James K.A. Smith, featured speaker at the Desiring the Kingdom conference, spoke about his ideas in this interview with Sue Careless.
It takes some guts for a brainy philosopher to admit humans are heavily influenced, sometimes unconsciously, by our senses and our imagination.
Yes, I’m a philosopher pointing out the limits of thinking.
You call us liturgical, narrative, imaginative animals. What do you mean by liturgical animals?
Human beings are creatures whose habits and loves and orientations are shaped by the rituals they are immersed in, not just the things we’re thinking. This resonates with contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience, which emphasizes how much our being in the world is shaped by unconscious factors.
But you’re distancing yourself from Freud?
Yes. He thought everybody had the same base structures of the unconscious. I don’t think the unconscious is hard-wired as Freud emphasized, so that we’re all playing out the same script. We all absorb different scripts that we play out in our lives, and those are absorbed at an unconscious level. Everybody has an unconscious, but it is trained and learned and formed in different ways. We are shaped by communal practices. Introspection is important to dig down into our own unconscious, but also it’s important that it be a communal endeavor. The things which are closer to me are hardest to see, so others can help me know myself. God gives us insight into ourselves because God is the ultimate Other. This explains how counseling and therapy work. The good counselor is a wise guide who helps you dig down into the stories you’ve buried in the basement. And it’s a lifelong endeavor.
The healing of addictions requires more than head knowledge and will power. A community of support and accountability helps.
It’s the accountability, the support, the going. The way recovery groups work is not that you go to one meeting to get some piece of information. Addictions and virtues are formed as habits. Love is a habit, a virtue. Our vices are formed in the same way. My vices are not just bad decisions. They are misorientations I live into. Recovery programs are inviting you to unlearn old habits and learn new ones, and being aware of the environments you’re putting yourself into.
If you’re dieting, don’t walk past the donut shop.
Someone has said that the Church is at its best when it is like an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Why?
Because also in AA there is confession and opening ourselves up to the Transcendent, realizing I’m not self-sufficient.
How would your philosophy apply to pastoral care and counseling?
In two ways. Pastors need to be ethnographers. They need to read the practices and rituals that their parishioners are immersed in, know the unique secular liturgies of their communities. Secondly, we need to reframe pastoral counseling as a conduit back into the worshiping community, for in worship there is the reformation of our habits.
But surely you want more than the penance of ten Hail Marys.
Yes. To immerse yourself in the rhythms of Christian worship is to let a different story sink into your bones. That is not going to happen once. Realize, when you give yourself to the practices of Christian worship, you are hungering to let the gospel sink into your unconscious so you live towards a different vision of the good life. It’s re-habituating. It’s not penance; it’s not performance. It’s a submission to a different story. You want a different script to govern your unconscious. I’m not a pastor, but I would suggest counseling is not just giving knowledge but also inviting them into new rhythms that will recalibrate their hearts.
I’m uncomfortable when you talk about “the good life” since today we equate the term with a consumerist lifestyle.
I’m trying to redeem that term, since for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle “the good life” was a vision of the examined life of virtue. Every human longs for the good life, but we have competing visions of what that is. We don’t all want to drive Jaguars.
You teach at Calvin College, a university in the Reformed tradition that stresses a Christian worldview. Yet you argue it is not enough to have a Christian worldview; we need a Christian imagination as well. What is the difference?
It’s the difference between reducing Christianity to a grid of doctrines, ideas, and beliefs and having a feel for the world as an embodied way of life. It’s cultivating a Christian sensibility; it’s not just how you see or think about the world, but how you inhabit the world. It’s like the difference between knowing a city on a map versus the way you know your hometown like the back of your hand.
You’re not saying think less but feel and imagine more.
Yes. It’s not less than thinking; it’s more than thinking. And thinking about these things can be a catalyst to help us realize, “Oh, my imagination had been captured by other stories.”
You’ve said it’s not enough to be convinced; we have to be moved as well.
Which is how the rival secular liturgies get hold of us as well.
Is there a danger in the PowerPoint sermon that employs huge amounts of text? Surely it causes information overload? You can’t take it all in. The oratory of a more traditional sermon, with its cadence and rhythm, is more likely to move us.
Yes. The paradigm for the preacher is the poet, not the professor. This is recovering the pre-Reformation sense of how important the aesthetic and the visual are. Not just to be pretty; there are people who make the aesthetics of worship an end in itself. [We need to consider] what constitutes the environment in which we meet God. The visual can resonate with those who are less comfortable in discursive modes. Otherwise you end up privileging those who have certain intellectual gifts and predilections. Whereas with pre-Reformation worship not everyone was literate, so you had to take the visual seriously. We’re all visual. We’re all aesthetic in that sense.
And sometimes Protestants and evangelicals fall into the temptation of turning the sermon into a Bible study.
And a lecture. There is certainly a place for Bible study, but the way a sermon functions within the narrative arc of worship is not primarily didactic. There is a dialogical element that is well-expressed in Anglican worship. On the one hand, God is the initiator and is talking to us, and we are hearing from God, and he is shaping us. But there are also spaces where we are voicing our confession, our praises, our petitions. It does stage a conversation. In some Protestant modes the worshipers fall into a passivity. Any tradition in which the Lord’s Supper is practiced every week (which is not happening in most Protestant congregations), especially if that means coming to the rail, that is a bodily practice that is very important. In revival meetings (I come from Pentecostal stock too), they would say at the end of a service, “The altar is open. Come.”
Too often in apologetics we’ve used reason as the only gateway to faith. We try to make people think their way into faith. And looking for truth is more difficult today in our relativistic culture. What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me. Are many people today even looking for truth? Do we need to open some other door?
I deal with this in my book on Charles Taylor, How Not to be Secular. Taylor diagnoses this well. He says the mode of apologetics should be less argumentative, debating, but more a mode of persuasion that appeals to the imagination as well. You’re inviting people to try on a different story about who we are and what we are here for; try on a different story as a way of making sense of the world.
All of us make our way in the world oriented by some big story that arranges things for us. So Alasdair MacIntyre, the noted Notre Dame philosopher, says, “I can’t answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ unless I can first answer ‘Of what story am I a part?’”
I’m not going to prove my story but simply invite someone to listen to it. This is the big story Scripture tells of who we are and what we’re for. Try it on. Does it help make more sense of aspects of our experience that your story doesn’t? My wager is my story is more comprehensive, does more justice to the messiness of our experience in the world. I think your story tries to solve too many things too quickly. My story is more open-ended and does better justice to how we experience evil.
In Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath suggests addressing people’s longings. Where do these longings for justice or beauty or goodness come from?
Yes, start from those longings.
Did you grow up in a Christian home?
I did not. I grew up in a genetically Scottish village in southern Ontario with a vaguely Presbyterian culture that had a strong sense of morality and a kind of civil religion. But I was not raised in the church or with Bible stories. I would never have thought of myself as an atheist. I had some vague awareness there was a God. I was a good kid. But I felt I hadn’t heard the gospel till I was 18. I was dating Diana, a nice backslidden Plymouth Brethren girl. It’s a twofold story. On the one hand, Christianity made perfect intellectual sense to me. But I was also loved into the kingdom. I came for a broken, very messed-up family context. What I found in Diana’s extended family was an embodiment of community that I had probably been longing for my whole life. I think that explains my work too. On the one hand, I’m a philosopher so I want to think about these things but I also appreciate the affective aspects of the Body of Christ.
Diana was not living as a Christian, so when I became a Christian, it was, “Are you kidding me?” Then five days later she had an experience of returning to the Lord, and we’ve been journeying together ever since. Her dad and her uncle immediately began discipling me for a year. It was absolutely foundational. I would not be doing what I am doing if they had not invested in me.
That’s a wonderful testimony to family witness.
Yes, I don’t want to make an idol of the family, but for me it’s been this incredible sacrament. In my new book I talk about the liturgies of a household, and how they propel you into worship in different ways. In many ways the home is a more formative space than the church for many children. Yet I do think the church is our first family. You have to relativize the nuclear family. There has to be a place for singleness in the church. So if you think of the church as the first family in the household of God, ask, “How do our households gear into that?” In baptism even the natural biological parents recognize they can’t do this [rear a Christian child] on their own. So the home can’t be this autonomous, self-sufficient unit.
You’ve said that children, and all of us, need exemplars. Are you talking about the saints? Protestants have not traditionally valued the saints.
Protestants have not actually valued virtue.
We value morality.
Yes, morality, duty, obligation. We haven’t really understood virtues as habits and so we haven’t understood the importance of imitation. Yet how often does Paul say, ‘Be imitators of me’? That’s virtue language. There are sectors of evangelical piety that would never talk about saints but that hold up Hudson Taylor and Jim Elliot and their powerful stories. I think the lives of the saints are so powerful. And this is why multigenerational faith communities are so crucial. There are local saints too. As a father, as a husband, I have depended on the models of older men in my congregation who show me how to do it. Parents are called to be exemplars for their children, teachers for students. It’s showing rather than just telling, which can be scary too when we fail, but we demonstrate confession and humility when we say sorry to our children.
Too often for Anglican adolescents, confirmation becomes the exit door from church. How do we keep them involved after confirmation?
If we’ve framed confirmation as graduation, then they leave. Let’s ask more of young people to own that rite so it is not just an automatic thing you do at a certain age. The ancient model of the catechumenate frames this as just the beginning. I would also say, sometimes we need to not freak out so much. Even the young Jonathan Edwards didn’t go to church for a few years. It’s not an ideal scenario, but let’s not be alarmist about it. Let’s have some confidence in the formation we’ve given our children. The church also needs to think a lot more intentionally about campus ministries. That can be a wake-up season for young people. I think expecting a lot of young people is what keeps them. I think young people want faith to be hard. We keep lowering the bar so we’re not asking too much of them. And they’re saying, “Really if that’s all it takes, why do it?” Notre Dame’s National Study of Youth and Religion found the traditions that have the most thriving teen and early 20s involvement have the strictest expectations. Mormons kick our butt. And I think young people respond to high expectations.
You’ve spoken about worship as being both an upward movement from us and a downward movement from God. In the upward movement we praise and thank and petition him. Could you tell me more about the downward movement?
Whenever we worship we are answering a call to worship from God. God is the initiator and the agent who is leading us in worship and is doing something to us in worship. We need to be attentive to the form of worship. If worship is just bottom-up expression, then you might feel you can do whatever feels sincere. But if worship is also top-down formation then you need to ask, what story is this form telling us? What often goes under the rubric of worship renewal is wheeling in Trojan horses of secular liturgies and dropping gospel content into them. There is less transcendence and it can sometimes be less biblical. The grammar of much contemporary worship is singing about ourselves. That said, there is a new movement of recovering the psalms as the hymnbook of the Church, with the new hymnal Psalms for All Seasons compiled by John Witvliet, Joyce Borger, and Martin Tel and the latest album, Psalms, by Sandra McCracken.
What attracts you to the Anglican tradition?
Plymouth Brethren was my initiation into Christianity. It was a breakaway in 1830 from the Anglican Church. They have no ordained clergy, so I began preaching when I was 19. But they did have the Lord’s Supper every week, so there is an implicit sacramentalism there. Then we had a Pentecostal pilgrimage, which was important to me. I joined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) so that I could be catholic. It was finally making my way to an expression of the Christian tradition that saw itself connected to the history of the Church: its councils, its creeds, its confessions, and its liturgical heritage. For me the category that’s important is catholicity. There is a shared repertoire or grammar that Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Reformed all share liturgically.
Is the Reformed tradition very liturgical?
One of the catalysts in the CRC over the last 30 years has been recovering the pre-Reformation heritage of the Church’s worship. We need to distinguish between Calvin and Calvinists. Much of the Reformed church was Zwinglian. If you go back to Calvin, it is a much richer sacramental vision. That’s being recovered. That pilgrimage into a catholic tradition introduced me to the theological legacy of the Church Fathers, but it also came with a rich liturgical legacy. The Book of Common Prayer has been part of my personal piety. The theological voices of the Anglican tradition have been important to me. I’ve been quite shaped by the current Radical Orthodoxy movement in England [founded by Anglican philosopher and theologian] John Milbank and [theologian] Catherine Pickstock, who’s also written on liturgy. I also love Cardinal Newman.
You suggest that the church should not be just as comfortable as your living room — if it were, why bother leaving it? — nor should it be such a strange place that is it is totally forbidding.
People have to feel the church is different but it’s hospitable. Parishioners need to come alongside newcomers and make them feel welcome, explain what things mean, be mediators.
Benedict XVI said that the Church’s greatest witness is her saints and her artists. The arts traffic in the imagination. The arts are how we can invite people into our liturgical spaces, which should be equally imaginative. There is very ancient wisdom that says you will belong before you believe. You practice your way into a place of believing. Augustine and Pascal and the ancient model of the catechumenate said that. You are inviting people into the rhythms of this community, which is why they can have evangelistic formative power. That said, I think the Lord’s Supper contains mysteries preserved for the baptized. You make people hungry so that they want that meal.
What about children at the Table?
In my Reformed tradition we still make baptism a condition along with the ad hoc discernment by parents and elders. Since the Lord’s Supper is a meal that nourishes faith, why would we preclude children? It could help them grow into their faith. There is some kind of sobriety with which we enter into the Supper, but it is not conditional on profession of faith, what you would call confirmation. That means we have to reframe Confirmation with some different narrative arc.
Richard Foster, in his 1979 book Celebration of Discipline, was one of the first Protestants to bring out the idea of historic Christian disciplines.
Yes. I feel indebted to Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. They recovered an evangelical appreciation of the spiritual disciplines, but they tended to frame them as a personal piety. I’m trying to write the ecclesiological compliment or supplement to Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines. Celebration of Discipline was a really important book for me and I’ve used it in mentoring others.
Who is the new C.S. Lewis?
In some ways Tim Keller. He’s a really good communicator and thoughtful. But I don’t see anyone spanning those worlds of both imaginative fiction and theology the way Lewis did. Marilynne Robinson is sort of in the ballpark, but she doesn’t have the same evangelical piety.
Could you briefly describe your own academic trilogy?
Desiring the Kingdom (2009) is an overview account of human beings as liturgical animals, so reading culture liturgically. Also, what would Christian education look like? Imagining the Kingdom (2013) covers how worship works. Awaiting the King (2017), its working title, will focus on political theology. If the body of Christ is the outpost of the city of God, how does that shape us for political engagement? How does it also relativize our tendency to partisan ideologies? I want to rewrite Augustine’s City of God for the 21st century. Augustine’s analysis of the Roman Empire is liturgical and so he’s looking at the rites of Rome.
Do you plan to write a book at a more popular level, more in line with your talks that have been broadcast on YouTube?
Yes, it’s called You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (2016). When I wrote Desiring the Kingdom, I thought it was a popular book. Only an academic could make that mistake! In my talks I translate more of my concepts into metaphors. With this new book I reworked what works in the talks and developed some stickier metaphors. I’ve added new material on family and household, children and youth, and faith and work. I’ve tried to write it with a little more verve and scriptural cadences. It’s coming out in March.
I do write at a popular level for magazines, and two of my books are collections of my magazine articles: The Devil wears Derrida, which is a play on The Devil wears Prada, and Discipleship in the Present Tense. The latter is a very accessible articulation of my ideas on worship.
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