Friday, January 19, 2018

Reflections on Desiring the Kingdom

Given that James K.A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom was released in 2009 - and given that it has since received two sequels, which I've not read - it hardly seems needed or appropriate for me to offer any sort of Jonny-come-lately review.  So this isn't that.  It's just some reflections on the book and the way it's disappointed me.  Because I really thought I'd like it, and I really didn't.

The book is subtitled Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.  I think it has two main points, with one larger analysis sitting behind them.  The first main point is that many of the cultural activities in which we are encouraged to engage day by day are in fact deeply liturgical.  Smith gives an amusing look at a shopping centre (a 'mall', if you will) through the eyes of a Martian anthropologist (19f).  The conclusion is that the shopping centre is set up as a place of worship, designed to appeal to the deep desires of our hearts.  Smith considers the advertisers, who rather than trying to sell a particular product are trying to sell a whole life style (102ff.), indeed a life.  And the point is that these 'liturgies' of commerce are formative.  They subtly cause us to adopt particular patterns of thought and behaviour when it comes to satisfying those desires - and these go unnoticed, because they don't appeal to our conscious, critical minds.  We are gradually programmed to imagine that consumption is the way to satisfy our deepest desires.

The second main point is that Christian liturgy is also in the business of cultural formation.  The Martian anthropologist goes to church (155ff.) and sees people being inculturated into a different way of seeing the world - a different social imaginary.  More on this in a moment, but just note that the really useful thing about this analysis is that by telling us that things we typically think of as cultural are actually liturgical, Smith causes us to look differently and more critically at those activities; and the same is true in reverse - we look more carefully at the Christian liturgy when we are thinking of the church as a place of cultural formation.

The larger analysis sitting behind the two main points is a whole way of looking at humanity, an alternative anthropology.  Smith contends that by adopting whole-sale the 'worldview' way of interacting with the world, we in the church have also swallowed an unbiblical anthropology, thinking of people primarily in terms of their ideas or beliefs.  Smith contends that it would be better to think of "the human person as lover" (39), as "homo liturgicus".  Desire is primary.  It is not that there is no place for worldview talk, or discussion of ideas and beliefs; it is just that so much of what we think and do, and who we are, is shaped by non-cognitive forces.  Habits, enshrined in and enforced by liturgies and rituals, are key.  Physicality matters; in fact, repeated physical actions and reactions have a profound effect on how we approach or imagine (Smith uses 'intend', borrowing helpfully from 20th century continental philosophy) the world.

So, what's not to like?  Emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence?  Good!  Critique of the formative aspects of cultural engagement which often slip under our radars?  Good!  Encouragement to think of the ways in which the church's liturgy helps to counter-form us in a different culture?  Great!

But two particular points in the analysis jarred with me.  Here is the first: Smith suggests that sacraments (which, of course, sit well with his thesis) "are particular intensifications of a general sacramental presence of God in and with his creation" (141).  This cannot be right (and I am inclined to think that his reference to "the doctrine police" worrying about it [147] is a snide way of trying to head off the criticism).  Think about what it would mean for the Incarnation - was it just a particular intensification of a general presence of God in humanity?  Absolutely not!  The Incarnation represents the contradiction of all the possibilities inherent in human nature.  The entry of Christ is a new thing.  The gospel is News with a capital N.

And here's the second: Smith asserts the "priority of liturgy to doctrine" (138).  Doctrines, he thinks, emerge from reflection on the practice of liturgy, not vice versa.  "Christians worship[ped] before they got around to abstract theologizing or formulating a Christian worldview" (139).  Note the poisonous use of 'abstract' here!  What about concrete theologizing?  Did Christians start to worship Christ, for example, and then on reflecting on the practice decide that he must be in some way divine?  Absolutely not!  Again, what is lacking here is the news, the gospel.  It is not just that Christians found themselves adopting certain liturgical practices and worked backwards to what God must be like.  They received news of what God was like and what he has done, and that news evoked their liturgical response.

So here's the thing: I think for Smith the God-stuff, the Christian-stuff, is just there, and all we need to do is inhabit it.  We just need to be formed by the liturgy into this always-present awareness of God and his works and ways.  What I want to know is: where is revelation here?  Where is the good news as news?  Christian worship will always revolve around the cognitive and not merely the affective, because it is through our brains that we receive and process news.  And isn't that a more biblical way of thinking about (trans)formation?  Don't the apostles encourage us to think that the shaping of our moral character will come through the renewal of our minds?  Don't they proclaim our new identity in Christ as something that must first be thought and then enacted?


  1. From memory - doesn't he give place to credal affirmation, bible readings and preaching in his analysis of Christian liturgy?

    1. Yes, absolutely - and he's clear that he's not doing away with the cognitive aspects of Christianity. But "the point is to situate the cognitive, propositional aspects of Christian faith: they emerge in and from practices" (192, in his discussion of the Creed). I think that's backwards. Similarly, in his discussion of Scripture reading and sermon, they provide the "script of the worshiping community" (195), i.e. they perform a role in the formative work of the liturgy, "the story as a moral or ethical compass" (196) - but as eschatological proclamation? As good news breaking in? I don't see him talking about that, and I don't see how he could given his presuppositions...

    2. like this, Dan.

      is there nothing new under the sun?
      (asked the tired teacher, the son of david, the king in jerusalem, ahem)

      disenchantment answers no...
      I am weary and worn out (Proverbs 30) there is a time to live, a time to die (eccl 3), but living every day under wrath, all our days are numbered. a man may live to sixty, seventy - By strength of life maybe even eighty...we end our days with a sigh (Psalm 90)

      the surprise of the gospel is... yes. the resurrection is profoundly new. the word of God, mercy, is always new. see I am making all things new

      for my money, the hint is actually buried in the irony of all those passages. e.g that Psalm 90 was written by Moses, which makes it really rather funny. There he is, I imagine he wrote that psalm somewhere in the wilderness, between 40 and 80, but even if it was when he was headstrong and virile, it was certainly before he was 80. Then just when it's all over ... wait, who lit that bush fire? I'd better go put it out? ... wait, holy cow, who said that? haha. "watch and learn".

    3. Right - and to be honest, this matches my own experience: the good news which I've heard thousands of times strikes me again and again as if it were completely fresh to me. I think that's because actually no amount of cultural formation can make resurrection a normal part of my thinking/living in this fallen world and in my fallen flesh!

      I bet Moses regretted that holy cow comment later, when he was coming down Sinai with stone tablets tucked under one arm...

  2. Sounds like John Milbank's peculiar brand of Thomism is a heavy influence on this - I know that Smith has written an introduction on Radical Orthodoxy. The pros and cons you outline appreciate and critique that stream of thought nicely... at the end of the day, it does seem to me that Milbank's theology is almost entirely shaped by his personal aesthetic and nostalgic preferences - in his 'Critical Postmodern Augustinianism' essay I think he does define knowledge - maybe even the being(!) - of God as liturgical activity if memory serves.