in place of reasoning. Most worldview thinking, he argues, has the human creature exactly upside down as it emphasizes rationalistic behavior over affective influences.

For someone familiar with some of the basics of virtue theory, it will not come as a surprise that Smith argues that habits and practices play a large, if not primary, role in the forming of loves and the human character. He also employs the structure of “social imaginary” to describe how the practices of our lives and our worship form us as “noncognitive” directors of our actions and dispositions toward the world.

In the second section, Smith moves from anthropology to the more constructive task of dealing with the actual ins and outs of Christian worship. In the first section he argues that we need to form a new way of imagining and seeing the Kingdom of God, and in the second part he goes about dealing with how that happens. He asks, “In other words, what does worship say about Christian faith?” (pg. 134) It is a good question, and it deserves to be dealt with. What do our actual practices as Christians tell us about the shape of our faith in Christ? The term “practical atheist” may be overused in some contexts, but its point fits just fine with Smith’s larger idea. Are we as Christ followers worshiping (acting) in such a way as to make good sense of our faith?

While some reviewers have noted that the first part of the book may be stronger than the second, I think a degree of charity needs to be applied to this second part. I must admit that I lost some steam reading through to the end as Smith listed the various “practical” applications of his theory, but I still found them instructive and at times provocative.

I found a lot of Smith’s argument to be the kind of thing we ought to be talking about in our churches and universities. Are we guilty of a kind of Gnosticism in which we have disconnected what we believe from how we behave and what we do when we gather together? Have we lost a sense of being deeply affective creatures who are often moved by our experiences more than the latest lecture we heard? We need to wrestle with the implications of these issues. Given that, there are some assertions and arguments in the book to push against.

I’ll get a rather small thing out of the way first. From time to time Smith seems to erect scarecrows to knock down. One particular instance happens in his sidebar on The Moulin Rouge. His argument is that there is something valuable in the way love is portrayed (at least in its force upon the human being) there, and he notes, “And so one could suggest that the kingdom looks more like Montmarte than Colorado Springs!” (pg. 79) The play, of course, is on a stereotype of Colorado Springs as a kind of evangelical Mecca where nearly everyone is blindly evangelical and in lock-step with the Republican party. I was disappointed in that kind of broad-stroke ad hominem, but it isn’t the only place where part of his argument relies on pigeon-holing a set of evangelicals in a cubicle and knocking the whole thing down.

Then there are times where it seems Smith is too heavy-handed with other points of view in order to make his argument. The result of this tact is that he portrays an apparent disregard for and a simple denial of different points of view. Smith clearly argues that we are primarily affective/loving beings, but at times he appears to say we are exclusively affective/loving beings, showing a disregard for what seems to me to be the truth of the influence of ideas and reason. Instead of a both/and or primary/secondary approach Smith seems to want to have an either/or approach, which doesn’t help his overall case.

Early on Smith characterizes his foil as “rationalistic,” “a talking-head version of Christianity,” and provocatively enough a “’bobble head’ Christianity” where what goes on in the head far outweighs what goes on in the body (pg. 42). While this can be true of some forms of Christian theology heavily influenced by the enlightenment, is it true of all forms of theology concerned with true doctrine and the content of the propositional messages we proclaim? As seems to be the case with theologians and Christians influenced by a postmodern philosophy, there might be a temptation to make a category mistake here: all who disagree with us are disjointed enlightenment thinkers.

Another example of this kind of reasoning appears in the second half of the book on page 163, “The ‘image of God’ (imago Dei) is not some de facto property of Homo sapiens (whether will or reason or language or what have you); rather, the image of God is a task, a mission” (emphasis his). This is the kind of thing that shoots the argument he wants to make in the foot. We are put off by the unnecessary bifurcation of the two – property vs. mission – and we are on guard from then on. I find it obvious in both the Scripture and in the theology on the subject that the image of God is at least a set of properties endowed to us by God that make us, not worms, uniquely human. It is then be constructive to note that the image of God is a “task, a mission” that we have as creatures living under God.

I simply do not see a logical contradiction in his argument if he took love to be primary to reason, and then argued for the proper places of each in the liturgies of the believer.

There is a lot to be gained through Smith’s book, and he raises arguments we need to wrestle with that we don’t often think through. And for that, I think this book is very useful for Christian educators and pastors. But I hope that as he fills out this project he will avoid some of the unnecessary rhetorical and argumentative devices that hurt the overall argument.

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