You Are What You Love: A Conversation with James K. A. Smith

JKASmith AmazonJames K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University [congratulations!]) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is also the editor of Comment magazine.

His latest book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos, 2016), releases today.

Here is Tim Keller’s summary and commendation:

James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love provides a user-friendly introduction to the sweeping Augustinian insight that we are shaped most by what we love most, more so than by what we think or do. If sin and virtue are disordered and rightly ordered love, respectively, and if the only way to change is to change what we worship, then this will lead us to rethink how we conduct Christian work and ministry. Jamie gives some foundational ideas on how this affects our corporate worship, our Christian education and formation, and our vocations in the world. An important, provocative volume!”

Dr. Smith was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and to respond to a few objections.

Smith_YouAreWhatYouLove-3DWhat is the relationship between your earlier work on Desiring the Kingdom and this new book arguing that You Are What You Love?

When I wrote Desiring the Kingdom, I thought it was a “popular”-level book. Turns out an academic philosopher is a terrible judge of what counts as “popular!” I guess the hundred footnotes per chapter with references to German philosophy and neuroscience was considered a bit of a hurdle for most readers. Go figure.

Yet the argument of the book got attention from a wide range of places and I was invited to talk about it with a remarkable variety of audiences. It’s been a stretching experience, and I’ve learned a lot. In those talks I really tried to translate the ideas for non-specialists, and I could see the lights go on for people. We finally received so much encouragement—and so many requests—to create a book for “normal” people that I felt like it was a call I needed to answer, even though it was a bit daunting.

So You Are What You Love is really a new book, from a blank slate, written from the ground up, but revisiting the core argument of my “Cultural Liturgies” project. I tried to take the notes from my “popular”-level talks and reframe the argument with new metaphors, new images, new illustrations. And then I extended the argument into three key areas of application that didn’t receive attention in Desiring the Kingdom: so now there’s a chapter on family and household, a chapter on children and youth, and closing chapter on faith and work.

Are there any ways in which your thinking on spirituality has changed since DTK was first written?

What has changed is what I feel like I need to emphasize and make explicit, I suppose. For example, when I first began working on worship and liturgy, I had sort of assumed that people would realize that I obviously take the Holy Spirit seriously since I wrote a book called Thinking in Tongues (on a “Pentecostal” philosophy) and am on record as a “charismatic” Reformed Christian. But then I kept getting people who asked, “Don’t you think there’s any role for the Holy Spirit?” So I’ve tried to be more explicit about the pneumatology behind this in You Are What You Love.

I think I’ve also tried to make the Scriptural foundation more explicit, and even the role of Scripture in worship more explicit—even though this is something I’ve always taken for granted since it is so woven into the Reformed liturgical heritage of which I am a part.

So on first glance, some readers could be thrown by the title. I can hear someone asking, “If someone loves God, is he or she then God? If someone loves sin, is he or she then sin?” Tell us what you mean by the Augustinian idea that “we are what we love.”

Wow, literalism is alive and well, I guess! Obviously the phrase functions more like, “You are what you eat.” That doesn’t mean you become broccoli, of course. But a person who craves broccoli is usually a different sort of person than the one who craves deep-fried twinkies. Our wants tell us a lot about who we are.

The Augustinian point is that you are defined by what you love. It’s your loves that govern your action and pursuits. Indeed, you are more defined by what you love than what you think or know or believe. That’s the Augustinian edge to the argument that pushes back on some of our more rationalist assumptions.

You have been critical of an intellectualist approach to Christianity that overemphasizes worldview transmission over moral and spiritual formation and wisdom. Can you explain the drawbacks, or at least the insufficiency, of the former?

It’s very important to first correctly understand my criticism. A lot of people have mistakenly restated this as if I am criticizing “worldview” per se, or that I’m critical of knowing and thinking. But of course that would be an odd position for a philosopher to take—which is precisely why this is a misunderstanding of my point.

It’s not that we need less than worldview; we need more than worldview. It’s not that knowledge is unimportant. It’s just that it’s not enough. You can’t think your way to holiness. If you could, then a PhD would be a route to sainthood. Trust me: it’s not.

A key demographic for your book seems to be younger Christians who hope to be a change agent for good, seeking to usher in greater human flourishing in the world through faithful service and the pursuit of justice. What encourages you and what concerns you about these aspirational culture makers?

I’m deeply encouraged by developments in evangelicalism over the past generation that have recovered a “holistic” sense of the Gospel and have realized that God is in more than just the soul-rescue business. In a sense this is something that my friend Rich Mouw was working for almost fifty years ago. He and his Kuyperian friends had an impact on the young Chuck Colson, whose influence reached another generation, and then caught the imagination of folks like Andy Crouch and Gabe Lyons and others. At the same time, lots of young evangelicals have come to a new appreciation for the Bible’s emphasis on justice; they’ve become reacquainted with God’s persistent concern for widows, orphans, strangers. In short, there are now all kinds of evangelical Christians who are invested in engaging, influencing, and “transforming” culture.

What concerns me is kind of the shadow side of this encouraging reality. Too often, in the name of “transforming” culture we end up becoming assimilated to the culture. Or in the name of “relevance,” we just end up mimicking the dominant culture.

I suggest that this happens, in part, because while we enthusiastically “engage” culture equipped with a “worldview” and a message, we have completely underestimated the power of habit and the (de)formative power of cultural practices. That’s why I call these cultural practices cultural liturgies—because they are heart-shaping rituals that actually shape what we love. So what I’m trying to do is to help people see that these cultural liturgies aren’t just something that you do; they do something to you.

But that’s also why the counter-formative, re-ordering power of the Spirit is necessary. And that re-form-ation of the Spirit happens in the gifts of worship he gives us in the body of Christ. Regeneration by the Spirit is what makes any of this possible. But it is the ongoing rehabituation of the Spirit in worship that recenters us in Christ so that we can be sent into the world in ways that we can be “faithfully present,” as James Davison Hunter puts it. If we’re only sent with a worldview, we might be “present” in culture, but our faith is going to be eroded by its deformative rituals.

The real burden of my argument is to help evangelical Protestants get over their allergy to ritual and liturgy because that, in fact, is the river where the Spirit’s renewing power flows. In other words, our cultural work and devotion to justice depends on our immersion in the body of Christ. It’s not worship or justice; it’s worship for justice.

Throughout the book you emphasize “the spiritual power of habit” (to quote the subtitle). How does your spirituality avoid the dangers of habits or liturgies that become merely formulaic without heart engagement (e.g., saying “Lord, Lord” and not being known by the Lord [Matt. 7:21-23], or worshipping the Lord with our lips and not with our heart [Matt. 15:8])? Perhaps another way to ask the question: is it possible to form and even grow in spiritual habits without the Spirit?

Well, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “heart engagement” here. Of course You Are What You Love argues that the heart is the very epicenter of the human person. Indeed, in some ways I’m just trying to work out a key counsel of Scripture: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov. 4:23).

But I’m also curious by your own glosses on these passages. For example, the caution from Matthew 7 doesn’t associate “Lord, Lord”-ism with mere ritualism. And the contrast isn’t with something like “heart engagement.” At least Jesus certainly doesn’t contrast this with some kind of knowledge or belief. Indeed, I don’t see any suggestion that those who call “Lord, Lord” are guilty of empty ritualism. In any case, they are contrasted with those who “do the will of my Father.”

In some ways, sorting out the wheat from the tares is the Lord’s business, right? I’m not at all confident that some expressed “sincerity” is an adequate criterion in this respect. One of the great ironies of sinful human nature is our ability to fake sincerity.

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating mere ritualism. To the contrary. My point is that we are creatures of habit, that God knows this (since he created us), and thus our gracious, redeeming God meets us where we are by giving us Spirt-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves. This is the means of the Spirit’s transformation, not an alternative to Spirit-shaped sanctification. If we don’t take this seriously, we will, in effect, be giving ourselves over to all of the rival habit-forming practices of our culture.

As I read the book, I kept wondering how a Jew or as Muslim or a Mormon would process your proposal. At the end of the day, wouldn’t your proposal still “work” for them? And if so, isn’t that a problem? Is the Son incarnate, crucified, and risen a necessary condition for true spirituality to obtain?

It’s a good question. I would say two things: First, my argument is that every human being has been created by God as a “liturgical” animal. In other words, to be human is to be a lover, and to be a lover is to be the unique sorts of creatures whose heart-habits are shaped by rituals and practices. So in that sense, I’m making a biblical claim about human nature as such. And in that sense, yes: Jews or Muslims or Mormons could affirm some of what I’m saying since I’m arguing that Scripture gives us insight into human nature.

On the other hand, I’m arguing that what makes Christian worship the engine of specifically Christian formation is not just generic rituals or liturgies but the very specific forms of Christian worship, informed by the Scriptures, that rehearse the very specific story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is actually why I emphasize, over and over again, that the form of worship matters—not because of a concern with “style,” but precisely because the form of historic, Christian worship is cruciform: it is worship that rehearses the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. It is in Jesus alone that we learn to be human. So I’m unapologetic that the specifics of Christian worship are the “norm,” you might say, of true worship. This is why the Lord’s Supper has, since the early church, been the culminating practice of worship every Sunday. Communion is tangible Christology.

Indeed, this is why I think historic Christian worship is actually more robustly biblical and Christological than lots of non-denominational congregations that function largely as lecture halls that focus on a very narrow slice of the biblical witness.

A lot of Christian writings neglect the role of the home in spiritual formation. What role does the home play in your spirituality?

This is one of the themes I really wanted to address in You Are What You Love. It was a glaring omission from Desiring the Kingdom, and yet obviously, in the order of providence, homes and families are a crucial incubator of love for God. So chapter 5 considers the “liturgies of home.” Now, on the one hand, I emphasize that all of our homes and households need to situate themselves in relation to the household of God, the “first family” that is the church. Sometimes our focus on the family can also make the body of Christ extrinsic to our homes, whereas in fact our homes should be spokes that spin out from the hub of the church. So one of the most important decisions any family makes is where to worship, and that, in many ways, is a baseline commitment to spiritual formation for our homes.

On the other hand, families and households are a space to extend and extrapolate from the worship practices of the church in daily rhythms that not only equip us with Scriptural knowledge but also recruit the imagination. Those don’t all or always have to look like “church.” One of my favorite parts of writing this book was talking about the ways my wife, Deanna, has created family rituals around garden and kitchen that have taught our children Gospel values of hospitality and welcome.

You count yourself as one happy to follow in the footsteps of the great Augustine. What gave his writings and theology and spirituality such incredible staying power? For those who want to go deeper into Augustinian spirituality, where are some places a reader should start in his overwhelming corpus?

I think one of the most important things Christians can do in the 21st century is to cultivate ancient friendships. When we mine the treasures of the Christian intellectual tradition, we avail ourselves of wisdom and treasures for living out the faith in our secular age. The “friend” I’ve come to know the best is Saint Augustine, who I think is incredibly contemporary. (In fact, I’m already working on my next book for Brazos, On the Road with Augustine, in which I’ll argue that Augustine is, in many ways, the patron saint of our postmodern age.)

81rRdfu8C1LA big part of Augustine’s staying power is his prescient, incisive psychological insight. In his Confessions, he captures what it feels like to be a sinner in ways that are honest and penetrating. He also captures what if feels like to hunger for God, to wrestle with God, to feel hounded by the Spirit. I think this is also why Augustine has been an ongoing conversation partner for philosophers for almost two millennia. Indeed, Augustine has staying power for us in no small part because some of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century—Heidegger, Arendt, Wittgenstein, Camus, Derrida, Foucault, and many others—all wrestled with Augustine firsthand. Augustine left his mark on our secular age through these thinkers.

Where to start? Well, the Confessions is still one of the great treasures of Western Christian spiritual literature (I recommend Chadwick’s translation from Oxford University Press).

But one of the things I’m grateful for in my doctoral work at Villanova is that the Augustinians there taught me to read the “whole” Augustine—not just the philosophical treatises but also the letters and sermons. For pastors in particular, I would recommend buying a few volumes of Augustine’s letters or sermons (now published in new translations from New City Press) and start to incorporate Augustine into your sermon preparation. All of these volumes have Scripture indices that could help you find Augustine’s commentary on texts. You’ll meet Augustine the pastor and preacher and mentor. He still speaks today.