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Desiring the Kingdom 9 – concluding reflections

We’ve been discussing James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for a while now, and I wanted to wrap everything up by offering some concluding reflections. Let me begin by saying that I thought this was an outstanding book that was well worth spending some extra time on. Here are some of the things that I appreciated in particular.

1. I loved his emphasis on embodied practice. Too much evangelical worship focuses on the “intellectual” and/or “spiritual” dimensions of the human person, with an almost total neglect of our physicality. What little we do get tends to be nothing more than you could hear from any non-Christian health expert (e.g. eating better and getting more exercise is good for you). Smith presses us to realize that what we do regularly with our bodies actually shapes and forms who we are as people. Our bodies matter.

2. Like the critique of worldview. Wonder if he hasn’t gone a little too far, but still very important.

3. I really enjoyed his discussion of cultural liturgies (e.g. the mall). I thought his discussion of the formative nature of such practices was much more insightful than the usual discussion on the “worldview” lying behind them. I find that many people seem to think that as long as you are aware of the underlying worldview, you don’t have to worry about participating in the practice. And, we are often too quick to suppose that we can “baptize” a cultural practice by infusing it with a Christian worldview and then participate in it without harmful effect. On both points, Smith’s argument suggests otherwise.

4. Along the same lines, I appreciated his view of Christian worship as “counter-formation.” He paid close attention to the ways in which the practice of Christian worship works (or should work) against prevailing cultural forces. And, as he points out, the formative nature of Christian worship practices has particular value for understanding how these practices shape the lives of those with limited cognitive ability (e.g. children).

5. Finally, I liked his argument that we can shape our hearts and desires through formative practices. I’ll raise a question about this in a second, but for now I’ll just say that I think one of the weaknesses of some Augustinian anthropologies is that they can leave you feeling like you have no say in what kind of person you will be. In these anthropologies, the heart is the basic force that drives human behavior, and it is fundamentally mysterious and uncontrollable. After all, how can you make yourself “want” or “love” something. Although this may be true with respect to some things (e.g. loving God), it is clearly not true with respect to others. As many marriage counselors will tell you, one great way to begin loving your spouse more is to start acting more lovingly toward your spouse. We are embodied beings, so what we do with our bodies does have an impact on how we think and feel.

Having reached the end of the book, I am still left with a few questions. 

1. What is the relationship between practice and cognition? Smith places almost his exclusive emphasis on the formative nature of practice. And, though I agree that practices can and should be formative, if we don’t emphasize the importance of reflective practice, I think we’re missing out one something. (I don’t think Smith would actually disagree with this; it’s not just a prominent part of the book.) I’m concerned that some might take these ideas and concludes that practices alone are sufficient. Instead, we should see them as fundamental, but recognize that something important is added when we are able to reflect on the significance and meaning of the practices (among other things) as well.

2. What is the relationship between practice and the empowering work of the Spirit? Will Willimon raises this concern in a Christian Century article, arguing that too strong an emphasis on human practices can lead us to “take control” of spiritual formation and worship, losing sight of God in the process. In other words, he seems concerned that an emphasis on practice will lead to a naturalizing of the Christian life. I think this is a legitimate concern and should serve as a warning against those who might press Smith’s arguments in a direction that he never intended (see Smith’s response to Willimon here). Nonetheless, we need to be careful about thinking that emphasizing the role of the human in spiritual formation necessarily excludes the role of the divine. Although I think Smith needs to do more work unpacking the relationship between these, as evidenced by the near lack of discussion about the role of the Spirit in formation, I don’t see anything in his approach that necessarily naturalizes spiritual formation.

3. Finally, and related to my first point, how do we reflect critically on our worship practices? Smith helpfully takes us through the different elements of his church’s worship life, showing how each serves to shape the human person toward being a lover of God’s kingdom. That’s nice, but what’s to prevent us from simply taking an aspect of the service and reading into it a formative significance that really isn’t there (or missing a negative formative influence that is there). I think a good example of this is his discussion of the practice of “greeting the person next to you.” He offers an interesting discussion of why he sees this as forming us for the kingdom, but wouldn’t it be just as easy to offer an interpretation that sees this practice as an expression of the shallow community so often on display in the evangelical church? By what criteria and through what process do we evaluate our worship practices? Unless we have some discussion of this, we run the risk of assuming (or worse, justifying) the rightness of our worship practices.

Nonetheless, as I indicated at the beginning of this post, Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is an excellent book for reflecting deeply on the nature of humanity, culture, the church, discipleship, and education, among other things.

Next week I will begin my long-awaited review of David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence.