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Homo Liturgicus

By May 1, 2014 No Comments
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Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2009.
$22.99. 240 pages.

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2009.
$22.99. 224 pages.

James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project aims at no less than the renewal of Christian practice in worship and in education.

Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, contends that we are in thrall to a distorting philosophical ImaginingKingdomCoveranthropology that enervates Christian practice because it overvalues the role of the intellect. A narrow focus in the churches on correct belief and Christian higher education’s eff orts on behalf of a Christian worldview implicitly and mistakenly presuppose that human action is principally the product of rational deliberation. Deliverance lies, then, in enacting an alternative understanding of human beings, one in which the intellect is relativized in light of the fact that we are not disembodied minds but sensing, desiring, imagining creatures. Desiring the Kingdom provides an overview of the liturgical anthropology that Smith opposes to what he calls intellectualism. Imagining the Kingdom, drawing on the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu and recent work in cognitive science, presents some theoretical infrastructure for Smith’s project. A projected volume, in which he turns to political theology, will complete the trilogy.

Smith’s reliance on contemporary European thinkers notwithstanding, his project is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, in Augustine’s account of human beings as defined, ultimately, by what we love and in the Reformed tradition’s conviction that everything human—even at its most avowedly secular—is religious, expressing a vision of whatever we most value. It is vain to hope, in other words, that we will live faithfully as citizens of God’s kingdom just as long as we get our beliefs right. The kind of persons we are, our ways of being in the world, are due to the “cultural liturgies” in which we wittingly or unwittingly participate. Action flows from what we love, our sensory, imaginative vision of the good life, a vision not consciously appropriated but embodied in us by communal practices that engage us as liturgical creatures. Indeed, we are liturgical animals, oriented toward the world kinesthetically as well as by sensation, emotion, and cognition. For Smith, visiting the mall, going to the ball game or posting on Facebook are not neutral acts: They are covert rituals of ultimate concern that make us into persons who live out some conception of the good life.

Ironically, the secular world, perhaps especially in its manifestation as consumerist culture, better grasps what it is to be a human creature than does the church and thus “catechizes” us in ways at odds with God’s creative intentions. Sermons teaching Christian doctrine and lectures about a Christian world-and-life view are on their own impotent against these secular liturgies. The renewal of Christian practice calls for counter-liturgies that create human beings who imagine and desire the kingdom of God.

The chapters in Desiring the Kingdom that contain Smith’s beautiful and insightful portrayal of Christian worship as countercultural liturgy are, for this reader, by far the most rewarding parts of the two volumes. However, Smith warns that nothing we do on Sunday mornings suffices to overcome the powerful liturgies into which the secular culture relentlessly draws us. The renewal of practice that Smith calls for extends beyond formal worship to the whole of Christian life, including Christian higher education. In Smith’s account, the work of Christian colleges and universities is impoverished by too great an emphasis on the intellect and on students imbibing a Christian worldview, in virtue of the false assumption that right action follows from right belief. Christian education, then, should not be a purely intellectual endeavor but rather, no less than in church, the liturgical formation of people for mission.

Smith’s prolonged examination of the nonrational, nontheoretical and unconscious roots of human belief and action is not, he tells us, “meant to denigrate or neglect the role of reflection and analysis” (Imagining, 186) but to put the intellect in its proper place. The preface to Volume 1 announces that the genesis of the cultural liturgies project is the author’s desire to communicate a vision of authentic, integral Christian learning (Desiring, 11). Even so, there is surprisingly little attention in the two volumes to what precisely the intellect’s proper place in Christian education might be.

Smith believes that current educational practice, imprisoned in an intellectualist conception of human nature, affords too much weight to reflection and analysis relative to the other ways in which students are formed.This might be true, but it does not follow automatDesiringKingdomCoverically from the philosophical account of the human creature Smith endorses. Those entrusted with the task of Christian education, even when not devotees of recent European philosophy, know from experience that, as David Hume long ago said, reason is the slave of the passions. If we sometimes succeed in forming students disposed to rational reflection and analysis, it is because we have appealed to their imaginations and desires, leading them to love reason and the truth it can uncover. Critical reasoning is neither natural nor easy for human beings. Creating even a small space for it requires significant time and effort, exactly because we are the kind of creatures Smith says we are. In his critique of intellectualism, Smith sometimes verges on caricature of the educational practices he hopes to reform. He contrasts the rich practices of formation he describes with an intellectualist pedagogy of information where the student seems the passive recipient of ideas, not an engaged critical thinker. Whatever we think of education that accords critical reasoning a central place or of Christian learning inspired by the venerable notion of a Christian world-and-life view, we cannot fairly portray them as seeking to inscribe belief on a blank slate.

What might teaching and learning renewed along the lines Smith envisages look like? On the positive side, more deliberately connecting Christian education to worship seems a worthy project, although these two volumes offer few specific ideas about how this might be accomplished. However, we should note that Smith and others offer intriguing concrete proposals in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Eerdmans, 2011), a book he co-edited with David Smith. On the negative side, James Smith seems indifferent to the obvious worry that the pedagogical renewal he advocates might devolve into something more akin to indoctrination than education. We might suspect that by the time students have been habituated by largely nonconscious practices to embody “visceral plausibility structures” that govern belief and action (Imagining, 92), rational deliberation and conscious choice have in effect been rendered epiphenomenal.

Smith assures us that he does not intend to demean the ideal of the “full, conscious, active participation” of human beings in the liturgies that shape them (Imagining, 97), yet one must wonder how seriously individuals subject to such pedagogies could take reasoned objections to their inculcated values and beliefs. Could they imaginatively inhabit perspectives alien to their own? Could they possibly come to counterintuitive conclusions opposed to the obvious and familiar? Would demands for a reasoned defense of their faith merely leave them perplexed? There is risk in a retreat from the traditional commitment to the primacy of the intellect in our educational practices.

These issues are significant, and one would like to see Smith address them explicitly, but they do not lessen the overall interest and value of his project. Whatever one makes of Smith’s conclusions about the proper role of the intellect in Christian practice, these two volumes invite serious reflection on what Christian churches and schools can do to help shape citizens of the kingdom of God.