Desiring the Kingdom: Liturgical Orientation

I commented in an earlier post about my reading of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and noted how much I’ve enjoyed reading it. I, for the record, am still enjoying the volume immensely, it being my holiday reading on airplanes, stuck in airports and on the occasional couch. I want to read the whole volume before offering any really critical interaction, but for now, I thought it would be fruitful to muse over one specific passage that highlights a central thrust of the work. In discussing the Pledge of Allegiance, Smith states:

What are the students doing when they recite this each day? Many will just be ‘going through the motions.’ However, given that we are liturgical animals who are deeply shaped by practices, I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us; the repeated saying of allegiance works itself into an orienting allegiance. What begins as a merely stated commitment begins to work itself into a functional commitment” (109).

It is at this point that I think Smith overplays the roles of practices as such, and offers something of an overly reductionistic anthropology. I will refrain from developing this critique until I’ve read the whole volume, and, I should add, I think his critique of a Cartesian anthropology as itself reductionistic is correct. Smith’s account of human persons as essentially lovers is, in my mind, the right way to go. But are we truly formed by practices, even when we are “going through the motions” as Smith suggests?

I want to say no, but admit that these practices form our space in an important way. What I mean by “space” here is that these superficial practices form a subconscious and, itself, superficial orientation called “normal.” Practices that form our normal are important because our accepting, rejecting, disdaining, etc., of these are always (or almost always) tethered to it. In other words, for example, the church we grew up in will always serve as some kind of neutral that we can come to affirm and defend again any possible critique, or (as the emerging church has shown so well) is the neutral that we despise, that we seek to undermine and critique.

Along with creating a normal space (or an existential “neutral”), I think these kinds of practices help to develop what psychologists refer to as a “false self.” A false self is an attempt to create a self in one’s own power (we could think of this as the flesh’s allegiance to sin). The false self is one’s subconscious self-perception which denies reality, seeking to remove itself from its nature as creature and establish itself as creator. Therefore, the role these practices have is not in creating true identity but false, not essential but superficial. This superficial identity falls away once it is truly tested, shown to be what it is, or undermined by a stronger false self (or true self). On the other hand, this superficial identity is established in scenarios where it is affirmed, further established through deep rooted beliefs (both old and new) and, importantly, are practiced not superficially but meaningfully.

Therefore, contra (I think), to Smith, it is not the practice of these practices per se that makes them so forming, but the practicing them as fundamentally true and meaningful practices that is so forming. The daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance is such a forming practice for so many because it is buttressed by a worldview, other practices, and, I would add, central familial orientations to the world that make the act so meaningful. For the many of us who grew up pledging, we were given a superficial orientation to reality that we might intuitively defend in principle, but not in act (we might intuitively defend America as good but deny if someone asked us to fight for it). Likewise, the church knows very well how superficial liturgical practices are that are done for their own sake. While the millions who merely go through the motions in liturgical settings week in and week out would certainly take offense at their religion being called ridiculous (for instance), it certainly hasn’t actually formed their loves (in many cases).

What are your thoughts about my two points, that liturgical practices develop a “normal space” which our superficial orientation to reality is tethered to, and that these practices form a superficial belief/love structure that doesn’t actually support the weight of true loves but only helps to establish a false self? Like I said, I find Smith’s overall analysis helpful, informative and, for the most part, correct, but find these points concerning practices to be over-reaching.

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16 thoughts on “Desiring the Kingdom: Liturgical Orientation

  1. Your points are well made. The only note of caution would be to avoid underestimating the formative power of the routines we have, both religious and secular, of which the Pledge is but one example. I would be surprised if Sire ultimately places a high significance solely on those routines as formative in the sense of the neutrals you posit and I suspect that you both may be in agreement that the essential component rests on those neutrals, and the various liturgies if you will are really training or pedigogical mechanisms for furthering the particular neutral(s) we have been given. In other words the neutrals precede the liturgy. Just as the routines are not foundational, the neutrals, without routines, have no authority. The Pledge is but one of the routines/liturgical practices formed for education and training in the areas of freedom (the broad concept and widely held neutral provided to the US citizenry) with our particular brand of freedom and democracy emphasizing individual rights.

  2. Kyle, with Bill I worry you aren’t giving “practices” the formative weight they might be due, that in fact our imaginative living is shaped in ways beyond our comprehension by the practices that fill our lives. Maybe it’s my reading of Hauerwas lately or the increasingly liturgical practices of prayer by which the cadence of my dialogue with God is set, either way my appreciation for the formative power of practices is on the rise.

    I haven’t read Smith’s book (a group of us at Huntington may take that up this semester) so I will be interested to see where your musings take you. One thought: you don’t seem to be arguing against the power of practices to “form” – you contend that they do in fact form a “neutral” orientation – but that practices don’t so much form subsequent action. But our actions come from this “normal”, so if the practices form the normal then indirectly they form the actions, don’t they? Is the worry that practices have to much action on Smith’s reading? Is it that you just want to move them one step back? I worry that just such a “normal” or “wordview” as you later call it, doesn’t really exist quite so cleanly as we might imagine.

    • Kent, basically, I am worried that Smith is just Aristotle. In other words, we can have a whole conversation about formation without talking about the Holy Spirit. Smith does a hand wave to the Spirit at one point, similar to the likes of Willard, but when push comes to shove it seems odd, if not just downright disconcerting that the Spirit’s role in growth doesn’t actually affect methodology in any way.

      I think practices can form character, I just don’t think character has anything to do with sanctification. It is a black box approach to human persons, assuming that if we just get the outputs right then everything is good. I personally think practices are key elements, when oriented appropriately, I just don’t think things like the Pledge of Allegiance are those kinds of things, or, as it were, church practices which often resemble the Pledge of Allegiance.

  3. Kyle – in the event Sire ignores the role of the Holy Spirit in formation, your point exposes a critical flaw in his argument. That said, I’m unclear by your observation “I just don’t think character has anything to do with sanctification.” As Kent referenced Hauerwas, who seems to have devoted much of his work on this issue – character formation – in his various texts on the virtues and training. William Cavanaugh also wrote some excellent texts on this point, look at Torture and the Eucharist, as an example. I hope we are not talking past each other on the term “character.”

    • Bill, I take “character” as the ability to act a certain way in certain circumstances. In other words, we say someone has good character when they conform to specific standards of behavior. The Pharisees, for instance, had great character in this sense, but still were whitewashed tombs full of dead mens bones.

      Christian formation, I think, is spiritual formation. There are various ways to play this out, but any account of character, I think, will simply become ethical action that can be explained without any reference to God or the Spirit (at least not necessarily). Spiritual formation, on the other hand, is incoherent without reference, on both the teleological and methodological level, to God’s sanctifying activity.

  4. Kyle – thank you. I see your point and also would join with you in your second point – Christian formation is spiritual formation. However, I would suggest that the spiritual formation occurring goes to the formation of a Christian character. I see your point on the Pharisees, however, I would not ascribe to them the quality “good” in assessing their characters, except in a strict rationalist sense. In looking at the Pharisees and their stance as being righteous God-fearing people, their character falls short, obviously as you note, as they misunderstood and abused those standards of behavior given to them from the beginning. I see character not solely as one’s ability to act in a certain way under certain circumstances, rather, I would suggest character is one’s inclination to act in a certain way under certain circumstances, and the practices (what I called liturgies) go toward the formation of one’s character (preparing one’s inclinations if you will) – all along acknowledging and indeed insisting that the standards of behavior are those which come to us today by the Spirit.

    • Bill, thanks for your thoughts. I still think “one’s inclination to act in a certain way under certain circumstances” is very different than what we are called to as Christians. In your explanation, the Spirit still takes a secondary role. We create practices that form us to act in certain ways (and be inclined to – sure), and then we just say that the Spirit did it when it happens. The problem is that the world does this just as well and it works just as well. I just have an allergy to any methodology that can be taken wholesale over to an unregenerate ethical model and still function well.

      In other words, I would agree with Smith about the problem, that it isn’t that we don’t think rightly or believe rightly, but that we don’t love rightly. I just don’t think you get to love through practices. Acting rightly isn’t the Christian problem as I see it. The problem is that our loves are contrary to God’s – we can look at this in aesthetical terms as well – we are not inclined to the beautiful. I just don’t think forcing myself to look at something I think is ugly and tell myself it is beautiful changes anything in me, other than the habit that when I see it I call it beautiful. That, I think, is still making the Pharisee mistake.

      In the end, my “program” might not look differently from Smith’s, I certainly wouldn’t neglect practices, I would just change their telos to emphasize the freedom of God in his Spirit. On Smith’s account, the Spirit seems like a force of nature that I can tap into at will – it domesticates him to my agenda of self-formation – which I think the major thrust of sin (as attempting to self-form).

  5. Kyle your point is well said. I acknowledge and agree with your observation “I just don’t think forcing myself to look at something I think is ugly and tell myself it is beautiful changes anything in me.” If our frame of reference for making such an assessment is flawed, the practice will be essentially useless, though it may make one a more polite person. I find Micah 6:8 (CEV phrases it well I think) to be useful in seeking to establish that frame of reference – the Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands: see that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern and humbly obey your God. This particular way of phrasing this command is personally compelling as it points us outward and posits the standard as one of grace (I subscribe to the observation made by Tillich that love is grace in action). Again I must acknowledge your point is telling as even taking such a stance does not avoid corruption and establishing that unregenerate ethical model. On the other hand, I find the standard can be enacted through liturgical practice within a community context (cultish tendencies hopefully are avoided by keeping in mind that the Micah suggestion always points outward) – again with a heavy influence by Hauerwas.

    I am new to your blog and apologize for moving off topic from your comments on Smith’s work, which are appreciated, but how does that change to one’s telos to emphasize the freedom of God in His Spirit avoid the criticism you lodged about just being able to say that the Spirit did it when it happens. If there is another area of your blog you can point me to, hopefully this thread won’t take you too far off topic.

    • Bill, no worries on getting off topic. I tend to think that life under grace by faith is life that cannot be made on our own. In other words, we abide that we bear good fruit, we don’t try to bear good fruit that we may abide. My worry about your account (and you are in good company!) is that the Spirit’s work isn’t considered in method. In other words, you can basically adopt a self-help method and when it works claim the Spirit did it. I would want to follow the Puritan and Reformed emphasis on means of grace, which would reorient practices not towards an end but towards God. In other words, to use my earlier example, I don’t use practices to try and make myself believe something is beautiful (say something in Scripture that rubs me the wrong way). I use practices to bring myself before God. I, in other words, come to the cross.

      Therefore, practices may, in the freedom of God, lead anywhere. Often, they may lead to the desert rather than to what I perceive as freedom or even positive results. Practices tied too closely with developing ethical ends creates communities set on their agenda, and when they achieve that agenda, they praise God. But this tends to simply reinforce the community’s agenda rather than giving a real sign of God’s work – if that makes sense.

  6. Thank you for your explanation and your display of grace! Yes it makes sense and on that point we are in full agreement. I also find that the only “agenda” to seek is the one where the Spirit is fully present and in the lead. I tend toward an Anabaptist view of grace (the recent text Amish Grace provided a fascinating snapshot of formation). I suggest grace is not possible without the presence and leading of the Spirit. Focus on any agenda, say performing good works in God’s name for example, is susceptable to and ultimately falls into corruption as it is indeed as you note without the Spirit. In a recent sermon series at my home church where that was the focus, and rather pointedly the agenda, my comment was that if we can be trained in the understanding of grace (my reference to the Micah verse earlier may be seen as one means whereby love, how Smith works this out will be interesting, becomes actualized) good works follow as we are giving up our agendas – we are pointing ourselves outward – where ever that may lead – as you say in the freedom of God. My apologies if my postings implied that we are to be trained to become ethical beings in the sense of a human generated understanding of ethical, rather we are to be trained in becoming beings of grace. In any event thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  7. Kyle, James Smith just spoke in the annual Calvin College January Series on the themes of his new book. In the near future, I think you will be able to go online and listen to it. I thought you may want to keep an eye out for that as you continue to enjoy the topics of Desiring the Kingdom.

  8. Pingback: Daily Links – 1.15.09 | Community of the Risen

  9. Pingback: James K. A. Smith on “Going through the motions” « Theology Forum

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

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