Christian Education and Anthropology

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) James K.A. Smith’s new volume Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, which is the first volume of three in a series he is doing entitled the “Cultural Liturgies” series. I’ve just started it, but I wanted to throw out what seems to be his main premise for discussion. In short, Smith wants to argue that in both Christian education (often focused on “worldview formation”) and evangelical church practice, pedagogy has sought to utilize a misguided anthropology. The focus, says Smith, has been on persons as thinking-beings or believing-beings, rather than, with Augustine, on persons as loving-beings.

By emphasizing persons as lovers, Smith wants to put more weight on the embodied reality of persons, pushing against the prevailing view in certain sectors that we are simply minds trapped in meat. It also means that Smith has grown allergic to Christian discipleship and education as simply information formation – helping people to think according to Christian ideals – rather than a formation of one’s loves to follow the sum of the commandments.

I want to focus on this argument more later, but I thought that this would be a good place to start discussion. I think Smith is right, and I think it is a particularly important point that we are not called to make people lovers, but to help form and direct their loves. In other words, the key question for education is what has formed the students’ love, and what is that love is directed towards.  Everyone loves an equal amount, as it were, but that love is often forged in the depths of self-love and cultural assumptions rather than Christian, and therefore necessarily kingdom, visions of reality.

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4 thoughts on “Christian Education and Anthropology

  1. Hi Kyle. I also resonate a lot with Smith. As a student at Calvin College, I took a course with him titled “Rethinking Common Grace in an Age of Empire” in which he covered a lot of the themes discussed in this book. I think this is heading in the right direction, especially in a “Kantian” age in which philosophy has been professionalized (a critique I share with Rorty). In turn, theology has followed suit and theologians are merely cramming information into students’ heads instead of trying to influence their customs and habits. Indeed, as loving things, humans are creatures of habit.

    Perhaps it would enhance your reading to know that I have personally experienced Smith’s teaching and interaction with people in and out of class. He really means what he says in the book. He lives it.

  2. Sounds like Smith is calling for a St. Francis moment for the Church? But the last thing we need is babies thrown out with bathwater.

    The Church births both its Thomases, for whom Truth leads to Love. and its Francises, for whom Love leads to Truth.

    As Chesterton wrote, “The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr: he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age…. It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most(St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox,

    Romantics need Thomas; Naturalists need Francis.
    But Postmoderns need them both, because Postmoderns relativize truth to oblivion, and they mistake sex for love.

  3. I confess I haven’t read this book yet although I have read and felt engaged by others by Smith.

    Having said that, I’m drawn to this sentence: In other words, the key question for education is what has formed the students’ love, and what is that love is directed towards.

    I don’t disagree with the sentiment that Christianity is not primarily about packing more information into brains encased in meat. Clearly we are more than that and most, not all, Christian educators realize that. The question though contains an assumption or an ambiguity that can lead us to tilting wind mills. The question assumes that education equals formation. This is contested within Christian education circles. Is there not a case to be made for a distinct field of Christian education that can focus on the shaping of what is pejoratively refered to as “world view” without needing to form the entire person? Even if we have a more wholistic anthropology can we not acknowledge that there are various parts to humanity that need specific kinds of formation?

    For arguments sake, I would say that education is the formation of the mind and that other specific fields form other aspects of us. Knowing Smith a little, he would likely say that worship is that which forms all of us. That still doesn’t mean that education equals formation. To confuse the two may do a disservice to both because we can no longer coherently talk about particular aspects of humaness. The whole consumes the particular to the extent that it starts to lose its distinctive shape.

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Desiring the Kingdom « Theology Forum

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