Desiring the Kingdom – Part 3
A couple of weeks ago Rev. Donnie McDaniel provided us with an overview of the first part of James K.A. Smith’s book “Desiring the Kingdom.” In the early chapters of his book, Smith sets out to present his view of human beings as lovers against what he perceives is the dominate view in western education- that people are essentially “thinking creatures.” Smith argues that formation is not simply instilling proper knowledge or beliefs, but shaping one’s desires. In terms of Christian formation this means that disciples of Christ are people whom “desire the kingdom.” People are formed mainly by the things they do: the habits and practices instill a particular vision of the “good life.” This means that formation is something that can happen anywhere. Because discipleship shapes our desires, we are constantly shaped by the “cultural liturgies” the surround us. Smith takes us to the mall, or the football game, or fraternity rush week to show us that religion is not something that takes place only with the walls of the church.
In part 2, Smith begins to discuss the implications of the anthropology that he describes at the beginning of the book. Remember by “anthropology,” he means our view of what a human person is. People are first and foremost lovers shaped by habits and practices that form and inform a vision of what it means to live well. In chapter 4, Smith refines his argument that Christians need to think of their faith as fundamentally “worship” rather than “worldview.” We as western Christians take much stock in attaining the correct cognitive information. Lots of time is spent in Sunday school, sermons, Christian colleges, and seminaries presenting Christianity as a set of beliefs: the creeds, systematic theology, or some essentials derived from proper interpretation of scripture. Smith argues that this way of looking at things is misguided. Christians worshiped Jesus before they got into the business of “theorizing about it.” By this statement, he does not mean that we as Christians don’t believe some things, ultimately we must. He uses one of his best illustrations in the book to make this point, Smith compares Christian doctrine without worship to reading a script of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you have ever read a script to play for English class in school, you know that it leaves a lot to be desired. The play is not meant to be read, but to be performed. So Christian doctrine is necessary, but can only be intelligible in the context of worship.
Chapter five discusses the various practices of the church, and how they are counter cultural and form disciples. Smith points out liturgical practices that the church has passed down such as: the observance of the church calender, laws, baptism, confession, and the Eucharist. The reader is invited to look at Christian liturgy through the eyes of a “Martian anthropologist” – to look at Christian worshipers and ask the question “what do these people love? ” and “what sort of Kingdom do they desire?” Throughout this chapter, Smith attempts to “naturalize” Christian worship and make it more earthy in order to show that worship is not an otherworldly action of private devotion. The liturgical calender forces Christians to relate to time in a different way than the dominate culture and things like singing, taking bread and wine, and baptism are very physical actions that involve our full bodies. By naturalizing Christian worship, Smith clarifies how cultural practices are really “secular liturgies” and that the secular and the religious are not easily separated. So, worship is also training in living differently in the world. He states, “we are so prone to think of this (worship) as just a ‘religious’ exercise or something we do in connection with our ‘personal salvation,’ we can miss the fact that Christian worship has much broader application and aspiration…Implicit in Christian worship is a vision not just for spiritual flourishing but also for human flourishing; this is not just practice for eternal bliss; it is training for temporal, embodied human community” (174).
In the final chapter of the book, Smith discusses some of the implications of his arguments for Christian education and specifically Christian universities. He asks, if the goal of Christian education is formation or discipleship which is something that happens primarily through worship, where does that leave institutions of Christian education that predominantly are adapted from the methods and purposes of secular institutions? By the term “purposes” he means that universities exist and promote themselves as training their students to be able to fulfill certain tasks in preparation for a career that will make them “successful” and increase their earning potential. If Christian education exists not only to train the workforce, but is for the purpose of forming disciples, how should Christian education incorporate different practices. Here he begins and simply offers a few possible options.
I really recommend Smith’s book. It is extremely well written and readable. Although there is a lot of modern social philosophy backing up his arguments, Smith makes his points accessible with references from pop culture and literary classics. He also engages the issues with a good sense of humor. The book forces us to ask some crucial questions of ourselves concerning our walk with Christ. For me questions arose such as: Do my beliefs line up with my “vision of the good life”? While I cognitively believe that Christianity is true, our goals and desires formed by Christ’s death and resurrection as described throughout the Old and New Testaments? There are a few of other books that go discuss further some of the ideas that Smith presents in his book. One great one is a book by N. T. Wright After You Believe in which he discusses a New Testament account of Christian virtue. For those that don’t want to read the book you can check out this lecture he gave on the topic at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. For those interested in going a bit deeper into some of the philosophical issues that Smith raises, Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.
Questions to think about –
1. How does Smith’s argument about the importance of liturgy in Christian formation cause us to think about the distinction between proper belief and proper actions?
2. Is Smith correct that discipleship begins with worship before it can be articulated as a system of beliefs? As Christians how does the authority of the Bible relate to our worship and practices? Is the Bible information to apply to our lives or is it better seen as vision of who God is and our place in world that informs how we are to live in the world?
3. If you recently have adopted liturgical practices such as following the church calender or regularly partaking of the Eucharist, how has this changed they way that your view your faith and how you look you place as a Christian in the world?
Next week I’ll post some of my thoughts about these questions.