To be human is to be a lover.
That is the starting point for Jamie Smith’s latest work, Desiring the Kingdom, in which he presents an important challenge to the dominant paradigm in Christian education. While I do not agree with all of Smith’s conclusions, Desiring the Kingdom is one of the most challenging and enriching books I read in 2009, and its proposals deserve serious and substantial consideration.
Smith’s project is similar to that of Spears and Loomis. But while he also wants to construct a pedagogy on top of a robust theological anthropology, his foundation and frame are considerably different. For Smith, most contemporary Christian education is too focused on worldview analysis and “integration.” Smith contends that such approaches rest upon a “reductionistic account of the human person—one that is still a tad bit heady and quasi-cognitive.” Smith contends that these accounts of pedagogy fail “to accord a central role to embodiment and practice.”
Drawing upon Augustine and the phenomenological tradition, Smith argues that instead, humans should be viewed fundamentally, though not exclusively, as lovers, and—post regeneration—primarily as lovers of the Kingdom. Because of this, our nature is to push us outside of ourselves, and so is inherently teleological.
But Smith argues that the fundamentally non-cognitive, affective nature of humanity entails that the telos of love must be construed as a picture, otherwise it will not actually move us. What’s more, Smith contends that these basic desires are “inscribed” into our “dispositions and habits quite apart from our conscious reflection.” Not surprisingly, Smith argues that embodied practices are crucial to forming these pre-conscious habits. He writes:
We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it. Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses. So our affective, noncognitive disposition is an aspect of our animal, bodily nature. The result is a much more holistic (and less dualistic) picture of human persons as essentially embodied.
What has this to do with knowledge and education?
Smith argues that the concept of worldview is insufficient (if taken as primary) precisely because it fails to account for this pre-cognitive, embodied nature of humanity. Worldview language is not enough because the Christian faith is fundamentally a set of worshipful practices that undergird our doctrinal commitments. Writes Smith:
I suggest that instead of thinking about worldview as distinctly Christian “knowledge,” we should talk about a Christian “social imaginary” that constitutes a distinctly Chrisitan understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Discipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively “understands” the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel. And insofar as an understanding is implicit in practice, the practices of Christian worship are crucial—the sine qua non—for developing a distinctly Christian understanding of the world.
Smith explicitly states that he isn’t trying to eradicate the cognitive aspect of Christianity, or the role of propositions. Rather, “the point is to situate the cognitive, propositional aspects of Christian faith: they emerge in and from practices.”
With this foundation in place, it’s easy to see how the rest of the work will unfold.
Pedagogically, Smith argues that because our habits are formed by practices, to understand the world we have to examine the liturgies—both secular and religious—that make it. Smith distinguishes between thick and thin practices by arguing that thin practices are generally done for the sake of some other end (like brushing one’s teeth), while thick habits “play a significant role in shaping our identity.” Such identity shaping habits may or may not be institutionally religious.
Smith is conscious of the slippery nature of the distinction, but proceeds with it anyway to point out that what we might think are thin practices (such as shopping at the mall) can be thick practices insofar as they grab hold of our loves. Smith’s argument implies that there are no neutral habits or practices, as thin practices either serve the purposes of thick, identity-forming practices, or they are themselves identity-forming. Writes Smith:
In other words, recognizing that there are no neutral practices…should push us to realize that perhaps some of the habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular vision for the good life.
The thickest of these practices, Smith argues, are ‘liturgies,’ which he describes this way: “I want to distinguish liturgies as rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations.” These thickest practices, which may or may not be institutionally religious, have a “liturgical function insofar as they are a certain species of ritual practice that aim to do nothing less than shape our identity by shaping our desire for what we envision as the kingdom.”
Smith then examines a number of secular liturgies, including the secular university, before turning to the practices of Christian worship. Throughout, his focus is on the practices and what they do. He argues here that worship precedes worldview, and that insofar as it is formative, it is educational. He writes,
Emphasizing the primacy of worship practices to worldview formation both honors the fact that all humans are desiring animals while at the same time making sense of how Christian worship is developmentally significant for those who can participate in rituals but are unable to participate in theoretical reflection.
For Smith, specifically Christian worship practices depend upon what he calls the “sacramental imagination.” Christian worship is inevitably embodied, which is affirmed in the practices of worship prior to our cognitive affirmation of the goodness of creation. Smith’s careful explication of practices of Christian worship is worth the price of the book alone.
In the final chapter, Smith examines the university and its relationship to the church within the context of the anthropology he set forth in the first chapters. Specifically, he critiques Christian higher education with being too interested in information rather than formation. He writes:
Thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they see themselves as fostering individual “minds in the making.” Hand in hand with that, such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectualized rendition of the faith doesn’t touch our core passions. This is because such intellectualization of Christianity allows it to be unhooked from the thick practices of the church. When the Christianity of “Christian education” is reduced to the intellectual elements of a Christian worldview or a Christian perspective, the result is that Christianity is turned “into a belief system available to the individual without mediation by a church.”
In short, Smith wants to do away with the “Christian college” and promote the “ecclesial college” or university. If it is to be meaningfully Christian, it must be connected to the liturgical practices of the faith. Smith provides a few examples for what this might look like in the context of a college setting, but is conscious of the limitations of these positive proposals. This section functions (like Spears and Loomis’ work) as prolegomena for future work.
This is a much more extended summation than I was planning on giving, which is a credit to the rich density of Smith’s book. It is carefully argued, and well researched, and while I hope I have faithfully expounded it, Desiring the Kingdom really must be read to be properly appreciated.
That said, I will register a few reservations with it:
First, Smith’s approach makes me wonder what role he thinks Scripture plays in Christian practices and understanding. For instance, Smith writes:
The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship are not the “expression of” a Christian worldview, but are themselves an “understanding” implicit in practice—an understanding that cannot be had apart from the practices. It’s not that we start with beliefs and doctrine and then come up with worship practices that properly “express” these (cognitive) beliefs; rather, we begin with worship and articulated beliefs bubble up from there. “Doctrines” are the cognitive, theoretical articulation of what we “understand” when we pray.
The absence of Scripture here is striking. Smith contends elsewhere that to discern the “essence of Christianity” we should focus on what Christians do, rather than “texts, doctrines, and theological articulations of theologians.”
But elsewhere, Smith contends Scripture is the “constitution” of the church, in the sense that it is her “formal cause” that “constitutes the ‘way of life’” of her members. Scripture “shows us the kind of people we’re called to be.” Smith’s use of the “formal cause” is drawn straight from Aristotle, but it strikes me that for Aristotle, the ‘formal cause’ is that which identifies the essence of a thing—which directly goes against Smith’s own statement that to find the essence of Christianity, we ought look at the practices of the Church, and not the texts.
I sincerely hope I am not quibbling here, and I suspect that Smith has a clarification at hand that would set my mind at ease. But my worry is that his emphasis on the practices of the church have obscured Scripture’s status as normative basis for the church.
I take it that his use of Scripture as the “constitution” of the church is designed to supercede precisely this worry. But his emphasis on what Scripture does in the context of worship minimizes (I think) what Scripture is prior to worship. If the text is the constitution, then it governs our faith and our practices, which it seems Smith agrees with. But then I wonder why we point to the practices—which may be imperfectly performed, and are performed by imperfect people—rather than the constitution.
This worry is not even an objection, so much as a request for further clarification.
Second, I worry that the slippery nature and the ambiguity of what counts as a “liturgy” allows us to see “liturgies” wherever people engage in practices that we disagree with. Smith critiques patriotism and consumer capitalism rather strongly as secular liturgies, but he could have just as easily critiqued WTO protests or Whole Foods shopping trips (which are, to be clear, generally but unfairly associated with more “liberal” positions). My point is simply that in the absence of clearer criteria, it is easy to deploy liturgical analyses to deconstruct the practices and ideas of those who believe in ideas that we disagree with. That doesn’t have to be the case, and I don’t think that Smith has done so. But a clear criteria helps us avoid confirmation bias, which is the practice of selectively seeing what we want to see. I’m not sure Smith has provided a robust enough criteria to avoid this.
Third, I wonder about Smith’s critical characterization of the intellectualist approach of Christian higher education. While I suspect my own alma mater, Biola, would be a target of his criticism, I also think they might have more in common with Smith than he might want to grant.
After all, in my experience Biola actualizes an embodied learning environment of the sort that he describes in the final chapter better than any university I know of, despite its commitment to worldview and integration thinking. His proposals for how an ecclesial college might look were surprisingly familiar, given that I had seen nearly all of them pursed during my time at Biola.
What’s more, Biola is institutionally committed to the idea that humans are fundamentally desiring creatures, and that the “Christian worldview” is not sufficiently “Christian knowledge,” as evidenced by the overt and conscious appeals and counsel for students to engage in regular church life and pursue ministry outside the university setting.
But this leads me to the heart of my criticism: it is not clear to me why all Christian education has to be formation in the way that the liturgical practices of the Church are formation. Smith’s critique of the intellectualizing of the faith that is inherent to contemporary forms of the Christian university seems to implicitly depend upon the notion that the Christian university is the totality of Christian education, and views itself as such. Smith writes:
Such a transformation of the Christian faith into a belief system unhooks Christianity from the practices of Christian worship, and thus keeps its distance from the radical revisioning of society that is implicit in Christian liturgy.
That is true. It might. But this is more caution than outright criticism. Such a university must be limited in its aspirations, self-conscious in its subordination to the Church and the formation that happens there, and push its members outside its own walls into both society and full communion of the people of God.
But a Christian university can do that by properly situating the cognitive aspects of the faith even while its distinct mission within the church focuses on those cognitive aspects. Smith’s critique only stands if the university is a totalizing institution, but I suspect no Christian university thinks it is the only or even primary means of Christian formation. But if this is right, then Smith’s critique only works against those universities that conceive of themselves in this totalizing way.
The university, then, as a chapel could be a cognitivately oriented chapel. That is, it’s specific role in Christian formation could be the formation of the mind, which does not necessarily preclude or even take priority over other means of formation. That is, I think, the Christian university historically conceived, as it is an institution specifically ordered to the acquisition of truth.
However, that this does not mean I am rejecting Smith’s anthropological formulation. Humans are fundamentally desiring creatures, a notion which even Plato agreed with and which Christians have repeatedly affirmed. And I still may yet agree with his notion of the university, as there is much that is attractive about it. The worries I have presented here are not defeaters as much as they are prompts for additional clarification and (in the last case) perhaps some additional argumentation.
I am still attempting to work through Smith’s proposals, which is perhaps the highest praise I can give it. It is a challenging work that is very well-argued, and that I continue to return to it in my thoughts is a credit to the forcefulness and persuasiveness of Smith’s ideas. Desiring the Kingdom is an important book, and I have no doubt evangelicals will continue to wrestle with it for many years to come.
Disclosure/Thanks: I am grateful to Baker Books for providing a review copy of this book, and grateful to Professor Smith for his feedback on a previous draft of this review.
Matthew Lee Anderson writes at Mere Orthodoxy and is the author of Earthen Vessels: Breathing New Life into a Broken Faith. You can follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.