Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Desiring a kingdom

Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith has been beckoning from my bookshelf for several months. "Jamie" Smith is one of my favorite contemporary Christian writers (I blogged about his Letters to a Young Calvinist) and I expected this would be a cracking good read. I'm only fifty pages in, but I can see this is one of those books that has the potential to change the way one looks at just about everything!

In the introduction Smith delivers a four-page tour de force in which he imagines a Martian anthropologist coming to 21st-century America to study the religious habits of its inhabitants. His tour lands him at one of the most ubiquitous sacred sites of our culture -- the suburban shopping mall. Far from being tongue-in-cheek, or simply clever, Smith here invites us to look at our environment with new eyes so we can begin to recognize the religious liturgical aspect of our everyday existence. Here's one paragraph from our alien visitor's journal.

The design of the interior is inviting to an almost excessive degree, sucking us into the enclosed interior spaces, with windows on the ceiling open to the sky but none on the walls open to the surrounding automotive moat. This conveys a sense of vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world. This architectural mode of enclosure and enfolding offers a feeling of sanctuary, retreat, and escape. From the narthex entry one is invited to lose oneself in this space, which channels the pilgrim into a labyrinth of octagons and circles, inviting a wandering that seems to escape from the driven, goal-oriented ways we inhabit the "outside" world. The pilgrim is also invited to escape from mundane ticking and counting of clock time and to inhabit a space governed by a different time, one almost timeless. With few windows and a curious baroque manipulation of light, it almost seems as if the sun stands still in here, or we lose consciousness of time's passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which we've come. However, while daily clock time is suspended, the worship space is very much governed by a kind of liturgical, festal calendar, variously draped in the colors, symbols, and images of an unending litany of holidays and festivals—to which new ones are regularly added, since the establishment of each new festival translates into greater numbers of pilgrims joining the processions to the sanctuary and engaging in worship. (pp. 20-1)

It's difficult to give a brief summary of what this book is about. There's a lot going on, a lot of ideas and themes at play. But one overarching theme is that most fundamental to being human is to love. Smith takes on both the rationalistic Kantian view of anthropology that sees us as primarily thinking beings ("I think, therefore I am") and the more truthful view of humans as primarily believing animals, or homo religiosus. He sees both views as too reductionistic and not giving enough consideration to the non-cognitive pre-rational part of our being -- that part that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures associated with the stomach, or guts, and that the New Testament calls the kardia, the heart. Think of colloquial expressions like "go with your gut instinct" or "follow your heart" and you'll begin to see what is meant here.

Smith argues that the widespread acceptance among contemporary Christianity of anthropologies that describe us as primarily disembodied cognitive beings has distorted and thinned out Christian education and worship. Smith -- a massive admirer of St. Augustine -- wants to recover an Augustinian focus on human beings as heart-directed desire-driven lovers. He also wants to recover a focus on the body and embodied practices in worship and education. Of course, an Augustinian anthropology has to reckon with the pervasive effects of sin, which Smith does. The Fall didn't turn off our heart's "love pump" (a term Smith borrows from John Piper who after all wrote a book called Desiring God). Instead, sin misdirects and twists our desires. We begin to use people and love things, rather than loving people and using things. Augustine talked about how we begin to inordinately enjoy the things we should be merely using.

Perhaps most significantly we become what we love. Our desires form and shape us. And all of us have ultimate loves and desires. All of us are desiring a kingdom. More on that in my next post.

Quote from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

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