Book Notice: James K A Smith

I’m just now getting to a 2009 Baker title that I’d been neglecting: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by the Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova). It’s the first of a projected three volume series in “Cultural Liturgies.” The second volume is also already available — Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker, 2013) — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first volume offers enough material to occupy our attention for the present moment. To give you a sense for its flavor and aims, here’s a longish quote from the introduction:

“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly — who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship — through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.

“The liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God’s healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ’s two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray. That’s the kind of animals we are, first and foremost: loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don’t inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines. […]

“This, I’m going to argue, should make a difference for how we think about the nature and task of Christian education — and thus what’s at stake at a Christian college. … In short, the Christian college is a formative institution that constitutes part of the teaching mission of the church.

“This vision of the mission of Christian education requires a correlate pedagogy that honors the formative role of material practices. Thus, … education at Christian colleges must be understood as liturgical in more than an analogical or metaphorical sense. Or perhaps to put it more starkly, … we need to move from the model of ‘Christian universities,’ identified as sites for transmitting Christian ideas, to ‘ecclesial colleges,’ understood to be institutions intimately linked to the church and thus an extension of its practices. If Christian learning is nourished by a Christian worldview, and if that worldview is first and foremost embedded in the understanding that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship, then the Christian college classroom is parasitic upon the worship of the church — it lives off the capital of Christian worship.” (32-4)

Not at all a bad start! My first impressions have been largely affirmative. I’ve got quite a bit of patience for a project like this. So far I’m liking these dimensions in particular: (1) its impatience with tired rationalist accounts of human nature; (2) its counter-anthropology that promotes instead human agency — brought to view in the objects and quality of our loves — as the saner entry point for thinking the human animal; and finally (3) its eye for the implications this whole discussion bears for Christian tertiary education (and, arguably, the Church’s catechesis and evangelism, though Smith doesn’t press this). The textbooks would call this a work in philosophical anthropology. Whatever the label, I’m looking forward to reading what else Smith has to say.

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