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.