You Can't Think Your Way to God
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)
Smith, James K. A.
February 15, 2013
224 pp., $16.82
If there's one refrain coming from James K. A. Smith these days, it's that Christians can't think our way into the kingdom. It may sound strange for a philosopher (at Calvin College) to downplay the role of thinking, but Smith is quick to see the inconsistencies between what we think and what we do. Indeed, he recently caught himself reading the Christian farmer-philosopher-poet Wendell Berry while sitting in the food court at Costco. Smith was struck by the dissonance. Berry is an apostle of mindful and earth-friendly food production and consumption, while Costco is the symbol of American supersized consumption.
When we try to think our way out of such inconsistencies, our behavior keeps coming back to bite us. That's because behavior is not driven by ideas. It is a bodily thing that reflects the way we order—or disorder—our loves and desires.
In 2009, Smith published Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic), in which he argued that in order to help college students put their desires in proper order, Christian higher education needed to incorporate worship and spiritual practices at a foundational level. This year, Smith published a follow-up, Imagining the Kingdom, designed to provide a rationale for, as the subtitle has it, "how worship works." In the book, he interacts with two French theorists—Pierre Bourdieu and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—to understand how human beings use bodily rituals to shape their desires. Former CT editor in chief David Neff talked with Smith about how rituals—both religious and secular—shape our beliefs and affections.
In your book, you set forth what you call a "liturgical anthropology." What does liturgy have to do with human nature?
Human beings are at their core defined by what they worship rather than primarily by what they think, know, or believe. That is bound up with the central Augustinian claim that we are what we love. Taking Augustine's teaching that what you love is what you worship and what you worship is what you love, I tried to come up with a model of the human person that appreciates the centrality of love. That propelled me to see that we are ritual, liturgical creatures whose loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in.
Secular rituals shape us just as much as sacred ones. You say that "the Devil has all the best liturgies."
The core of the person is what he or she loves, and that is bound up with what they worship—that insight recalibrates the radar for cultural analysis. The rituals and practices that form our loves spill out well beyond the sanctuary. Many secular liturgies are trying to get us to love some other kingdom and some other gods.
What about Monday Night Football?
Monday Night Football, going to the mall—take your pick. We Christians should be aware that there's something at stake in cultural participation that we wouldn't have been concerned about if all we did was worry about the messages in culture. I am trying to wake folks up to realize that if these cultural institutions and practices are formative, then the spaces that we inhabit do something to us. The stadium and the mall are examples of that.
You worry about "the chronological snobbery that disdains the old as so five minutes ago" and constantly pursues "fresh expressions."
I'm worried that we absorb a sensibility from secular liturgies that makes us buy the story that our salvation is in novelty. It's not the sensibility we need to revitalize North American Christianity. The postmodern future of the church is in remembering things that we've forgotten. I am entirely indebted to the late Robert Webber's vision of "ancient future faith." I'm just trying to dig down into the philosophical and theological roots of his intuition.