Saturday, January 14, 2012

Desiring the Kingdom by James K. Smith

The Reader’s Mood: Pseudo-Professor.
The Environment: This is a good Saturday morning book if I’ve ever experienced one. Sit down next to your kindred thinker; the latter must be prepared beforehand for numerous interruptions in his/her book while you read some thought-provoking quotations. Make sure to come prepared with writing utensil in hand.
The Beverage: French Roast.
The Music: Mumford & Sons (for their eschatological vision, i.e.“there will come a day, you’ll see, with no more tears and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears”) but mix in a little Bach for good measure.

 Smith’s foundation is his philosophical anthropology. He believes that the Christian world has bought into an overly heady, cognitive account of man. Instead, we are ‘liturgical animals”—lovers, more than thinkers. “To be human is to be such a lover—a creature whose orientation and form of life is most primordially shaped by what one loves as ultimate, which constitutes an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation.” (51) This love, this desiring, could also be considered to be worship. Worship is the essence of human-ness and we are all worshippers; it is just a matter of what we are worshipping. Our practices are what shape our desires; liturgies are those ‘thick’ practices which determine what we love as ultimate—what we worship at the end of the day.

With this in mind, Smith undertakes an ‘exegesis’ of the liturgies of the mall, the military-sports complex, and the secular university, demonstrating that they are, in fact, religious institutions vying for our ultimate loves. He critiques the ‘worldview’ model, because, while it has certainly been helpful and a step in the right direction, it has no radar to pick up these clearly religious, but not ideologically articulated liturgies. Smith then exegetes the church’s liturgy (whether or not it is high or low church), demonstrating how our practices carry—even when unsaid—a strong counter-liturgy which shapes and trains our desires for the heavenly kingdom. Smith then unpacks, in the final chapter, the implications for a Christian college education.

I resounded with this book for many reasons. In college, ‘worldview’ talk was ubiquitous, but I think we had an intuition it just wasn’t quite enough. I found Smith’s view to be extremely helpful, namely, that worldview vocabulary, while definitely good, does not do full justice to the reality that we are desiring creatures—‘liturgical animals”—not just walking minds. It’s been helpful in how I think about myself. I often conceive of myself as only a ‘walking mind’ and get frustrated sometimes that even though I know something cognitively, I can’t seem to just think myself into another practice. Instead, this book has given me a vocabulary to understand why actually doing things fundamentally shapes my desires and trains me to habits of virtue. It makes me think more deeply about my practices. In that line, Smith reminded me of Wright’s After You Believe. This book has also added to my increasing conviction that a more intentional liturgy--enacting the practices of the church throughout history--is more effective for shaping our desires for the kingdom. 

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