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Cultural Liturgies, Vol. 1–3
by james k. a. smith
baker academic, 720 pages, $69.99

The Christian faith does not terminate in propositions about God. This conviction comes through loud and clear in James K. A. Smith’s recently completed three-volume work, Cultural Liturgies. Smith’s trilogy may be read as a friendly yet firm word of ­caution to his Reformed coreligionists, especially his fellow ­neocalvinists. He wants them to recall that the intellect is not everything and that by intellectualizing the faith, they inadvertently court the danger of ­secularism.

Each title makes clear what Smith is after: Desiring the Kingdom encourages Christians to turn from the intellectual to the affective. Imagining the Kingdom maintains that it is not the intellect but the imagination (linked to the body and habits) that is primary. And Awaiting the King argues that Christians shouldn’t be content with expressing their opinions, but are also called to act in ways that leaven the common life of their communities.

Neocalvinism is a strand of Reformed Christianity with roots in the thought of Dutch writer and politician Abraham Kuyper. It stresses the sovereignty of Christ over all things and rejects the idea of religiously neutral reasoning. For neocalvinists, all of reality must be understood according to “the Christian worldview.” Smith cautions against that idea, in part because it can render the Christian faith an ­abstraction. He insists that we need to combine the intellectual, bodily, and affective, rather than seeing faith as a mere matter of right belief. “By ­emphasizing that worship is ­material and visceral, on the order of the imagination, I don’t mean to suggest that it is somehow incommensurate with assertions or propositions,” he writes. “By emphasizing the priority of the affective, I’m not rejecting the cognitive.”

Smith is right to criticize the concept of a “Christian worldview.” But the problem, as I see it, is not so much the idea’s disguised rationalism as its tendency to stress the historical and horizontal over the vertical. It emphasizes the transformation of this world through action over prayer, worship, and contemplation. For this reason, secularism is an ever-present threat in the neocalvinist tradition. And, though Smith does not touch on this point, we may want to ask: Why do we need worldview studies at all, when we have theology? Theology, as queen of the sciences, already reflects upon our deepest, often subconscious ­convictions. When neocalvinists introduce worldview studies, they typically undermine theology by treating it as one ­academic ­speciality among many, while worldview ­studies usurps the foundational place that the queen once occupied.

Smith’s sympathetic yet critical approach to neocalvinist intellectualism comes to the fore also in his treatment of public ­theology. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology is, to my mind, the best of the three volumes. In this final volume, Smith rejects intellectualism at the level of political theory. He cautions against political liberalism, with its treatment of the political as a “space” in which various ideas compete at the level of argument. As Smith sees it, such intellectualism leaves no room for the pursuit of common goods:

If we are merely thinking things, or consuming animals, then our autonomy and independence are prior to any “we,” in which case the social will be a kind of grand fiction and noble lie, a derivative, secondary, “unnatural” invention. Instead of laboring in solidarity, moving in common toward a shared telos, we relate only as competitors.

According to Smith, we hamper the common good when we merely look to express our views in public; what is needed is a public “social imaginary” (Charles Taylor) shaped through liturgical practices.

Smith is not satisfied with ­Richard Mouw and Sander ­Griffioen’s “directional pluralism,” nor with Jonathan Chaplin’s “principled pluralism.” Smith suggests that when faced with competing ideological directions, we cannot avoid the ­question of which perspective should provide the integrating vision. He thus worries about the tacit ­acceptance of “macroliberalism, a feigned ­neutrality at a group level that ends up with a kind of ‘live and let live’ stance that is itself a ‘directional’ vision.” Even Chaplin’s nuanced “principled pluralism,” though it steers clear both of a neutral state and an affirmation of plurality as the desired end, treats the state as impartial and neutral. ­According to Smith, such an approach falls into the trap of “macroliberalism” or of a merely “procedural republic.”

Smith takes a positive view of Christendom and of Constan­tinianism, speaking of Christendom as a “missional endeavor,” which was justified in its attempts to bend policies and public rituals toward rightly ordered love. Liberal democracy and Christian discipleship have mutually exclusive ends, insists Smith: It is not democracy but our religious, ecclesial identity that should guide our political engagement. Drawing extensively on ­Oliver O’Donovan, Smith praises liberal democracy only to the extent that it continues to incorporate borrowed elements of Christendom.

A central claim of the trilogy is that the formation we gain through both education and worship aims at action. As Smith puts it: “If the end of worship is mission—if we gather to be sent—then Christian missional institutions (churches, schools, colleges, and universities) need to form ­actors.” Church and school both aim to shape people’s character, so that their actions may witness to the kingdom of God. For Smith, therefore, church and school have the same telos. Both are caught up in the missio Dei, and both culminate in sending.

I have my doubts about the repeated suggestion that church and school have the same end of mission or action. Students and worshipers do share the final goal of union with God, the beatific vision—but church and school play distinct roles in the process. Neither has character formation as its most direct aim.

The church’s aim is primarily contemplative in character: It is God himself. The church’s liturgy joins heavenly worship, and there can be no higher end than that. In the life of action that follows worship, we share with others the fruits of contemplation—a priestly function of leading other human beings (and all of creation) to the same heavenly worship. In the ­eschaton, the only thing left is heavenly ­worship or contemplation—the life of action will have ended altogether. (I will here resist the temptation to polemicize against neocalvinism, but one of its shortcomings, surely, is its focus on this-worldly action rather than on worship of God in the ­hereafter.) Habitual worship forms our ­character and fits us for heaven: We desire to become better worshipers.

Education plays a different role. It, too, aims at the beatific vision, but whereas liturgical worship falls under the vita contemplativa, education is part of the vita activa. Teaching approaches the beatific vision more indirectly than does liturgical worship, and its proximate goals are more practical. To be sure, like worship, education is about formation, but here it is the content of the liberal arts that sets our students on fire and shapes their characters (along with the inspiring model that the character of the instructor ­provides). In his second volume, Smith responds to critics who have charged him with ­anti-intellectualism. He reassures the reader that he is not arguing that we should raze the physics lab and expand the chapel instead. The issue, he explains, is whether ­education is “just trafficking in ideas.” We should focus on formation, since the end of ­education is Christian action.

It seems to me, however, that education is primarily about ideas. These, in turn, lead to formation and to action, which are oriented toward contemplation of the ­beatific vision. Put differently, moral formation is less the immediate focus of the ­lesson plan than it is the consequence of solid teaching and intellectual rigor. For when moral formation, rather than the liberal arts curriculum, takes center stage in teaching, it can easily devolve into insipid social engineering of students’ desires. If the human will is meant to align itself with the truth, then a vision of the good—­ultimately, God himself—must direct and form our students’ desires. Church and school, then, are both about formation, but neither has this as its primary aim.

Smith’s polemic against intellectualism is in many ways salubrious. Propositions or ideas can never take the place of God. He is right to highlight the role of the affections—particularly desire—in our life with God. But the passions require steering, and only a mind transfigured by the vision of God can direct them properly. In the absence of intellectual conversion, the will loses its orientation, and desire becomes unhinged. The Christian faith subjects our desires to God, who is truth. Faith does not terminate in propositions. Neither, however, does it terminate in action. Faith terminates in the contemplation of God.

A focus on contemplation accentuates the most attractive aspect of Smith’s project, namely, his Augustinian sacramental vision. Smith advocates a sacramental understanding of the world, which implies a rejection of both naturalism and supernaturalism. He understands ecclesial sacraments as “particular intensifications of a general sacramental presence of God in and with his creation” and calls for a participatory ontology that “both affirms the goodness of ­materiality but also that the material is only insofar as it participates in more than the material.”

Smith longs not just for outward habits or formation but for God. One can only affirm this theo­centric desire. Several times, Smith makes this explicit: “The point of worship is not formation; rather, formation is an overflow effect of our ­encounter with the Redeemer in praise and prayer, adoration and communion.” Worship, suggests Smith, is not instrumental. Worship aims at God. Our intellectual and moral ­formation must conform us more fully to the character of God so as to be fitted for eternal heavenly worship.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.