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Human ritual and spiritual formation: antithesis or synergy?

Yesterday Brian LePort commented on The Ecclesiology of Starbucks. He was specifically referring to Starbuck’s new ad campaign, “Take Comfort in Rituals.” Brian quickly noted the strong parallels between this add and the kind of language that we use to describe the church, a place where ritual (liturgical practices) are both comforting and formative. And, Brian noted that this way of thinking also had resonance with James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Desiring the Kingdom, which we discussed some time ago.

Brian’s post has sparked a lively discussion, particularly between Halden (who blogs at Inhabitatio Dei) and Smith, as they’ve traded jabs on the nature and purpose transformation, the role of ritual, and the nature of theological discourse in the blogosphere. Several others have contributed their thoughts as well, making this a fascinating discussion to check out.

So, if you have any interesting the the church, worship, ritual practices, and the nature of spiritual formation, you should definitely head over there and check out Brian’s post and the comments that follow.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.

Desiring the Kingdom 2

Continuing with our series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring in the Kingdom, this post will consider Smith’s understanding of the relationship between pedagogy and anthropology.

One of the more helpful parts of the introduction to Smith’s work is his argument that every pedagogy is fundamentally shaped by a philosophical anthropology – i.e. some view of what it means to be human, what human flourishing looks like, and what it takes to get there. And, he argues that most contemporary pedagogies are grounded in modernistic assumptions about the human person that overemphasize our rational nature. To a large extent, our modern educational institutions and practices are grounded in a philosophical anthropology that sees the human person as a “thinking animal.” So, it should come as no surprise that we view education as primarily passing along knowledge.

But, he argues that since this modernistic anthropology is fundamentally antithetical to the biblical picture of the human person (we’ll unpack that a bit more in the next post), we need to reject both it and the educational models that are based on it. “We need to think further about how a Christian understanding of human persons should also shape how we teach, not just what we teach.” (p. 33) A Christian pedagogy should be grounded in the conviction that human persons are shaped by their desires which are in turn shaped by formative practices. Christian education, then, should focus on developing people who love the right things by training the desires through the right kinds of practices. So, Smith offers the following as a much better definition of education.

“An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices.” (p. 26)

This doesn’t mean that we neglect the cognitive side of formation, but that we see it as secondary rather than primary.

I’m still processing what I think about his argument regarding the fundamental role of formative practices, though at the moment I’m pretty sympathetic. But, I love Smith’s emphasis on being attuned to the philosophical and theological anthropologies that lie behind our educational practices—and, consequently, everything that we do to shape people (discipleship, teaching, mentoring, evangelism, etc.). How much of what we do in our churches to raise up God’s people is actually informed by cultural concepts and practices that may be antithetical to the good news that we proclaim? That’s really how I developed my interest in theological anthropology to begin with. It seemed to me that we needed more intentional theological reflection on what it means to be human so that we can self-critically assess our ecclesial practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.

What is interesting about the book is the way in which Smith applies this core claim to several “cultural liturgies” (e.g. shopping at the mall) and how this reveals the power of “ritual” in shaping personal and corporate identity. How he does this should become clearer in subsequent posts.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it. Link to other blogs on this book.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.