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.
You describe Christian belief as the way we navigate the world—not what we confess. How do those two relate?
I wrote that in a context where I engage social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. He had an expansive notion of belief. He thinks your body believes things that your mouth could never articulate. The orthodox Christian tradition was launched with the Incarnation of God in Christ, the apostolic witness, and the Scriptures. But we inherit that rule of faith in two ways: first, in the creeds and confessions of the church (the articulated, explicit aspects of the faith), and second, in the liturgical heritage that hands down the know-how of the faith—our practices, our disciplines, our liturgical forms. Ideally, there's a feedback loop between those two things. If you had just the creeds and confessions without the practices of Christian worship, you would never get the full inheritance of what the Spirit has passed on to us. That inheritance is not owned by Constantinople or Rome or Canterbury. Rather, it is a common universal heritage of the body of Christ that can be renewed for any who call themselves Christians.
Many of the people who shaped modern evangelicalism were worldview thinkers: Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson. Yet you sound critical of using "worldview" as a way of relating to the broader culture.
Worldview is a gateway for me. I'm especially indebted to Schaeffer and to the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Worldview language helped me see the expansiveness of Christ's claim on all of creation. I don't want to jettison it. I just think there are reductionist versions that tend to overly intellectualize Christianity. Worldview analysis isn't enough to account for the dynamics of our cultural immersion.
If you buy into a certain version of worldview that makes it central, you'll think action is the logical conclusion from the ideas and beliefs that you have in your mind. That's a naïve account of what actually generates behavior. In the history of the church, the spiritual disciplines were never just an informational process. They were formational disciplines that tried to capture our imaginations, not just inform our thinking.
Is there a way to get spiritual know-how apart from engaging in the spiritual disciplines?
I don't think so. I understand that evangelicals tend to see ritual as self-management and exertion—as "works." If that's all that ritual is, then we should be critical of it. But don't think of ritual and disciplines as expressions of the self. Think of them as what Craig Dykstra calls "habitations of the Spirit." Spiritual disciplines aren't about showing that we're trying to pursue God. These are gifts that the Spirit inhabits. They are rituals that God invites us into to live into the power of the Spirit. They are the way that you put on Christ.
We evangelicals tend to think of worship as only an expressive activity. Because of that, we've lost the downward, God-initiated, formative aspect of worship. Whereas if you recover the sense that God's initiative is at work, then the rituals and the disciplines are invitations to live into God's power, not ways for us to spiritually show off.
Let's take some case studies in ritual. First, a large number of Catholics and Anglicans have been schooled in the classic Christian practices, and yet they don't seem to live the faith. Then there is Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is every bit as ritualized as the classic liturgy, yet it is very successful. Why does one work while the other often fails?
Liturgy and spiritual practices should be attended with reflection. Roman Catholicism has not always done a great job of catechesis, of inviting people to understand why they are doing what they're doing. If you don't have that accompanying formation in the practices, then the practices become rote. I worry about romanticizing liturgy. It's good to have friends who are cradle Anglicans who are good skeptics about some of my claims.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is quite a bit of catechesis. A lot of the routine is trying to help people understand why it's important that they go through the motions. Rituals, routines, and liturgies need to be owned by those who participate in them.
Let's take two different rituals aimed at getting people to repent. Some traditions invite a revivalist to preach repentance every year. Other churches use Lent to call people to repentance. Are these two things essentially interchangeable, or are they fundamentally different?
A wide repertoire of Christian practices can accomplish the call to repentance. But if something is going to be a liturgical practice, it can't be just a single event. We have to do it over time and cycle back through it. The camp-meeting model almost has a liturgical calendar aspect to it.
In my Pentecostal background, it was also attended with specific bodily practices. The altar in Pentecostal renewal is the site of confession. It's a very physical, very affective experience when someone lays hands on you while you kneel at an altar.
What characterizes historic Christian observation of Lent is the narrative shape of the story that those practices embed us in. There is something about the fullness of the whole counsel of Scripture implanted in those practices. Unfortunately, in some of the free-church repertoire, certain aspects of the story can drop out, and therefore we miss the opportunity to be formed by that chapter of the story.
In some Baptist churches, the practice of baptism itself is declining.
In my Reformed church, people are baptized only once. But when a family brings a child to be baptized, we all relive our baptism. And we relive that part of the story because it is a congregational practice, as opposed to something that happens at the end of summer camp. The ritual itself involves the congregation in the story. God's covenant promises are marked on the child, and the parents make promises in response to God's promises, but then the whole congregation promises to be cofamily with that child and those parents. That's a rich enactment of the biblical notion of covenant, and it's a tangible expression of the church as first family.
That's true of all the life-cycle rituals in a church.
This is a reason to revisit the Christian funeral. Every funeral I go to is training for my own death, and learning how to live and to hope as a community.
My burden is that a lot of North American Christianity has reduced worship to expressive practice, where the most important thing is that we are sincere in our expression. We think of worship as primarily upward expressions of us to God. Whereas, if you recapture the formative, God-oriented action in worship, in funerals, in baptisms, and in the Lord's Supper, there is something at stake in making sure that the shape of the ritual tells God's story, so it gets planted in us.
You write that rituals not only form us as Christians, but they conscript us into the story they tell. Conscript is a very strong word. Some people feel their religious upbringing conscripted them against their will.
I invoke the conscription metaphor to recognize that in fact, we are recruited to visions of the good life apart from our conscious choosing. It's not a question of whether you're being conscripted to some vision of the good life; it's which vision of the good life.
Of course, we want everyone to own the Christian faith as their own. On the other hand, if you don't recognize the power of secular liturgies to conscript your imagination to other visions of the good life, you won't come up with adequate countermeasures. We can't simply say conscription—or recruitment—per se is a problem. We hope the imaginations of the kids in our homes and our churches are captured. It shouldn't be coercive, but it is not just presenting information and then leaving the decision to them. It's not really just a decision; it's whether you have been enfolded into the right story.
What do you mean when you call for an "erotic comprehension" of the faith?
To say that we are desiring creatures is to say that we are erotic creatures. It is sad that the notion of the erotic has been co-opted by pornography. For Augustine, eros meant much more. Many of us have imbibed from Swedish theologian Anders Nygren an opposition between agape (the love that gives) and eros (the love that desires). But Augustine's understanding is that agape is rightly ordered eros toward God. Agape doesn't erase our nature as erotic creatures. I'm trying to overcome the dichotomy between the two while also recognizing that a lot of what passes for the erotic in our culture is completely disordered.
Christian formation, you say, is not just teaching us to see the world from a particular perspective but also intending the world to be a certain way. How does that relate to the renewed emphasis on justice among younger American Christians?
The biblical vision is not just a vision of my own personal salvation. It is God's renewal of all things. The end we hope for is shalom, the flourishing of all creation. That means reordering injustices and the disordered social life. The whole point of worship is actually our sending, to go out and do cultural renewal and caretaking. The renewed appreciation for a more holistic sense of justice we see among younger evangelicals is a great expression of that.
I am concerned that it is so easy to let passion for justice replace other aspects of the biblical vision. The only way that we can have our imaginations primed to pursue the biblical vision of justice is to be regularly immersed in the practices of Christian worship. They keep re-centering us in God's story so we aren't captivated by the latest progressive fad. That keeps us anchored.