Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

15 September 2010

Shaping the heart, not just the mind

Over the past twenty or so years, publishers have turned out a steady stream of Christian worldview books, which together have altered the conversation over the relationship between faith and cultural activities in God’s world. Most of these have sought to reshape a “Christian mind.” From Harry Blamires and Francis Schaeffer to Nancy Pearcey and Al Wolters, there has emanated a growing library of writings dedicated to fashioning a Christian worldview from which to approach all of life.


But are such efforts adequate to the realities of living in the real world? Probably the worst title I have seen among such efforts comes out of Australia: A spectator’s guide to world views: Ten ways of understanding life, to which I myself contributed a chapter on liberalism. (Don’t let the title deter you from reading an otherwise excellent book!) Of course we are by no means mere spectators; we are active participants, intimately involved in a way of life, with all its rituals, customs and usages, which inevitably shape us as persons created in God’s image.

This is something that philosopher James K. A. Smith understands well and it forms the thesis of his Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. We are not simply thinking beings. We are not even believing creatures, as important as this facet is. We are, rather, desiring beings, motivated in a basic visceral way by what we love. We do not necessarily consciously decide what or whom to love; we are in fact shaped by certain rituals, by pedagogies of desire that form us without our even being aware of them. We are habituated to desire certain things by the larger culture, and it is Smith’s task to get us to recognize these secular “liturgies” and how they work themselves into our hearts. Following Augustine’s insight, Smith asserts that we inevitably worship what we love. We are homo liturgicus – liturgical man.

Furthermore, human beings are teleological creatures, structurally constituted by God to seek and follow a particular vision of the good life. Either we seek the kingdom of God or we pursue a counterfeit kingdom, and we do so as members of a community in the grip of what Charles Taylor calls a social imaginary. A social imaginary is more basic than a worldview, with the latter’s focus on the cognitive element. To be sure, the cognitive is important, but it is not the place to begin if we hope to understand our deepest motivations. We must instead focus on what we are passionate about, what drives our deepest longings. These are in turn shaped by the various liturgies in which we are caught up.

Smith shows us how these liturgical rituals work in our lives by asking us to pretend we are Martian anthropologists, looking afresh at something as mundane and familiar as the shopping mall and the university. If we look at the mall as a centre of pilgrimage, as a grand cathedral with numerous side-chapels (stores) and icons (advertisements) stationed at the entrances, we become conscious of the role of the rituals of shopping in shaping our desires, culminating in the “sacramental” act of the purchase of the desired good, which, we are trained to expect, will bring happiness and salvation.

Similarly, the university might well be understood as a cathedral of learning, “because the university is a formative, liturgical institution, animated by rituals and liturgies that constitute a pedagogy of desire” (p. 112). Even such extracurricular activities as “Fresher Week,” i.e., the fun-filled orientation period for newly arrived first-year students, are put together so as to build team spirit and a visceral commitment to the ends (τέλη) of the university, viz., the formation of “productive, successful consumers” animated by the achievement of “the goods of prosperity, accumulation, status, and power” (p. 116).

What the Christian university should be doing instead is to posit counter-liturgies to break the hold on students of these secular liturgies. These can be found in the patterns and cadences of Christian worship in the churches and in daily prayer, to which Smith devotes the latter part of his book.

Augustine’s influence on Smith is evident. The bishop of Hippo famously distinguished between the two cities, the city of God (civitas Dei) and the city of this world (civitas terrena), each of which is motivated by different loves. The city of God loves God above all that he has created. The city of this world loves the creation above the Creator. Each city lives out its loves, and each seeks a different vision of the good life.

What is love? Every introductory-level Greek student knows the differences among έρως (eros), φιλία (philia), στοργή (storge) and αγάπη (agapē) – among desire, friendship, affection, and charity or self-sacrificial love, the last of which is generally deemed superior to the others. However, Smith argues “that agapē is rightly ordered eros” (p. 79), i.e., that all love is desiring love, but that what the Christian tradition labels charity is properly-directed desire, growing out of our visceral (a favourite word!), bodily selves as shaped by various pedagogies of desire.

Smith has done a great service to those of us teaching at Christian universities with this book, which we Redeemer faculty will be discussing as part of an ongoing spiritual formation project during the current academic year. He has successfully compensated for what is sorely lacking in many worldview books, where the emphasis is lopsidedly placed on the intellect at the expense of the heart – on reason over the deep piety that has fashioned the Christian imagination over the course of centuries. In this he takes his cues more from Augustine than from Thomas Aquinas. Given my own commitment to the Reformed tradition, I cannot but resonate with this approach.

No book is perfect, of course, and I do have some reservations about this one, but these should not be misconstrued to detract from my overall appreciation for what Smith has done here. I will group my criticisms under four themes:

1. Mind and heart. Because Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College, whose motto is “Minds in the Making,” it is understandable that he would undertake to show that shaping young lives is more than simply moulding minds. Minds are, of course, embodied and not disconnected platonic intellects hovering in some vague ethereal realm above the created order. Yet it is precisely because of this embodiment that the appeal of intellectual constructs should not be underestimated. Whether or not Locke’s social contract was an adequate account of people’s lived experience in society, it had a huge impact on Thomas Jefferson’s defence of the American cause as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Over the course of successive generations, school children would memorize and recite the Declaration – again in liturgical fashion. Thus its ideas about the origins of government worked their way into the hearts of the young and helped to shape a political culture. Both Republicans and Democrats presuppose a Lockean account of political community, which is rooted in a basic religious worldview that too often goes unnoticed. Similarly Karl Marx articulated what he claimed was a scientific philosophy of history, claiming to be able to predict the future course of events based on an understanding of past productive patterns. That his theory was reductionist was part of its appeal for so many decades. It claimed to simplify a complex reality – to give adherents a key to understanding human society and in particular why so many lived in abject poverty. Clearly mind and heart are related in reciprocal ways.

2. Love and desire. Is love the same as desire? Desire is certainly one facet of love, but I doubt that it should be deemed identical to it. Smith defines love as the desire or longing for some perceived good. But what if we already possess a good and are thus happily released from our longing? Can we no longer be said to love it? Before marriage my wife and I courted at a distance. I grew to love her and longed to be with her when we were apart. But after our marriage this changed. My longing had been satisfied and the element of desire was turned in a somewhat different direction. I naturally desired her good and the good of our marriage. But my love was for her as a person, resting less in desire than in strong attachment to someone present. Could love not also be defined as the enjoyment of the person or thing now at hand?

More basically, I wonder whether Smith’s identification of love with desire does not unduly reduce love to an emotion. Again the affective side of love is important and should not be denied. Yet the Bible tells us to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 2:37-39). Similarly, God says that, if we love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). This love encompasses the whole person, including his deepest longings, but also his thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:5) and beliefs (Acts 16:31). Every married couple can tell stories of being irritated with each other and perhaps even disliking each other at that moment. Yet they continue to love each other, even if their feelings of mutual affection may fluctuate. Love in this respect is a fundamental attitude of the heart, irreducible to shifting sentiments. Again I don’t think Smith would deny this, but it would be good to have further clarity from him on the matter.

3. Creation order. One of the persistent elements of life under communism was that the régime deliberately created liturgical rituals to inculcate loyalty to its goals, beginning with the youngest of children. This was all part of a grand effort to create a new socialist person whose deepest longings would differ from those of a bourgeois person. It would presumably eliminate national/ethnic antagonisms and the bourgeois profit motive, replacing them with a nearly instinctive urge towards large-scale communal solidarity.

However, this endeavour failed miserably. When communism collapsed some two decades ago, human beings were still human beings with all of their particular attachments and commitments, but now with a pronounced cynicism towards the ideology in which they had been catechized. In short, all of the rituals had become empty and had failed to take root in the hearts of the people, despite the rulers’ intentions. This was my experience visiting Czechoslovakia in 1976: everyone went through the motions, but nobody actually believed the official ideology. Why did this happen? Because God upholds his creation and is faithful to it, even in the midst of our unfaithfulness. An ideology can mould people to only a limited extent before its efforts bump up against the hard reality of this creation order, to which his human image-bearers are also subject. People’s loyalties can be bent only so far.

To be sure, Smith does acknowledge this in the section where he deals with the liturgical reading of the law (p. 173-176), but he would have done well to draw out its implications for his overall argument. Yes, we are formed by the secular liturgies of the market, the university and so forth, but we are not infinitely malleable. As Christians we do not simply come up with counter-liturgies to oppose those of the larger culture, as if both were equally matched in their formative capacities, requiring us to come up with means of tipping the balance in our favour. We are, rather, inculcating ways that go with the grain of creation and not against it (p. 175). We are demonstrating a better way rooted in obedience to God’s word. His commands are not arbitrary, but are a kind of owner’s manual, telling us how to live well in his world. In short, our liturgies are normed liturgies.

Like many Reformed Christians, I too grew up in a church where the Decalogue was read every Sunday morning. This took place in connection with the confession of sin and the assurance of pardon, which were drawn from 1 John 1:6-2:2. It is only recently that I have become aware of how much this weekly liturgy shaped me. Nevertheless, this was not just one more liturgy or yet another way of living; it is the Way, rooted in God’s intentions for us at creation. We need to show more confidence in this as we go about educating our young. This is a theme I would love to see sounded repeatedly throughout the book, because it would strengthen considerably Smith’s argument as a whole.

4. Structure and direction. Smith claims to accept this distinction, which is found in Herman Bavinck, Dirk Vollenhoven and Wolters, among others (pp. 52, 75-79). The meaning of this distinction is that, while God’s creation is good with respect to its basic structural components, it is subject to abuse by sinful human beings. The ancient Greeks notwithstanding, there is nothing intrinsically evil in the emotions, which are the good creation of God, but they are subject to proper and improper directions. It is not a matter of restraining intrinsically chaotic emotions with an intrinsically orderly reason. Both reason and emotions are capable of being rightly or wrongly directed. So far, so good.

However, Smith is not consistent in affirming this insight across the board. For example, in assessing the liturgies of American nationalism he sharply criticizes their valorization of competition and holds up instead “the creational ideal of collaboration and cooperation” (pp. 107, 201). But this is too facile a contrast. The line between good and evil does not run between co-operation and competition; it runs through both. Competition can lead to violence, but it need not. Competition can be a positive thing if, for example, it sees employees competing with each other to provide the best service to customers. In the context of games or other forms of recreation, it can contribute to a healthy sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie, as well as to physical fitness. Similarly, co-operation may induce people to help each other in beneficial ways. But its darker side is evident when corporations collaborate to fix prices, an illegal practice that puts other businesses at an unfair disadvantage. (See the 2009 film, The Informant!, for a cinematic account of one such price-fixing episode.) Clearly competition is not always bad, and co-operation is not always good.

In this respect Smith’s book is something of an amalgam of Abraham Kuyper and Stanley Hauerwas, or, to use Richard Niebuhr’s well-worn categories, between Christ transforming culture and Christ against culture. This can be seen in his reference to the church as “a new polis – a new sociopolitical community constituted by God in baptism” (p. 196). Although this is in one sense an Augustinian insight, Smith needs to clarify whether he here envisions the church as a specific differentiated institution (structure) with its own task in God’s world or as the body of Christ or corpus Christi (direction) called to live out the kingdom in every area of life. The latter can justifiably be called a new polis, i.e., Augustine’s civitas Dei. However, in the former sense the church legitimately shares space with a variety of communities, such as family, marriage, business enterprise, state and school. Here it would be misleading to call the institutional church a new polis.

The distinction between structure and direction has definite implications for an understanding of the shopping mall experience Smith describes in the introductory chapter. If the liturgies of the mall misshape the desires of participants, yet if market transactions themselves are part of the created structural reality of human life, then the alternative must entail more than just sending people to church each Sunday to imbibe an alternative liturgy, as important as this is. It should also send them back into the market to do the hard work of reclaiming it for the cause of Christ. What would a renewed marketplace look like? Would it resemble the old Maxwell Street Market in Chicago? The Friday Market in Cairo? An old-fashioned big-city department store? The small-town five and dimes of yesteryear? What would properly-directed, nonidolatrous rituals of the market look like? This needs to be thought through carefully and indeed prayerfully.

Desiring the Kingdom is billed as volume 1 in a larger series under the general title, Cultural Liturgies. Two more volumes are forthcoming, in which I hope the issues raised above will be treated in some fashion. In any event, based on a reading of volume 1, there is every reason to expect that volumes 2 and 3 will be as good, and perhaps even better. Smith’s fans have much to look forward to.

Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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2 Comments:

  • Does Smith imply that shopping malls are the temples of idols, and those who shop there are idolaters?

    Shouldn't we re-phrase our question about neocalvinist participation in the market? We don't seek to renew the market in the sense of replacing the one/s that is/are full of misdirection & distortions, but rather to interact in the creational structure in a re-directed way.

    By Blogger Baus, at 2:03 PM  

  • Gregory, I don't know whether Smith identifies the act of shopping at a mall with idolatry. Perhaps this is something he will clear up in successive volumes. I will be charitable and assume that he does not unless he explicitly indicates otherwise.

    If I understand what you're getting at in the rephrased question in your second paragraph, then I think I would agree with you.

    By Blogger David Koyzis, at 1:55 PM  

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