Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What comes first. . . doctrine or doxology?

I've always thought of worship as something that follows theology. First comes the doctrine and then doxology. Right ideas about God lead to belief which leads to worship. James K. A. Smith argues otherwise.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it's a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship—through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.
The liturgy is a "hearts and minds" strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and "aim" our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God's healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ's two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray.

Is Smith right? I think he is, though I wouldn't want to push this too far and lose the essential role of right doctrine and right ideas. Being made fit for God's kingdom is about changed hearts and changed minds.
In a Western Christian context so influenced by Greco-Roman ideas about the primacy of the intellect it's easy to lose sight of the importance of embodied material practices -- even primary importance of those practices. Smith believes we have done that, especially in the area of Christian education where we think all that's needed is to fill our kids' minds with "Christian ideas" or a "Christian perspective." Meanwhile, the tangible material practices of Hollister and Starbucks are capturing their hearts and imaginations. This results in a kind of discipleship that's a mile wide and an inch deep, because the heart -- the seat of our loves and desires -- is largely neglected. Might this be why so many can attend Christian schools, grow up in the church, and still live in a way indistinguishable from their secular neighbors?

Think back to the church in Acts. Here we see worship coming before fully-expressed doctrine. It was left for later generations to wrestle with thorny doctrinal issues like the Trinity and two natures of Christ, and articulate the church's understanding in creedal form. Go back even further to the Gospels, and I think you can see doxology preceding doctrine. The account in John 9 of the healing of the man born blind is a great example. The key moment comes in John 9:38 -- He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. Did the man fully understand who Jesus was and what had happened to him? I doubt it. At that moment his heart was captured and he fell to his knees.

Quote from pp. 32-4 of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

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