Spiritual Formation through Desire: An Interview with James K. A. Smith


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.