Learning By Loving: James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring The Kingdom”

James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation is the first volume of his Cultural Liturgies trilogy, a series which ultimately comprises a theology of culture. He opens the book with a question: “What is education for? And more specifically, what is at stake in a distinctively Christian education?” This comes, he explains in the preface, from the original goal of the book as a vision or manifesto of how the Christian academy should integrate worship and learning, and how each of those impacts the other. But his methodology and thinking means that the ideas he brings forward have a wider importance for Christians navigating culture—and contributing to culture as well.

His main line of argument: Education is formative rather than simply informative; it’s about shaping a person’s character rather than simply giving them knowledge. Humans are primarily defined not by how we think or what we believe, but by what we love. We learn by our practices (which he consciously refers to as ‘liturgies’) and these liturgies shape our loves and desires, which are implicitly a vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life is. Therefore, Christian education and worship ought to be forming us the way God wants us to live: as people who love other people and work towards one another’s good. By our own liturgies we resist the liturgies by which the rest of the world tries to form us. 

The book is divided into two roughly equal parts of three chapters each. Chapters 1 and 2 establish how humans are not primarily Cartesian thinkers or Reformed believers, but Augustinian lovers (the three names he associates with each model of the human person) who learn to love through practices and rituals that both shape and reinforce what we desire; these liturgies are the driving force that ultimately aim us towards something ultimate: our vision of the good life. Chapter 3 is an extended reading of three main liturgies in American culture: the mall or marketplace, the ‘military-entertainment complex’ (that is, iconography and rituals around patriotism for the state), and finally life at a typical university. He shows how our practices in each area eventually form us into people not much in line with Jesus’ desire for our lives. Overall, Part I builds an anthropology based on love and desire. Smith argues for a shift away from language about ‘worldview’—a largely cognitive model of humanity—and borrows Charles Taylor’s term social imaginary to describe how we feel something about the world before we think about it or put it into theory and doctrine. We aren’t ‘brains on sticks’, but hearts with imaginations.

Part II turns this anthropological and cultural lens onto the Church. Chapter 4 builds up a picture of Christian worship as a liturgy which shapes our imagination and our desire. For Smith, worship is framed as something sacramental, which makes meaning from material things and finds the world infused with the presence of God. Chapter 5 is a detailed exegesis of each component in worship and how it becomes our social imaginary; this includes not just the singing, prayer, Eucharist, and baptism, but also the view of time present in the liturgical calendar, our practices of hospitality, and our mission as witnesses. Every aspect of Christian living and worship is shown, by how it shapes our desire for the Kingdom, to be a key component of our discipleship—not simply on Sunday morning, but throughout the week. And on that note, Chapter 6 comes back around to the opening question of what Christian education can look like, and puts forward a call for Christian universities to integrate the worship in their chapel with the education in their classrooms with the life of their community; essentially arguing for a holistic idea of Christian education, which happens as much or even more from liturgy than it does from textbooks.

Smith is widely read in the fields of philosophy and theology, repeatedly citing authors such as Descartes, Martin Heidegger, Augustine, Charles Taylor, and Alexander Schmemann. Given the handful of other things I have read by him, this was not a surprise and I even expected it. This could potentially alienate some readers who, like me, have not read philosophy nearly as deeply or widely as he has. But he did a good job of explaining the concepts he was referring to, and I found that reading Descartes was not a necessary prerequisite to understanding Smith’s ideas. He does repeat himself perhaps more than is necessary; when asking rhetorical questions, for example, he includes multiple versions that emphasize various nuances. He also recaps his core premises multiple times throughout the book. While I understand the attempt to be helpful, he has enough section headings and titles in the book to let even a half-attentive reader summarize what he has already said. The book isn’t overly long, but it could have stood some more judicious editing in this regard.

Despite these potential pitfalls in the writing, Smith is ultimately convincing in his anthropology and his call for integration of worship and learning. Especially compelling is how he brings in examples from literature and film, such as Moulin Rouge, 1984, and Graham Greene, not to illustrate his points but to read and exegete them to discover what their social imaginaries might be, thus demonstrating his stated belief that we are strongly shaped by narrative. And key to the book’s success is Smith’s own gift of imagination. He begins by wondering what a Martian anthropologist/ethnographer would make of the shopping mall, describing its layout and more importantly how we behave within it, all through the eyes of this alien visitor. He also makes use of an extended metaphor at the end, talking about a Christian university as though it were an ancient cathedral, where chapels for various activities surround the central nave where worship happens. Thus he creates a kind of social imaginary for his whole thesis: that to worship is to love, and what we love is the core of all that we do.

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