Ryan's Reviews > Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
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Feb 08, 13

bookshelves: non-fiction, education, religion-theology
Read from July 16, 2012 to February 08, 2013

** spoiler alert ** ***My summary and notes on the book:
Smith writes about the limiting scope of the term "worldview" because it fails to address the more affective side of how people live their lives. Specifically, he argues that it limits the inclusion of "liturgies" (he calls them "formative practices") or habits in our life that demonstrate what we hold to be important and how we spend our time. Thus, when the ultimate aim of Christian education is to teach a worldview, it falls short of building a way of life by focusing entirely on the cognitive (information) and not on the affective (habits/practices). The secular world, on the other hand, is very adept at using our desires to practice clear physical habits of consumption.

"The core claim of this book is that liturgies - whether "sacred" or "secular" - shape and constittue our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down." p25

-Focusing on worldviews only reinforces a dualistic view of humans - we are thinkers inside of containers - rather than understanding that we were created as embodied beings. Worldviews should be more than just "thinking correctly".

"My contention is that given the sorts of animals we are, we pray before we believe, we worship before we know - or rather, we worship in order to know." p34

A common concern of Smith's is that the underlying assumptions about the anthropology of the student dictates pedagogy. In other words, if we think of humans as primarily thinking beings (cognition is disembodied from physical experiences) then we fail to address part of who and what people really are. Specifically, it leads to a quasi-rationalist pedagogy, which is a failure of Christian education.

The philosophical basis for Smith's arguments comes from the concept that there are different ways of being conscious; we can think, perceive, hope, love, etc. Some philosophers talk about our intentionality in the world as primarily cognitive whereas others (like Heidegger) argue that we are involved in the world as traditional actor (i.e., we don't think our way around the world, we feel our way). Smith takes this a step further and argues that we are primarily creatures of love (which takes the structure of desire or longing). Thus, what we love is our specific vision of the good life. This vision captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well. Habits are the mechanism by which this vision is carried out.

Smith brings up Tim Wilson's work (and other social psychologists) to formulate the empirical basis for the importance of the unconscious mind in our daily behaviors (p. 590).

"I have been suggesting that we picture human person not as containers filled with ideas or beliefs, but rather as dynamic, desiring "arrows" aimed and pointed at something ultimate that in turn becomes a mirror of the sorts of people they (want to) become. We are fundamentally creatures of desire who crave particular visions of the kingdom - the good life - and our desire is shaped and directed by practices that point the heart, as it were." p.71

Smith discusses many examples of cultural liturgies in our societies that have a visceral impact on your beliefs and behavior. For example, he mentions how rising for the national anthem at a sporting event brings a rowdy, chaotic crowd to a calm almost instantaneously. We have many other rituals built into our culture that are more powerful than any religious worship service because they incorporate our body and senses in much more sophisticated and intense ways. p.105

Smith criticizes the power of the church service to reach hearts and minds because it focuses so exclusively on an informational or cognitive approach to serving its members. Our outside culture, on the other hand, appreciates that we are liturgical, desiring animals that thrive on affect and physical experiences. He uses the example of George Orwell’s 1984 and how the main character perceives that he is able keep his thought away from Big Brother no matter what. But as soon as he is brought in for questioning and faced with the visceral fear of rats near his face, he immediately gives over his mind as well. Smith argues that churches often treat people in a dualist fashion – trying to convince people through depositing ideas only. p.127

One example of Christian liturgy that is particularly effective is traditional Good Friday services with changes in lighting, percussion, etc. These kind of services are memorable for both adults and children in ways that sermons never can be. Smith argues that especially for children, these kind of experiences at church are instrumental in building our liturgical world in the same way sources outside of the church do. P.137

Smith addresses the nature of the sacraments and how important certain church experiences are to addressing our visceral/physical experiences and not just our cognitive ones. He seems to hedge his classification of sacraments since he denies special categories of means of grace, but he does describe the Eucharist and Baptism as “hot spots” or “intense” parts of the sacramental world (he argues that it is possible to experience sacraments through nature, etc.). He discusses how this importance of these intense sacraments is underutilized by most churches who continue to move towards a more symbolic and cognitive explanation of what these processes remind us of in the Bible.
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