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.