A Philosopher Loves the Heart

By Sue Careless

“You can’t think your way to holiness,” American philosopher James K.A. Smith said during a conference on spiritual formation that met on Oct. 22-24 in Toronto.

Smith grew up unchurched in southwestern Ontario. Now, as a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he urges Anglicans to appreciate their rich liturgical heritage. He spoke while standing in what was formerly a Roman Catholic convent that today serves as Tyndale University College & Seminary, an evangelical Protestant school.

The conference theme was “Desiring the Kingdom,” derived from Smith’s book of that title.

Smith spoke in the beautiful chapel of what had been the motherhouse of the Sisters of St Joseph. The Vatican approved transferring it to Protestant hands on the condition that Tyndale committed to maintain the aesthetically significant chapel as sacred space.

As Smith argued that “humans are more than brains-on-sticks,” and that Christian worship therefore needed to entice the imagination and not just appeal to the intellect, he did so before a stone curtain of shimmering blue mosaics. His listeners could see not only tall windows of stained glass but also powerful Stations of the Cross rendered in marble.

Smith commended the chapel as one artifact of the 1960s that “lives well” in the 21st century.

About 120 people from across Canada attended the three-day conference, which was hosted by the Anglican Communion Alliance with the support of Wycliffe College in Toronto, and Tyndale. The alliance’s mandate is to be an orthodox voice within the Anglican Church of Canada.

Smith opened by noting that in John’s Gospel the first words of Christ are “What do you want?” and one of his last questions in that gospel is “Do you love me?”

“We are what we want, what we long for and desire,” he said. “We are all lovers.” But usually “our loves operate under the radar of the intellect.”

He defined sin as “disordered love” and said humans need to be “situated in God’s love.” Humans are designed “not for something but for someone.” Christians are to “desire God and desire what God desires.” Smith denied Descartes’ famous proposition that “I think, therefore I am” and proposed instead “I love, therefore I am.”

Smith does not want Christians to negate the intellect or think less, but to value the affections and imagination as well and to become more aware that “God made us creatures of habit.”

He was also clear that there are competing secular stories, habits, practices, and liturgies that appeal to our emotions and imagination. For many North Americans the shopping mall has become a temple, a “cathedral of consumerism” that markets a kind of evangelism.

But the mall does not court the intellect (no one hands out doctrinal tracts as you enter). It appeals instead directly to the senses and imagination. Mannequins are the new icons. Be aware of the “litanies of consumerism,” he said. “The mall knows we are lovers and goes straight to the heart.”

We are drawn by story and image, but we can be captivated by “deformative liturgies.” “What you think you love doesn’t always align with your deepest longings,” Smith said, but Christian worship can address this gap. He urged that we ask ourselves: “What am I giving myself over to?” and “What do these practices want me to love?”

Virtues are “good moral habits” and “should be woven into the fabric of one’s character,” creating “a Christian sensibility” until imitating Christ becomes “second nature.”

When asked how he would do a church plant, Smith replied cryptically: “The future of the Church is ancient.” He added later: “A contextualized Book of Common Prayer plucks at the heartstrings.”

Although he worships in the Christian Reformed Church, he includes the Book of Common Prayer (1979) in his personal devotions. He praised Cranmer’s prose as “drenched in biblical language and biblical sensibility” and warned against the “idolatrous fixation on novelty” in much contemporary worship. He would prefer to trust the “ancient intuitions” and wisdom of the Church, and urged his listeners to be “communally rehabituated” in the Christian story through Christian worship.

Images of James K.A. Smith and the Tyndale chapel by Sue Careless

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