Book Review: Desiring the Kingdom

For those of you who have been following, I have offered some interaction with Jamie Smith’s new volume Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation in previous posts (here, here and here). After these superficial looks, I do something closer to a robust book review here. I think Smith makes some important points, and deals with some strands of scholarship often ignored in evangelicalism, and for that reason alone I think his volume is a worthwhile engagement. Furthermore, in my own ideological moorings of spiritual formation, Smith raises language, concepts and issues that either need to be dealt with, accepted or engaged.

Importantly, as we look at Smith’s work, it should be kept in mind that this is only the first volume in a trilogy, therefore some of our interaction will simply be highlighting issues he has yet to address. In this volume, Smith seeks to primarily address the issues of Christian education, casting a new vision of what that entails, but hopes to secondarily (what he calls “collateral impact”) address church practices and orientation towards formation. In his words,

In short, the goal is to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born – and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship. This doesn’t require rejecting worldview-talk, only situating it in relation to Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship” (11).

The critique of worldview discussion is navigated by his employment of a counter-anthropology. This counter-anthropology is hinted at in Smith’s question: “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” Smith argues that we have an anemic vision of the human person because we treat them as thinkers or believers rather than lovers. Therefore, right out of the gate, Smith establishes a philosophical anthropology of human persons as primarily lovers above all else (I highlight philosophical here because of my critique below).

To develop this anthropology and answer the question of practice based on this anthropology, Smith turns to the world as grasping what the church has failed to, that humans are lovers, and as lovers, humans are formed through their hearts.

Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall – the liturgies of mall and market – that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world” (25).

Therefore, there are both “sacred” and “secular” liturgies at play, vying for the hearts of humanity. The “sacred,” unfortunately, seek people’s hearts by lecturing them, while the “secular” grasps at desiring humanity where they desire – their loves. What Smith calls his “core claim” is that these liturgies form “…our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (25). Liturgies form human persons from the body in rather than from the head down, and have pedagogical force because, Smith claims, humans are just liturgical beings.

Let me stop here. The claims just outlined make up the major thrust of the volume, and if these are accepted, the implications Smith offers will certainly be seen as both adequate and robust. The two main points that I believe his volume stands on are what I’ve just highlighted, that human beings are primarily lovers, and that the way to form loves is through liturgical practices. The first claim is made by leaning heavily on Augustine, and there is certainly other figures he could have turned to for this (I would suggest Edwards offers perhaps a more balanced affective anthropology). Building on Augustine, Smith claims that our loves constitute our identity, pushing away from a metaphysical account of identity to a functional account based on worship (“our ultimate love is what we worship” (51), which therefore establishes who we are).

Turning to habits, and to Aristotle, virtue is defined as doing the right thing (again, functionally), without having to think about it. Oddly (in my mind), he claims, “Our habits thus constitute the fulcrum of our desire: they are the hinge that ‘turns’ our heart, our love, such that it is predisposed to be aimed in certain directions” (56). This is a key and, again, in my mind, counter-intuitive claim that might be worth discussing. Living the kingdom life, entails having the kingdom vision inscribed into our existence in such a way that it is precognitive and habitual (and therefore truly virtuous). Smith, in the end, wants an embodied, imaginative and affective anthropology that is addressed using the term “the social imaginary” (with Charles Taylor) rather than (for the time being) worldview. This, he believes, will help focus on the affective, precognitive and bodily when working with pedagogy and formation. In his words, “The imaginary is more a kind of noncognitive understanding than a cognitive knowledge or set of beliefs” (65).

Therefore, to tie things together a bit, Smith suggests, “…instead of thinking about worldview as a distinctively Christian ‘knowledge,’ we should talk about a Christian ‘social imaginary’ that constitutes a distinctly Christian understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship” (68). Liturgies flow forth from the heart of mankind and it is through liturgies, Smith argues, that we get to the heart, forming our loves through habitual activity.

There is certainly much more that can be said about his argument, fleshing out his anthropology, his discussion of the social imaginary as well as his cultural analysis (which is worth the price of the book). I want to stop here and offer some meta-level interaction, and suggest that his project, while incredibly informative, deeply engaging and worthwhile, is anemic at one central / foundational point. I have brought up other criticisms which can be seen in previous posts, but it is not necessary to rehash those here. Primarily, while I agree with the move to reposition anthropology to an affective anthropology, with a certain emphasis on practices and with the desire to talk about humans as liturgical creatures in all settings, I think Smith fails to give us an account driven by an appropriate engine. Let me explain.

Smith is a philosopher, and so he offers a philosophical anthropology, which his account depends on, as well as an account of virtue picked up from Aristotle. Instead, I suggest, he is dealing with fundamentally theological issues, and therefore doctrine should be the engine and controlling mechanism to this account, and it simply is not. His account fails to be a truly Christian account, in other words, even though formed by ideas, contexts and realities birthed in theology and church. While doctrine pokes its head at points (the Spirit is turned to as the efficacious power), it does not do any formal work – it is doctrine without theology (if I can awkwardly put it). His anthropology is established through the social sciences, rather than say, a robust Christology, and his anthropology does the work that a trinitarian theology would normally do. In the end, Christology is absent and pneumatology is underdeveloped. Formally, it wouldn’t really matter if Christ remained in the grave and was simply a great ethical teacher and the Spirit was simply the spirit of human fortitude (even though this isn’t fully true materially). Furthermore, even though the Spirit is turned to, the account could still function the same in any religious tradition (Smith’s account naturalizes spiritual formation reducing it to simply formation).

While Smith offers much for theologians to think about and engage, I think his account fails to offer the church or Christian education a proper vision, because he begins and drives his account with anthropology. Smith has a way to remedy this through theological engagement with the tradition, which would entail developing a trinitarian theology that would house his anthropology and either reasoning for why his anthropology should drive the program or else a more centralized doctrinal engine (Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, etc.) which would do the same. That said, doing so would certainly change his account dramatically. Instead of invoking Aristotle, it would seem, in my mind, that an account of virtue needs location in a development of the kingly office of the reigning Christ and the Spirit’s sanctifying work among creaturely realities (not to mention ecclesiology, etc.). These doctrines must not simply be accepted, they must have a formal and material function in any account of creaturely formation.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Desiring the Kingdom

  1. I agree with the lack of theology critique Kyle. At least from reading your post, i dont see it. I’m not sure how one can talk about human personhood from a Christian perspective and not base it on a robust Christology.

    I’m also confused as to the prominence of the place of ‘world-view’ in his account. I take it from what you’ve laid out that he is offering an alternative to the idea that Christian formaiton is about forming a certian kind of world-view in Christians. Amen to bringing that down as the goal. While i tend to agree with the idea of worship as the primary definer of our personhood, we cannot jump to ‘practices’ which foster right worship before letting our doctrines do their proper work. I would want to add to your suggestion re the kingly office of the reigning Christ his priestly office as well. It is the Son’s worship of the Father into which we are given a share through our union with Christ by the Spirit. If we try to develop practices of worship which are detached from and ungrounded by this primary defining reality, we’re just creating new idolatries.

  2. Kyle,

    I find the discussion fascinating in light of the “struggle” that naturally seems to ensue when we try to [somewhat oxymoronically] wrap our minds around the very notion of an affective anthropology. I would submit that Smith has captured something very important in the nugget you cited, “The imaginary is more a kind of noncognitive understanding than a cognitive knowledge or set of beliefs.” We have far too long simply conflated “understanding” with “cognitive knowledge.”

    I share your prior heartburn over the notion that “just doing it” liturgically can substantially change people at the spiritual level. However, I would have to agree that formation may well proceed primarily at the level of noncognitive understanding; I would submit that the anthropological locus of that noncognitive understanding is God-given conscience; that formation primarily begins with “light received” in that “vessel” of conscience; and that this light is mediated by the Spirit and most effective when “processed” within a worshiping community.

    I would further contend that the two main “noncognitive” dynamics experienced in the realm of conscience are a deeper hope rooted in an enlightened noncognitive awareness of God’s eternal goodness (Eccl 3:11), and a deeper conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Rom 2:14-16). I would submit, it is only when these “awarenesses” register at the level of conscience that people have the true impetus for formation and can go through a necessary disillusionment over the status quo en route to loving well.

    I have tinkered around with this notion of noncognitive awareness by attempting to apply it to the realm of evangelism, using as familiar a verse as John 3:16 for my starting point in a series of blog articles I wrote last fall. My own theological tradition of “Free Grace” has IMO gotten off on the wrong foot epistemologically by seeing awareness as exclusively cognitive and thus viewing evangelism as primarily an exercise in convincing people of the propositional truth of a claim like John 3:16, when the verse is absolutely bathed contextually in the dynamics of heart-level conviction by the Light. What absolutely caught me by surprise in this empirical exercise on John 3:16 using a narrative theological methodology is how the whole movement of the gospel is toward the Eucharist on mission, which gets us back to the topic of liturgical practices and formation in your review of Smith.

    I’m still “chewing” on it.

    • Jim, I like Smith on some of the anthropology stuff, but again, we need to get there theologically. There is a strong tradition for this in the Puritans actually, and, of course, climaxes in Edwards affective anthropology. I think that once we do the theological work we will have the mechanics and grammar to work through these issues well.

  3. Thanks for this, Kyle. I worry that it might be difficult for us to have conversation about some points because we seem to have some important “meta-” differences (e.g., about the relation between philosophy, theology, and Christian faith). But just a few comments on the fly:

    1. A point of clarification/correction–you say “Smith claims” that “humans are just liturgical beings.” No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I ever, in DTK, claim that human beings are “just” liturgical animals. I might emphasize that we “fundamentally” or “primarily” liturgical animals, but I never reduce us to “just” liturgical animals. I think that’s an important qualifier. (If you can cite a passage where I say what you attribute to me, I’d be glad to know of it–so I can correct it with the next printing! ;-)

    2. You seem to overestimate how much I’m indebted to Aristotle. I think Aristotle is a very minor voice in the book (and I’m not out to deny sympathies), but clearly Augustine trumps Aristotle. I do wonder whether you have a kind of working taxonomy in mind that puts “Aristotle” in a certain box and then assigns me to that same box, when in fact Aristotle is not really the operative influence here. (Indeed, if I were an Aristotelian, I think my picture would be more “intellectualist” than it is and all my Thomist friends wouldn’t be so frustrated with me.)

    3. But where we most disagree–and I’m not sure I could convince you otherwise–is in the way we think about the relationship between philosophy, theology, and Christian faith. You seem to think that the only way to offer a properly “Christian” account of something is to offer a “theological” account. And because I describe mine as a “philosophical” anthropology, you seem to conclude that it is therefore NOT a “theological” account–indeed, not even a “truly Christian account” because it is philosophical.

    So I guess you think philosophy is just some “natural,” autonomous discipline? In any case, I come from an Augustinian-Reformed tradition which has always (a) criticized the notion that philosophy is “neutral,” “natural,” or secular and (b) emphasized the importance of developing a robust “Christian philosophy.” (We also imagine the possibilities of a Christian sociology, a Christian economics, etc.) So on this model, a philosophical account can be “truly Christian,” whereas you seem to think only theologians can do that.

    This is why, on p. 40 of DTK, I describe my project as a “Christian philosophical anthropology.” I guess you don’t think there can be a “Christian philosophy,” therefore you conclude that there can’t be a “Christian philosophical anthropology.” I disagree.

    And I’m not sure what your alternative would look like. Would it be “deduced” from Christology? And if so, what difference would that make? Would it be a matter of ‘making the Trinity our social program,’ as Volf once put it? I’ve always found those sorts of “theological” projects not very attuned to our creatureliness. (And for the record, I think there is an important Christological element in chapter 5 where I discuss Christ as the exemplar of culture-making, as the model of one who faithfully carries out the cultural mandate.)

    But as I’ve said before, I appreciate your attention to the argument of the book and am glad to think it might be a catalyst for discussions along just the sorts of lines you’re pursuing.

    • Jamie, thank you for your continued gracious interaction. Let me try to clarify some of my thoughts, and, if you are will, I would love to hear some of your thoughts in response (but understand if you can’t afford the time).

      First, I was confused by your comment about my use of “just” and I went back and looked and saw how that could be misunderstood. I didn’t mean it with the force in which you read it, as if all that human beings are are only liturgical creatures, but in the sense that human beings are liturgical creatures, that is “just” what they are (now that I rewrite it I see how odd of a usage that can be!).

      Second, my noting Aristotle was not to highlight your continual use, but to note that where I expected to find doctrinal moves I found Aristotle. In other words, where he showed up where, in my mind, key places – but that is derivative to my main claim.

      Last, let me try to clarify my main claim. I’m not against the idea of a Christian philosophy, and I’m not worried about (although I can see how that would come across), that you developed a philosophical account as such. My main worry is that, in my mind, an account of human formation, that is truly Christian, has to be driven by a doctrinal account – when yours is driven by a philosophical anthropology. So, I would say, you are making major doctrinal moves when you put your anthropology to work like that, because you are now functioning theologically (starting with anthropology as the ground for delineating an account of Christian formation has christological, pneumatological, and ecclesiological impact).

      In other words, I think doctrine should drive the meta-level discussion, but doctrine does not. Instead, your structure and “engine” are developed and doctrine is made to work for that. So you can talk about Christ, the Spirit and the church materially, but that still isn’t offering a doctrinal account, because the formal issues are ignored.

      I think distinctively “Christian” accounts of things must be doctrinal accounts, or, in other words, accounts where doctrine plays not only a material role but also a formal one. So a trinitarian read of anthropology (or a Christological one for that matter) is, I think, needed as a way to talk about the location and work that a given account does in an overall system. So, in response to your comment about Volf, if his account undermines creatureliness or if his account is superficial in any way, it is either a bad account or else is merely seeking to provide dogmatic location of the discussion for the purpose of turning to more robust accounts (yours for instance).

      So, the worry I sought to assert is not with the various pieces (anthropology, practices, social imaginary) but with what drives the account and how it is ordered. I would expect, on an account that fails to do the heavy dogmatic work, a naturalization of certain issues as well as a shrunken account of doctrine (christology and pneumatology are put to work in an already established structure, for instance), and these were my frustrations.

      I think your push back is an important one though. It is not all that surprising that I push one way and your push the other with our backgrounds, and so the one question I had is how a philosophical account like yours might interact with a theological account (I hear that Kelsey has just come out with a two volume theological anthropology called Eccentric Existence). I think your account will provide a more robust development of several key areas than most theological accounts, so I wonder if the interaction between the two would be doctrinal (on the theological side for the meta-level issues I described) and a heavily integrated account on the philosophical side (as one possibility). I think it is an important issue, because I think theologians can tend to ignore philosophers and philosophers can tend to do theology without feeling the need to actually do theology.

      Thank you again for your gracious interaction. I do think it is an important book and I hope it is widely read and engaged.

      • Thanks, Kyle. It’s helpful to hear you put it this way, though I think i still disagree, for reasons that are at the heart of DTK. For “Christian” reasons, I don’t think reflection is only “truly Christian” when it is driven or fueled by “doctrine.” My point is that the “understanding” implicit in Christian practices is prior to the “knowledge” that is articulated in doctrine. Or, to put it slightly differently: I think there is an “understanding” that is carried in the practices of Christian worship. Elements of that understanding can be articulated (made explicit) in doctrinal form, in theological propositions. However, I also think there is something irreducible and unarticulable about that practiced “understanding.” So then I imagine other modes of Christian reflection–philosophy, sociology, economics–fueled by that practiced understanding and so not only deduced from “doctrine.”

        I’m not putting that very well, but my point is that I’m not persuaded that Christian accounts must be derived from “doctrinal” accounts–precisely for the sorts of reasons I emphasize the priority of worship and practices in DTK.

        But these are definitely issues I’m going to be teasing out in volume 2, using Wittgenstein and Brandom–which I guess won’t score me any points in your book! ;-) But when I “use” philosophical sources in this way, I’m actually just looking for tools to help articulate the understanding that is implicit in the riches of Christian practice.

        And I just got Kelsey’s massive, two-volume tome and am slated to do a review essay by May, so I’m looking forward to interacting with that. One of the questions I’ll be thinking about is just what the difference is between a “theological anthropology” and a “Christian philosophical anthropology.”

        • Jamie, thanks for this. Is there somewhere you can point me to where you or someone else you appreciate addressed what makes any given philosophical account “Christian?” That seems to be a key element to what we are talking about.

          I have not yet looked at Kelsey’s work, but I’ve heard it is a bit unwieldy! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter. In light of my question about Christian philosophy, I think the central question to the philosopher is how his/her project relates to the parallel theological project and why that is.

          Thanks again Jamie!

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  5. Kyle,

    Not having read the book, and going off of what you have outlined here; I agree with your assessment. Another person who has developed an affective anthropology a la Augustine is Richard Sibbes; Smith might do well to look to him for engaging this kind of anthropology. I find Smith’s method interesting, it seems to be a mixture of virtue ethics with affective; and at a material level these just don’t mix. A truly affective anthropology sees the heart as the defining feature of man, and the mind and will as instruments finding their directives from the values assigned by the heart (to speak in tripartite faculty terms). A truly virtue model speaks about habituating and an outside/in approach that is mutually exclusive from an affective approach.

    From what I read here it seems Smith is trying to wed these two together, is he?

    • Bobby, it is definitely worth a read, and it would be too difficult to pin Smith to the bi- and tri-partitate faculty models. I hadn’t thought of it, but off the top of my head, it does seem like he could be seen as offering something of a via media between the two.

      • Thanks, Kyle,

        I will read it when I get the chance. I like reading philosophers who also engage theology, so it should be interesting. And now that you mention that he might offer a via media between the two, I would be really interested in seeing how that is nuanced. I’m wondering if he kind’ve plays the mind/will off of the heart (this is how a prof of mine, who did his PhD on Sibbes framed the “Western model” i.e. mind/will together (the positive) vs. the heart (the negative) — it sounds like Smith might have more of a dialectic at play between these two “compartments,” so to speak. Thanks for the review.

  6. This was Healy’s point in the article I referenced in my interaction with Jamie under Kyle’s previous post (“Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness”). We can “suck” at performing Christian practices, as you say, and for Healy this should indicate that ecclesial/liturgical practices are not patterns of behavior with “sufficiently fixed meanings”. At least from Jamie’s response he is aware of the worry and thinks volume two will sufficiently cover it.

  7. I know I’m coming to this discussion late but if I may (humbly) interject, I think that a different perspective regarding Christian practices might prove fruitful.

    Smith’s emphases on practices and on the noncognitive “imaginative” aspects of Christian formation become far more appealing when I think of the lives and faith experiences of persons living with profound cognitive disabilities. As a youth worker in a church, I’m thinking in terms of catechesis and formation for young people with cognitive disabilities that may inhibit their capacity to grasp many (if not most) of the doctrinal claims about Christianity. From my perspective, the promise of “practices” as Smith frames them is incredibly fruitful and encouraging because they make a concrete, substantive way for faith formation in the lives of persons who – if we theologians and pastors were left to our own devices – may not obtain a place in Christian fellowship.

    • Andrew, I agree entirely. I have had this conversation with more than one family with children with mental disabilities. One family in particular attended a more liturgical church simply because they found that in that worship structure their son was more able to engage. “More able” is something of an understatement considering he was entirely unable to engage in worship services geared completely around a lengthy sermon. Stanley Hauerwas is helpful on this point I believe.

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