James K. A. Smith: “Desiring the Kingdom”

PrintI had a book recommended to me recently that I found interesting. It is James K. A. Smith’s book “Desiring the Kingdom.” Smith teaches Philosophy at Calvin College, and while I haven’t read the book all the way through, I have perused it and looked into Smith by reading some online articles and listening to some interviews with him.

Smith is arguing in this book out of a couple of key convictions. In no particular order, here are a few of them. First, postmodernism isn’t all bad. Now that it probably enough to scare away some of you. And that is not all bad since postmodernism is certainly opposed to many of the foundational elements of our faith. But what Smith appreciates about postmodernism is that it shows up the flaws of modernism. Smith says that conservative Christians have drunk the cool-aid of modernism, especially with reference to seeing man as primarily a “thinking thing.” He says that ever since Descartes formulated his famous “I think therefore I am,” the western world, especially as it found expression in the Enlightenment, has conceived of man primarily as a thinker.

In contrast to that, Smith wants to go back to Augustine in terms of a conception of man that envisions man primarily as a “loving thing.” According to Smith, man is a loving thing before he is a thinking thing. Unfortunately, Smith says, We have imbibed modernism in order to beat them at their own game. When Enlightenment Europeans gave rational reasons for why they rejected orthodox Christianity, Christians began give rational reasons for the faith. This began to lead us to express a modernist version of Christianity. Smith says this approach is flawed because man is not primarily a thinker.

A second key principle that Smith argues out of is the importance of the “bodily,” for lack of a better term. While I don’t totally understand this aspect of his thinking yet, Smith says that man’s loves are shaped by the bodily. For him, this means returning to the liturgical traditions of the church. He believes that the historic liturgies of the church are a way to regularly train our affections and loves for the kingdom of God.

This leads to a third key principle in his thought and another quarrel that he has with modernism, namely, the sacred/secular dichotomy. Smith says that we should reject this dichotomy because all of life is spiritual. In fact, he believes that the world also trains our loves by means of liturgies. He believes that experiences like going to the mall and singing the national anthem at sports events are liturgies that catch us up in a story and try to “sell” us on that story. The mall, with all of its sensory experiences, in reality is saying that “the good life” for which we exist is to be found in consuming. The young man that joins the military for patriotic reasons is not necessarily starting by reasoning through the decision. Rather, he is first caught up in this story that has been reinforced since the first time his dad told him to take his hat off when the national anthem started playing.

In light of this, the gathering of the church is to be a place where the true story is told in such a way that it sets right in our hearts what has been distorted and counter-forms us so that we desire the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of this world with its multitude of competing idols. In Smith’s view, the church does this through its liturgies and not just by giving information. He says that what is needed to counter-form us is not just a shaping of the intellect (although that may be part of it), but rather a shaping of our loves that is inculcated in part by the physical aspects of the church’s liturgies.

For example, he says that we try to help our people understand that they should resist temptations by giving reasons and loading up their intellect so that when temptation comes, they will be fully armed with reasons that their intellect will be able to supply for why they should not engage in sexual immorality. The problem he sees is that (especially) sexual temptation doesn’t primarily strike the intellect and give rational reasons. He says that we should be appealing to the heart rather than the intellect.

That is his argument as I see it. I have probably over-simplified it a little bit. I had hoped to wade through his book in a little more depth this summer, but I can see that this is just not going to happen. Right now, I just want to post a couple of thoughts, and link to some resources in order to place a mental “sticky note” on the subject so that I might be able to come back to it in the future.

First, I really appreciate his emphasis on the fact that we are not first thinkers, but lovers. I am often so overly oriented to the intellectual that, even if in the end I reject most of his ideas, I will still have benefited from the reminder that the heart is the key to life (Prov. 4:23). Furthermore, while I have had great experiences with but my undergrad and seminary education, I have really struggled with the fact that preparation for ministry is first and foremost academic. While I totally agree that there is a knowledge component to the Christian life, I think I have to agree that it may have gotten out of proportion in terms of its overall importance in evangelical churches.

In addition, I am attracted initially to his claims because in my own Christian life I have felt that my own approach has been too cerebral. When I am aware that I need to love God more, my first instinct is to try to think about Him more. It is almost as if I think that if I squeeze with my brain really hard, love will come out. I think this approach might be a little off center. While it is most certainly true that it is crucial to meditate on Scripture and on the lord’s goodness to us, somehow that right thing has been reduced to “thinking harder produces more love” in my mind. I think what Smith would say is that my approach has been aimed about six inches too high, and that I am somehow missing the heart in all of this.

In addition, I value his emphasis on the bodily. In addition to an over emphasis on the intellectual in my life, I often find an under emphasis on the body that I think is part of our modern evangelical heritage that I would like to change (at least in my life). For example, we all know that God doesn’t hear our prayer because we kneel, and that he hears our prayer when we just pray mentally. And yet it is hard to miss the evidently bodily way that God’s people pray in the Bible by falling on their faces or kneeling or fasting. Similarly, while we know that people in the Bible practiced the “laying on of hands” in various circumstances, I don’t feel that I have been quite as enthusiastic about it in my own practice, and I have probably missed out on something important about that.

And what about the ordinances/sacraments? I am not a Catholic, so I don’t think that they have some kind of inherent power in themselves, and yet I feel like we often take this to mean that they don’t do anything except remind us (a mental action) of what Jesus did for us. But I have been coming to realize lately that there is divine design in the fact that we are supposed to see and to touch and to taste the elements of the Lord’s Supper. While I haven’t worked through it enough to give any kind of clear or definite statement, I think maybe there is some way in which, in the Lord’s supper, we somehow really participate in the gospel when we participate in the symbols (although not in a “real presence” sort of way).

I also appreciate his emphasis on the way the world works to form us. I think he might be on to something in viewing the rituals of our culture as “liturgies,” and I think that he is right that we are kidding ourselves if we think there is an aspect of life that is non-religious. Our culture loves this kind of talk because it gives them a way to get us to put our faith in a box and impose their “non-religious,” “tolerant” faith as the dominant paradigm.

Those are some things I appreciate about Smith’s argument. One area that I have some reservation about is the philosophical nature of his thought. For one thing, I am not a philosophy major, so I am relatively ignorant of many of the issues involved. I would have to run it past some people who are more philosophically inclined to see if there is anything in there that might be problematic in terms of our faith.

In addition, I know that Smith shares some affinities with a group of philosophical theologians that promote what is called “Radical Orthodoxy” (not to be confused with Neo-orthodoxy). This group of philosophers shares many of Smith’s foundational principles (you can find some more information here). There are also some people in that group that I think (from what little research I have done) I would have problems with on a theological level. I am just too ignorant of the issues involved to determine if the problems are endemic to “Radical Orthodoxy” or just incidental in some particular advocates.

So that is my evaluation off the top of my head. There are some helpful corrections to be found in Smith, but maybe some things that need to be teased out in order to evaluate well their helpfulness for the Christian life. If you find this intriguing, you can check out the online resources listed below. And feel free to let me know what you think. I still have this on my list of issues to work through.

“Desiring the Kingdom” Book

A Summary of the Book

A Review of the Book

An Audio Lecture by Smith

A Miscellaneous Article by Smith

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