My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.
What do you want? This is the fundamental question of Christian discipleship. Christ asks two future disciples quite pointedly in the Gospel of John, and asks it indirectly in a number of places: “Will you come and follow me?” and “Do you love me?” As James K. A. Smith points out in his new book, You Are What You Love, it’s significant that Christ doesn’t ask his disciples—or you or me—“What do you know?” or “What do you believe?” He asks what we want because our desires, our wants that reverberate from our hearts, are at the core of our identity. To be a disciple, then, is to align—or to realign, as the case may be—our loves with his, to want what God wants. To desire, in short, “the kingdom of God.”
Of course, believing in Christ is meant to transform our minds. But we must be aware that human beings are not only, or even fundamentally, thinking things. Our learning is not just a matter of depositing idea and beliefs into our minds. We can’t, in other words, think our way into holiness. Look at Paul’s remarkable prayer for the Christians at Philippi:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9-11).
Upon first glance, it may seem that Paul is primarily concerned with knowledge here. But in fact it is the inverse: Paul is praying that their love might abound because, in some sense, love is the condition for knowledge. So, as Smith points out, it’s not I know in order to love, but rather that I love in order to know.
And so if we are to get anywhere in the Christian life, we must attend to our loves. What if we are defined not by what we know but by what we desire? Christ must take captive not only of our minds but also what Paul calls our splagchna, our “inner parts” that are the seat of our “affections.” But love—Christian love—is a habit, a virtue that is learned by repetition.
And so, what does this tell us about Christian discipleship? It means that discipleship is more a matter of reformation than it is about acquiring information. The learning that is fundamental to Christian formation, says Smith, is affective, a matter of properly “aiming” our loves so that they align with God’s. In a sense, saying “you are what you love” means “you are what you worship.” To be human is to be a liturgical animal.
But of course, there are many “rival” liturgies out there in the prevalent culture vying for our attention. How should we read such secular liturgies? And how can properly align ourselves, and our children, in contrast to such liturgies? What role does imagination play in such cultivation and reorientation of loves?
James K. A. Smith will elaborate on just these questions when he comes to our office this coming Thursday, April 7, to discuss his book. (Find out more here). We hope to see you there, and we look forward to hearing your questions.
Bianca Czaderna is assistant editor at First Things.