Just before Christmas, I posted a review of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I praised some aspects of the book while registering some concerns and raising further questions.

After Christmas, Dr. Smith emailed me and wondered if he might publicly respond to some of the questions I raised in my review. I am delighted to post this interview with Dr. Smith in hopes that it will contribute to this very important conversation about spiritual formation.

James K. A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College. Before reading the interview, I recommend that you read my review of the book, since many of my questions here come straight from there.

Trevin Wax: You write that evangelicals treat spiritual formation mainly as an informative exercise, rather than a holistic formation that focuses on habits and the training of our desires and longings. Could you explain how our anthropology affects our idea of spiritual formation?

James Smith: My concern is not that evangelicals care too much about knowledge (wouldn’t that be a great problem!?).   Rather, the problem is that we evangelicals have a kind of “stunted” picture of spiritual formation because we have what I might call an inadequate philosophy of action. Let me try to explain that.

Let’s say that what we’re talking about here is discipleship – the process of sanctification and growth in holiness. And let’s say that the goal of sanctification is for God to set apart for himself a “peculiar people” who are marked by their love for God and a desire for his kingdom – a people who show that as much as they tell it. The Lord wants us to be a people who are a living foretaste of his coming kingdom.

Then the question is, how are such peculiar people made or formed? In response to that question, I think a lot of evangelicals assume that what’s needed is (just) more knowledge. So two of the most important evangelical spiritual practices are the didactic, 45-minute sermon and Bible study, both of which are meant to provide more and more knowledge, more and more information.

Now obviously we should be immersing ourselves in the Scriptures and hungering to know more and more of God and his Word. But the question of discipleship isn’t just a question of how we can learn; it’s a question of how we can become different people. And so the question is: does increased knowledge simply translate into transformed behavior and action?

That would only work if our actions are driven by knowledge and conscious beliefs – if I “think” my way through everything I do. But is that true?

My argument in Desiring the Kingdom is that, in fact, the vast majority of our action and behavior is “driven” by all sorts of unconscious, pre-cognitive “drivers,” so to speak. Those pre-conscious desires are formed in all sorts of ways that are not “intellectual.” And so while I might be fueling my mind with a steady diet of Scripture, what I don’t realize that is that all sorts of other cultural practices are actually forming my desire in affective, unconscious ways. Because of the sorts of creatures we are, those pre-conscious desires often win out. This is why it’s crucial that Christian spiritual formation – and Christian worship – is attentive to a holistic formation of our imagination.

Think about it: when I fail to act in ways that are consistent with Jesus’ call to holiness, is it because I don’t know what to do? Really? Isn’t it often the case that, in fact, I have the knowledge but lack the desire? Or that some other desire has trumped what I know?

It’s that sort of dynamic that I’m trying to address. This is pictured quite powerfully in Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine acknowledges that he has all the knowledge and information he needs – he is intellectually convinced by the Gospel – but he’s still not able to believe. Something else needs to happen.

Trevin Wax: You write that “before we articulate a worldview, we worship.” Prayer and worship comes before knowledge, or more specifically, we worship in order to gain knowledge. But isn’t it true that the act of worship takes place within a worldview system? We believe the truth of the resurrection and our hearts are stirred to worship?

James Smith: This is a sticky claim, I know. And very complicated (I hope to address it in more detail in volume 2).

A lot hinges on how we define our terms. In that context, I take a “worldview” to be an intellectual framework that articulates the core of the faith. As an articulation, it comes second, in a way. It is an intellectual articulation of what we implicitly “know” in our confession and practice.

Maybe another way to get at this is to emphasize that a lot hinges on how we define “believe.” Philosophically, I think there are different modes or ways of believing. So yes, of course, it was the disciples “belief” in the resurrection that gave rise to worship.

But what sort of a “belief” was that? It wasn’t yet a dogma in the sense of a theological article of faith. It was a confrontation with the Risen Lord–it was an “affective” belief. (In an earlier book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, I was grasping after something like this implicit/explicit, affective/intellectual distinction by distinguishing between what I calleded theology1 and theology2, where theology1 just is the practices of worship, a sort of lived theology, whereas theology2 is the sort of theology one gets in a textbook on dogmatic theology.)

So my point is that the practices of Christian worship are a kind of affective “belief” and that doctrines and “worldviews” (articles of faith) are the explicit, intellectual articulation of what we believe. But I would still claim that implicit believing precedes the articulation of “beliefs.” Anyone who has seen the growth of faith in their children will be familiar with this distinction, I think.

Trevin Wax: You write that Protestantism focuses too much on the intellect and ends up with a stunted pedagogy. If this is the case, why is it that many evangelicals suffer from an embarrassing lack of biblical knowledge?

James Smith: Yes, here you’ll find no disagreement from me. As I emphasized above, it’s not that I think knowledge is unimportant. It’s crucial. But I’m just cautioning that one could have oodles and oodles of knowledge and that wouldn’t guarantee holiness if our “affective” center is being formed and shaped by “secular liturgies” that are capturing our hearts and imaginations – and thus driving our action.

That said, I think another problem we should name is the “selective” knowledge of evangelicals. What we want to know of the Scriptures seems to include those parts that give comfort to our practices and habits. And I think this is true of all sorts of conservative Calvinists, too! How much do we “know” of the widows, orphans and strangers of the Scriptures? Or Jesus’ call to love our enemies?

Trevin Wax: You encourage evangelicals to revisit the liturgies of our churches, in order to see how these habits form us as people. How do you explain the fact that many people immerse themselves in Christian worship week to week and are still not formed into the image of Christ?

James Smith: This is the million dollar question. It deserves an entire book (an advertisement for volume 2!). But briefly I’d point out a few things:

First, I think this “formation failure” stems from the fact that so much evangelical worship is just the secular liturgy of the mall with a different “commodity” for sale. The argument of my book is that form matters! It’s not just a matter of taking the “content” and dropping it into any worship form you like – as if turning the church into a Jesu-fied Starbucks will somehow produce a peculiar people who desire God’s strange kingdom.

So the reason we don’t see this formation is because our worship practices lack (counter-)formative power because they’ve unwittingly adopted the liturgies of the mall or the stadium or the coffee shop. This is why I don’t think the “emerging” church is really “new” at all. It just extends habits we learned from the seeker-sensitive capitulation to secular liturgies.

Second, and related to the first point, American Protestantism has rejected the formative wisdom implicit in historic Christian worship. While many people might “go to church” Sunday after Sunday, unfortunately that’s not a guarantee that they’re being immersed in formative, intentional practices of Christian worship. There is a wisdom, a “genius,” embedded in the historic practices of Christian worship – as affirmed by the Reformers – that we have almost completely forgotten. We need to remember how to “do church,” as it were.

Finally, I think this also stems from our “selective knowledge” point above. We tend to focus on those aspects of discipleship that are “personal” and “private” and thus undercut the political edge of the Gospel’s radicality. Because of that, we (like the Colossian Christians, I think) too often reduce Jesus to an addition or a supplement to something like “the American dream”–when the Jesus of the Gospels and Revelation comes as a judge of such dreams.

Trevin Wax: How does your proposal affect the idea of a Christian university?

James Smith: Obviously I want Christian universities (and seminaries) to be places of deep thinking, the pursuit of knowledge, and the generation of Christian theory across the disciplines. However, that work will only happen if our minds and imaginations are deeply nourished by embodied worship and spiritual disciplines.

So even the intellectual work of the Christian university needs to be fueled by a rich worship life. (As I emphasize in the book, chapel doesn’t make an education Christian, but neither can our thinking be from a “Christian perspective” if our hearts aren’t primed by worship.) This also has to include the church. The Christian university is not an autonomous, self-sufficient entity in this respect.

But beyond this, what I really emphasize is that a Christian education cannot be just about the dissemination of information or ideas, even if they are “from a Christian perspective.” An education is traditionally a formation, making us certain kinds of people. Such formative education is happening in all kinds of places beyond our schools and Christian colleges need to be attentive to this and conceive of their mission and task as a holistic counter-formation. In a sense, what we need is worship across the curriculum, coupled with deep, critical thinking about our world.

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13 thoughts on “Spiritual Formation through Desire: An Interview with James K. A. Smith”

  1. Chas says:

    “First, I think this “formation failure” stems from the fact that so much evangelical worship is just the secular liturgy of the mall with a different “commodity” for sale.”

    I would love to hear more on this comment. If I understand Mr. Smith he is saying that in worship we have simply christianized the world’s ways and expecting to then be formed into the peculiar people that God desires. It seems that we have done so with worship, music, marketing, retail, etc. My young adult son recently expressed frustration after one of our kickin’, “relevant”, worship services. When I pressed him he simply said, “I just think what we do in church on Sundays ought to be different than what the world is doing.” Wise beyond his years.

  2. Arthur Sido says:

    Very interesting stuff, I might pick up the book and give it a read myself. I would go a little further and say that this liturgy of the mall extends far beyond just the emerging/emergent church and infects even the most conservative traditional churches. We seem to be entirely disinterested in the sort of self-denial and self-sacrifice that we see comes along with Christian discipleship, not to mention our proclivity to take people to court to defend our rights whenever we feel “persecuted”, as if any Christian in America is persecuted in any substantive way. I am likewise not as convinced of the genius of Reformation church worship and am far more interested in the practice of the earliest days of the church. Rather than a historical oddity, those records of the early church should be far more impactful on how we live in community with other believers than we give them credit for.

  3. Chas: Right–I think there are all sorts of ways that evangelicals have appropriated secular liturgies and “baptized” them with Christian “content,” without realizing that the practices themselves are geared toward a certain end. So, as you suggest, the “entertainment” paradigm-not matter what “content” you plug into it–is a consumeristic, individualistic, and passive model that reinforces a sense that I am the center of the universe, even if in the service we keep saying, “It’s not about you!”

    And my experience with younger generations is similar to your experience with your son: I think more and more young people are seeing through the MTV-ized facade of “youth ministry,” as well as the corporate-facade of the megachurch.

    I think there are important, non-negotiable elements of historic Christian worship that counter these tendencies. On this point, Arthur, I didn’t mean to suggest that we should just go back to the Reformation. Actually, my point is that the Reformers themselves were very much concerned about the shape of worship, and they regularly looked to the ancient fathers and historic practices of the church. While the Reformers were criticizing late medieval accretions to worship, I think that worship at John Calvin’s St. Pierre Cathedral would look remarkably “catholic” to a lot of contemporary Calvinists.

  4. Paul Adams says:

    Thanks, Trevin. Appreciate this interview greatly.

    Re: the first question/response. I could not agree more. We live from the inside out (those who live in reverse are missing out of the most important aspect of begin human). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We live from the inside out. What we think (as well as how we think) matters. What goes into our minds comes out in our lives. It is the content in our minds that drives the change of our hearts. Yes we have moments when we act before we think, but predominantly our thought life dictates the course of action that we take. The book of James comes to mind. What we do matters and our faith is always, despite anemic moments, expressed by what we do. Moreover, I cannot help but think of N. T. Wright’s upcoming book and your interview of it re: virtue ethics.

    What we need is a theology of spiritual formation that shows the vital connection between mind and body or knowing and doing. Moreover, it’s not just the doing but the spontaneous, consistent character of Christ coming out in our lives. Perhaps Dallas Willard has come the closest so far in giving the Church this model.

  5. Arthur Sido says:

    Fair enough. It is hard to draw conclusion based on an interview about a book I haven’t read yet (but plan to)!

  6. joey says:

    James, have you ever dealt with the missiological concept, “belong before believe”? The premise of which states that before belief comes a person is often better formed by being a part of a community and its “action” rather than just gaining cognitive information and then trying to join a community. Has this played into your thoughts here?

  7. Chas says:

    A bit of the problem also involves how we define “Spiritual Formation”. Our church recently hired a spiritual formation pastor. One of the first things that he did was set up a series of Sunday morning classes on topics such as how to handle finances, how to raise teens, a study of creation, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. All well and good, but is this spiritual formation, or simply more of the knowledge stuff??

  8. Joey: “Belonging before believing” is not a formula I’m familiar with, but I think it would perhaps describe the ancient process for catechumens, or those entering the novitiate of a monastic order. Or it reminds me of Pascal’s response to someone convinced by his famous “Wager.” When this hypothetical person says to Pascal, “Well, intellectually, I’m convinced, but I just can’t bring myself to believe,” Pascal’s response is rather straightforward: “Go to church.” That is, immerse yourself in the rhythms of this people who do believe. The practices will make belief more plausible.

    However, I could also see how “belonging before believing” could be a recipe for a sort of “soft” sense of just being a “welcoming” community that’s (just) “friendly.” Of course, what makes the Christian community the Christian community are the strange practices that are laden with what we confess to be true. So we should be inviting seekers to “belong” to just that strange particularity–hospitably welcoming them into the “thick” particularity of Christian worship. (As Marva Dawn puts it, we should be “reaching out without dumbing down.”)

  9. Chas: Indeed. It seems to me that “spiritual formation” is just becoming the new term to describe “Christian education.” But I’m suggesting that we need to think more carefully about just what constitutes education and formation. Offering more “classes” feeds into what I call a “bobble-head” picture of human persons–huge heads wobbling on teeny little bodies. We then end up treating people like brains-on-a-stick rather than holistic creatures primarily oriented by what we love and desire.

    In this respect, it would be interested to think about the differences between two titles of two classic Christian books: J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God” and John Piper’s “Desiring God.”

  10. Christopher Benson says:

    Full disclosure: I have not read not Desiring the Kingdom yet. But I have read every – or nearly every – review on the book, including Eric Miller in Christianity Today, the symposium in Christian Scholar’s Review, Trevin Wax’s blog, and now Matthew Lee Anderson’s trenchant analysis. As an educator, I enthusiastically welcome Smith’s call for Christian education that shifts from worldview to way of being-in-the-world, from information to formation, and from rationalist orientation to holistic orientation. Here are some questions that emerge from the reviews I have read.

    1. ANTHROPOLOGY AND FORMATION. Smith rightly criticizes the anthropology that is behind the worldview model of education, describing it as a “reductionistic account of the human person – one that is still a tad bit heady and quasi-cognitive.” In its place, he develops an anthropology that elevates the human being as lover rather than thinker. Need it be either/or? Doesn’t biblical anthropology affirm the human as lover and thinker? Perry Glanzer writes: “Smith’s argument rests on a distinction that I do not find biblically necessary. Smith says we are ‘governed not primarily by what we think but by what we love.’ The Bible indicates that we love with both our mind and our heart and both need equal emphasis and formation.” He adds: “Embodied worship practices that fail to be cognitively compelling will also lack formative power over our loves as well.” David Guthrie notes: “Smith seems to support Stanley Hauerwas’ view that ‘Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.’ Need it be either/or? My sense is that historic Christian faith affirms simultaneously both metanoia and metapraxis.”

    2. PEDAGOGY AND CURRICULUM. David Guthrie writes: “Smith suggests that Christian collegiate education should perhaps be construed properly as an ‘exilic’ effort that is characterized by a ‘counterpedagogy’ in an effort to distinguish itself from educational formation projects that neither begin nor end with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I would only add that such an effort may require a counter-curriculum as well.” How does Smith envision this counter-pedagogy and counter-curriculum?

    3. INSTITUTIONS OF FORMATION. Has Smith put too much emphasis on only one institution of formation – the academy – in order to make up for the deficits in other institutions of formation, such as the family and church? As David Guthrie asks, “What if Christian churches [and households] are no less seduced by secular theologies? What is Christian churches [and households] are complicit with the market in their mission and pedagogy?” Of these three institutions, doesn’t it make sense for the academy to primarily but not exclusively address the cognitive dimension of being human while the family and church primarily but not exclusively address the affective dimension of being human?

    4. WORSHIP AND WORLDVIEW. Smith writes: “Christian education [must] find its font and foundation in the practices of Christian worship.” Steven Nolt writes: “[Smith] argues that we must understand Christian education as a set of counter-liturgies that order our desires toward God and God’s Kingdom, and that such formation can only be sustained by corporate worship that is attentive to tradition-tested, formative practices. In fact, worship is so basic to Smith’s understanding of Christian education that he suggests that a better name would be ‘ecclesial education,’ since we must first worship (fully and corporately) in order to understand.” Obviously, the academy must turn to the church for its practices of Christian worship. I appreciate Smith’s effort to put the academy and church into a vital relationship, but I am compelled to ask: whose worship? which church?

    I am a graduate of Wheaton College, which is not accountable to a particular ecclesial tradition. As a result, the worship practices at Wheaton tend to be thin rather than thick, agreeable to a wide spectrum of believers that ranges from Anglicans, on the one end, to Pentecostals, on the other end. How should Wheaton and academies like it develop thick practices of worship?

    I anticipate that the administration would execute what we might call boutique ecclesiology, similar to Stanley Fish’s notion of “boutique multiculturalism,” which is characterized by its “superficial relationship to the objects of its affection.” Boutique ecclesiologists “admire or appreciate or enjoy or sympathize with or (at the very least) ‘recognize the legitimacy of’ the traditions of [worship] other than their own; but [they] will always stop short of approving other [liturgies] at a point where some value at their center generates an act that offends against the canons of [mere Christianity] as they have been either declared or assumed.”

    I am skeptical about whether Wheaton or Biola or Westmont can develop thick practices of worship without leaving the hallway of mere Christianity to enter a room, as is the case at Calvin College where the Reformed tradition has deep resources to nourish the mind and heart. Let’s remember C. S. Lewis’ insight: “It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.”

    Finally, Trevin Wax rightly questions Smith’s contention that worship precedes worldview: “For Smith, liturgy births doctrine, rather than doctrine birthing liturgy. I am not convinced that this is the case. The early Christians worshipped because of the truth of the resurrection of Christ. They believed; therefore, they worshipped. In turn, their worship solidifies their belief. There is a synergy between worship and worldview, not a direct cause and effect.” Isn’t synergy a better way to describe the formation process rather than putting worship or worldview in the lead role?

  11. Christopher Benson says:

    One further area of inquiry.

    5. SECULAR LITURGIES. Steven Nolt writes: “As a historian I also wondered if some of the ’secular’ liturgies Smith exegetes so skillfully might soon strike today’s students as outmoded. In an era when shopping malls are closing and youth assumptions about commerce – and every other relationship – is ‘virtual,’ perhaps we should focus a critical eye on, say, the practice of texting or the liturgy of mediating oneself and manipulating others online. Indeed, the culture of today’s eighteen-year-olds raises the stakes even higher for the sort of worship that Smith espouses, since such worship demands a coincidence of time and place – a coincidence that today’s technology seeks to obliterate.” So, I am wondering how do Christian educators induct their students in counter-liturgies when the secular liturgies of technology are almost irresistible? Nolt: “Mennonites might encourage Smith to develop more fully his critique of those ’secular’ liturgies. Is it enough to recognize and unmask them, and then go on living with and through them Monday-to-Saturday, as though sophistication provides inoculation? I am not sure that is sufficient. At places Smith’s otherwise articulate argument seems to flounder on what to do with practices that disorder desire. Perhaps it would be worth exploring the possibility of redeeming the concept of separation, which has been tarred too often as a synonym for ‘withdrawal.’ Of course that equation need not be the case; the monastic tradition has long shown that separation can be a form of engagement.”

  12. Craig says:

    I haven’t read Jamie’s book yet either, but it is located in my “will read soon” pile!

    A lot of this reminds me of the differences between classical and Hebraic/Christian forms of rhetoric. I wonder if Jamie, now that he has put Augustine on my mind, engages any of “On Christian Doctrine”? One of the differences between Hebraic and classical rhetoric is that the former is more concerned with the ability and preparation of the audience to actually “hear” what the speaker is saying. Further, God is involved, not only in directing the speech (as in “thus says YHWH”), but also in working in the hearts of the people to listen and obey. Of course, as Jamie articulates elsewhere, “heart” does not mean fluffy emotions, but is, rather, truly the “cognitive” center in Christian anthropology.

  13. Susan says:

    Wax asked about this: ”You write that ‘before we articulate a worldview, we worship.’ Prayer and worship comes before knowledge, or more specifically, we worship in order to gain knowledge.”

    This concept of worship and engagement in the liturgy of the church preceding knowledge doesn’t make sense to me. We can’t truly worship God (in a way that He considers to be true worship) if we don’t first have a relationship with Him and thus have the indwelling Holy Spirit. In order to have the Spirit, who allows us to worship Him truly, we must first believe in Jesus, as in, understand our own need and unworthiness before a holy God, and also understand why we need Jesus. True worship follows, and is possible because of, knowledge about God and is facilitated by the Spirit working within us. As Trevin points out, there are plenty of people in churches who appear to be worshiping, but their hearts are far from God. This is the case when those who participate in formal worship are not indwelt by God’s Spirit.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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