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Review of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom

In books, recommendations, reviews, theology on November 29, 2009 at 12:27 am

Below is a recent review of James K.A. Smith’s new book Desiring the Kingdom that I wrote for my Faith and Learning in American Culture class this semester with the incredible George Marsden. I hope it’s helpful.

The question of Christian education has been hotly debated for many years. What are the primary factors that shape a distinctively Christian education and what kind of content is learned? Is “content” even at the heart of Christian education? In his recent book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K.A. Smith argues for a renewed vision for Christian education. While there are certainly many things to be admired in “worldview” models of Christian education, Smith claims that we should instead root our models in the actual practices of Christian worship. Too often, Smith notes, Christian education has started with an insufficient anthropology that sees human beings primarily as thinking things and not as fully embodied creatures. What Smith calls for is an Augustinian renewal of our understanding of the human person, primarily as “embodied agents of desire or love” (47).

The problem with worldview thinking, Smith argues, is that much of it “owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment than it does to the holistic, biblical vision of human persons” (31). While Christian education certainly involves the passing of information from a “Christian perspective” to some degree, Smith believes that this is not formative enough. The starting point for Smith’s model is worship rather than worldview. To demonstrate this point, Smith boldly claims that

“Before we articulate a worldview, we worship… That’s the kind of animals we are, first and foremost: loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don’t inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines… given the sorts of animals we are, we pray before we believe, we worship before we know—or rather, we worship in order to know.” (33-34).

This is at the heart of this Augustinian renewal: rightly ordered loves.

Smith divides his “Human Person as Lover” model into three primary categories: love’s aim, love’s end, and love’s fulcrum/formation. Smith argues persuasively that the fundamental mode of the human person is love. We engage the world as lovers and it is what we love that defines us. When espousing his views, Smith rightly notes that the issue of love is essentially an issue of worship and he states that “our ultimate love is what we worship” (51). While this ultimate love should be God, sin has distorted our affections and has pointed them toward things that are not God. Much of the time these things are not inherently bad. Rather, they are usually good things, but anything other than God that we hold as ultimate in our lives necessarily is an issue of idolatry. Indeed, Smith rightly shows that at our core is a kind of constant “love pump” (52) that sin has caused to be aimed at the wrong things. Smith then goes on to engage with love’s end, or telos. What is the end to which we love? What we love is ultimately rooted in some kind of picture of human flourishing. Whatever supreme picture of human flourishing we hold will then govern the way we act, think, decide, and love. It is here that Smith argues persuasively for his anthropology of the human person primarily as lover:

“Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster the willpower to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons” (54).

Because of the fact that our “love pump” is misdirected, there are many different pictures of human flourishing we end up holding. This picture amounts to nothing less than our view of the kingdom. The way we live and the habits that we hold flow from this picture largely as second nature. However, our habits also help to shape this picture, and, as Smith shows, this must be taken into account when thinking through the nature and shape of Christian education.

One of the most helpful aspects of Smith’s anthropology of the human person primarily as lover is that it opens up the factors that shape us past the realm of ideas and concepts. When love becomes the primary characteristic of the human person, cultural practices and institutions become kinds of liturgies and create what Smith calls “cultural pedagogies”. As Smith shows, even something as seemingly neutral as shopping at the mall becomes a powerful liturgical event that has a dramatic effect on our vision of the kingdom. While there are certainly different levels of this effect, for example, brushing one’s teeth does not likely have a significant impact on one’s ultimate love, things like going to church on Sundays and engaging in daily prayer have a significant impact on our vision of human flourishing. Smith outlines several “secular liturgies”, such as shopping at the mall and university education, deftly showing their formative nature and the subtle ways they direct our desires.

According to Smith, human beings are ultimately driven by desires and affections and these desires both help shape and are shaped by the activities that we participate in. In summarizing his goal, Smith writes,

“Fundamentally, the concern was to emphasize that Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heading believes; Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview… Rather, we sought to show that what Christians think and believe (and they do think and believe, and that’s a good thing!) grows out of what Christians do” (216).

Smith wants to root Christian education in the nature and practices of Christian worship. However, I am not entirely convinced that what we do takes on any more of a significant role in our development than what we think and believe. I don’t Smith intends to set up an either/or dichotomy between what we think and what we do, but he certainly places the weight of formation on the side of practices.

In my view, both practice and worldview have significant impact on our vision of the kingdom. Much of what the New Testament says about what Christians are to do and how they are supposed to act are rooted in both liturgical practices and doctrine. One clear example of this is Ephesians 4:17-24. Note how many times Paul references teachings:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles to, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (emphasis added).

In this passage, Paul references “deceitful desires”, but the answer is not only to “put on the new self” (changing what we do), but also the renewal in the “spirit of your minds” (changing what we think). Paul then goes on to address specific issues in the church of Ephesus, concluding, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Paul is asking for changes in practice, but it is rooted in the fact (the idea or concept, if you will) that God has already forgiven them in Christ. While our visions of the kingdom are certainly shaped by the practices that we take part in, it cannot be denied that we are also incredibly influenced by ideas and concepts.

Overall, Smith’s anthropology of the human person fundamentally as lover is an incredibly helpful model for discussing how a proper model of Christian education should be constructed. We certainly are more than just “thinking things” and too often this has been forgotten or ignored. While I don’t think Smith intends to completely abandon a model of education that emphasizes facts and ideas in favor of one that only emphasizes practices, he certainly argues that cultural practices and liturgies are the primary factor that influences our kingdom-visions of human flourishing. It seems wise to adopt a more moderate view that sees practices and concepts as both significant influences that shape our vision of the kingdom. Nevertheless, James K.A. Smith successfully changes the conversation about Christian education. No longer can we simply teach classes from a “Christian perspective” and consider it to be sufficient; we must go deeper. If human beings are primarily creatures of desire, the goal of a Christian education must seek to influence these desires, helping students to gain a biblical picture of the kingdom, rightly ordering all loves around the worship of our great God.