James K. A. Smith on “Going through the motions”

I have mentioned in earlier posts that I think Smith overstates his case with practices, particularly with practices that are done without a real depth of meaning. Here is what Smith says:

I recognize that some might be uncomfortable with this claim, since it seems to suggest that there can be some sort of virtue in ‘going through the motions.’ On this point, I’m afraid I have to confess that I do think this is true. While it is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices (this is in the ballpark of the principle of ex opere operato)” (167 fn. 29).

I just don’t buy it. You can see my previous post for thoughts. I just don’t see how this meshes with Jesus’ comment, channeling Isaiah, that people honor him with their lips but their hearts are far from him. Any change that does take place in “going through the motions” is superficial. It seems to me that Smith gets a bit alarmist concerning practices, and sets up a philosophical discussion rather than a theological one which ends up naturalizing the topic, but I’ll leave that for my full review.

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12 thoughts on “James K. A. Smith on “Going through the motions”

  1. Hi Kyle,

    I’m sorry to parachute in here, but I happened to see your post title over at the Faith and Theology blogroll and couldn’t resist. I promise not to linger and stalk as you work through these issues.

    But let me just suggest one point in response to your concerns here: Actually, I think my model helps make sense of Jesus’ claim. My point is that it’s precisely because “going through the motions” does something to us that our hearts can be captivated by other (“secular”) liturgies even if, propositionally, so to speak, we’re “saying” all the right “Christian” things. Does that make sense?

    The point is that because practices can be so formative at an affective level, they form us unwittingly. And so if we don’t have intentional practices of Christian liturgical formation, then “secular” liturgies end up unwittingly capturing our hearts and imagination–hence the disconnect between what we “say” and where are hearts really lie. Most Protestant evangelical worship never has a shot at capturing our hearts in this way precisely because it’s not sufficiently embodied and affective.

    That might not allay all of your concerns, but I offer it for what it’s worth.

    • James, thanks for the thoughts, it is great to have your perspective. I hope to do a full review soon, and would love your comments. Overall, I think you are right, but you seem to allow a good deal of work to be done through the “going through the motions” liturgy, in either “secular” or “sacred” environments. I think you are right that our liturgies are too shallow to capture the hearts of our congregations, but there are plenty of liturgies that aren’t, and still do not capture the hearts of the congregations.

      My worry is not, in the end, about the practices – in fact, I would want to say something very similar – my worry is that it is too clean, and that the Spirit doesn’t really play any methodological role in your model. In a way which reminds me of Willard, your model seems to be able to work for any religious ideology, but then, admittedly, after all is said and done you point to the Spirit’s efficacious role in the event. I just think the Spirit’s role is more primary than that on a methodological level.

      • [Looks like the Colts are running away with the game, so I've got some time to comment ;-)]

        Kyle, This is something I struggled with in writing the book. Because so many evangelicals underestimate the role of practices, and because they also tend to treat the work of the Spirit as some kind of “magic,” I admit that I almost “naturalize” the process in order to get people to appreciate the formative work of embodied practices. However, I do think there are a couple of key points in chapters 4 and 5 where I note the importance of the Spirit in particular practices (e.g., esp. in the sacraments)–and, of course, grace as the condition of possibility for all of this (cp. Augustine’s homilies on 1 John on the relation between love, grace, and the sacraments).

        I would add just a couple of things:

        (1) It is true that I think the formative power of practices works across “religions” so to speak (including “secular liturgies”). But that’s because I think we’ve been created as liturgical animals. That, in itself, is a theological claim and a “creational” reality–but it’s also what makes possible all sorts of disordered formations. So I don’t think the validity of the model across religions is problematic; it just shows that the anthropology is rooted in a Christian theology of creation–we are created as liturgical animals. (Or as Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee…”).

        (2) But while all “liturgies” are formative because we are liturgical animals, not all liturgies are “aimed” at the kingdom of God. So this is what distinguishes Christian practices and liturgy from others: what makes these practices “Christian” is the latent intentionality within them, and the unique presence/operation of the Spirit within them.

        Finally–and this will be addressed in much more detail in volume 3–the issue of the “efficaciousness” of Christian liturgical formation is a complicated issue that requires a nuanced analysis of the multiple, competing liturgies in which we’re immersed.

    • James, a few years ago Nicholas Healy wrote an essay in IJST in which he critiques the langauge of practices in Hutter, Hauerwas, and Marshall (what he called the “New Ecclesiology”). His made two points.

      The first was that practices cannot be abstracted from intentions: “I take it that practices are not mere behavior patters; they are actions performed by human agents. An agent’s intention informs their action, making it this action rather than that. Surprisingly, intention is largely ignored when the new ecclesiology talks of practices” (“Practices and the New Ecclesiology” in IJST [November 2003], 292). In other words, the intentions underlying practices can be weak, erroneous, self-serving, etc., and the practices then distorted in innumarable ways. He summarizes: “practices as concretely performed are not patterns of behavior with sufficiently fixed meanings that they can do the task required of them…Character is indeed formed through practices, but only as they are performed with appropriate intentions and construals” (295).

      This sounds quite similar to Kyle’s worry.

      The second closely related point is that the church’s practices are constituted only part by human agency, the other part being the activity of the Holy Spirit. Put simply, Christian practices “are the usual means by which the Holy Spirit works within us and the church. They are the ordinary vehicle, so to speak, by which the Holy Spirit achieves our sanctification” (301).

      I am eager to see how you approach “practices” in your new book, and I will be interested to see how you make a plea for a renewed emphasis on the church’s practices without untethering them from the Spirit’s agency in sanctification. You want to make any comments on that?

      • Hi Kent (call me Jamie, by the way)–we emailed recently, right? Do give my warmest greetings to David A.

        Regarding Healy’s point: this is exactly where I’m going in more detail in volume 2. I take Healy’s point, but I think he still assumes a problematic (and reductionistic) philosophy of action which restricts “intentionality” to something like occurent, conscious choice or deliberation. I think this is problematic. This is where I think theology needs to take seriously current work in cognitive science and psychology which shows the extent to which our action is not “intentional” in this sense. So I think this is exactly where we need a new paradigm (in volume 2 I’ll be drawing on current work at the intersection of phenomenology and cognitive science, particularly in the wake of Merleau-Ponty).

        And I think I’ve sketched an account of the Spirit’s presence in the practices in my reply to Kyle above. (I should note that I have a new book coming out in the spring entitled Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy. So I’m a pretty big fan of the Holy Spirit! ;-)

        I’m just not quite sure what people think the alternative is. Nobody that I know (e.g., Hauerwas, Yoder, et. al.) would ever deny that the Spirit’s gracious power is what “animates” Christian practices. So I sometimes think that critics like Healy (whose critique I greatly appreciate) read us as if we saw a dichotomy where there isn’t one.

        Or is it that the critics are positing a dichotomy? Are they saying: “No, it’s not the practices, it’s the Holy Spirit!” Well, I think that sort of response is working with a false dichotomy.

        • Jamie, thanks for this. And yes, we did exchange emails recently concerning resources for an independent study I am supervising on postmodernism and the church. I ended up choosing your book (Who’s Afraid…) together with The Postmodern God, Reclaiming the Center, and How (not) to Speak About God. I will let you know how it progresses.

    • Jamie, thanks for your continuing interaction. I want to pose some suggestions in my full review for your consideration, which will help me form the actual review I have to publish in SBET. I figure it will be more fruitful to bang those out on the blog rather than an academic review, and it will give me a better feel for your project (hopefully I will post that review today, which should make my concern more clear, as well as clarify, I hope, critiques like Healy’s. I don’t think the issue is simply one of reduction, but of an ordering of the issues – more on that latter).

      I have to wonder though if there are really two “brands” of evangelicalism out there, one of which, like my background, is simply pragmatism all day long, and the other which seeks to help you think rightly all day long. When I read your focus on practices (with my background), my worry is that this further entrenches the idea of the “magic” sanctification Willard is so worried about. You, admittedly, focus on the Spirit’s efficacious work, but that feels like an afterthought. That is why my focus was on method. In other words, your position reads like a social-sciences account that in the end punts to the Spirit to truly work, but would work without the Spirit in pretty much the same way. In my mind, the Spirit’s role in formation isn’t simply something tacked on to the end of an account, but should form it distinctively.

      In any case, I feel like we’ve focused on such a tiny issue when the volume as a whole provided much more. By the way, if I may so plead, would you please write a volume for the church where you simply go around with your Martian anthropologists and exegete life? I found your account incredibly helpful and believe there is a really great pastoral need for them.

      • I’ll watch for your fuller review and try to respond as I’m able, Kyle. Thanks again for your serious attention to the book.

        As for the Martian anthropologists: this coming semester I’m co-teaching a new class on “Church and Socieity” with a friend who is a sociologist. All of the students are going to be undertaking just the sort of project you want, across a number of different congregations. I’m very interested to see the results.

        In this respect, I highly recommend Chris Scharen’s article in the Scottish Journal of Theology a few years back: “‘Judicious Narratives,’ or Ethnography as Ecclesiology.” Good stuff.

  2. Develop habits now, even if you don’t fully understand them, and in the long run they pay dividends: “I believe, help my unbelief!”

    Isaiah’s criticism was about hypocrisy, about acting in contradiction to these practices; it therefore assumes that one’s ritualistic habits should spread throughout one’s life.

  3. Kyle, FYI there is a Review Symposium in Christian Scholar’s Review (Winter 2010) on Desiring the Kingdom. It has Todd Ream, Perry Glanzier, David Guthrie, Steven Nolt, and John Wright commenting with Smith responding. I have not yet read it in depth, but the following remarks from Smith certainly relate to your worries:

    “At the heart of Desiring the Kingdom is a critique of a ‘rationalist’ picture of the human person – or what Charles Taylor would call an ‘intellectualism’ – that overemphasizes the role of the intellect or cognition. I see something of this in many (though not all) ‘worldview’ models of Christian education. Instead, I argue for a more affective picture of the human person that situates and relativizes the importance of the intellect and instead places a (renewed) emphasis on the ‘heart’ as the affective, embodied, pre-conscious core of the human person that drives and shapes our action and behavior. And thus I tend to de-emphasize the intellectual (information) and emphasize the affective (formation)” (p. 230).

    Now, if these were the targets of Smith’s program it would seem to make sense that he would place a great deal of emphasize on the “formative” power of Christian practices over against the intellectual approach that predominates Christian scholarship.

    It all reminds me of something I read sometime ago by Hauerwas and just recently came back to:

    “One of the tasks people concerned with religious education have taken for themselves has been the attempt to find ways to help people better understand what it means to be Christian. This most often has naturally taken the form of encouraging a greater study of Scripture and theology, the assumption being that we will be better Christians if we simply know more. While I have nothing the study of Scripture and theology, I think our emphasis in that respect has tended to make us forget that the way we learn the story is by learning such gestures as simply as how to kneel. More troubling, such an emphasis excludes in a decisive manner a whole group of people from participation in God’s Kingdom. For what do you do with the mentally handicapped?” (“The Gesture of a Truthful Story” in Critical Reflections of Stanley Hauerwas’ Theology of Disability, p. 79)

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

  5. Pingback: Theological Anthropology and Christian Formation « Theology Forum

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