Friday, December 17, 2010

Desiring the Kingdom, a Book Review

In recent history we have heard plenty of talk on the culture wars in America between the competing philosophies of secular humanism and the Judeo-Christian ideals that once held such a prominent place in America.  This battle, played out daily in universities, churches, and in the culture has for the most part centered on putting together well-crafted arguments for beliefs while each side tries to poke holes in the logic of the other.  But for James A. H. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, this way of going about things has failed to get at the way people are truly formed by ideas. 

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, Smith writes of how the Enlightenment bought completely into the philosophy of Descartes – “I think therefore I am”, the underlying philosophy being that humans are primarily thinking creatures.  In reaction to this idea the church gradually adopted a philosophy that we are primarily creatures of belief summed up as -  “I believe therefore I am”.  But Smith sees that these philosophies, both of which have been at war to the present day, fail to understand that we are primarily creatures of desire which he encapsulates as “I love therefore I am”.  He makes his point by use of various illustrations, one being that the early church was worshipping God and living out faith long before the New Testament was ever solidified or before doctrines and theology had been marked out and that there even Trinitarian ideas in early church hymns long before there were ever any discussions on the doctrine and theology of the Trinity.  In other words, we don’t start with thinking or belief but rather in the realm of desire which then gives rise to our beliefs and intellect.

Smith makes the case that there is a desire for the kingdom in all of us (not necessarily God’s kingdom.  He uses kingdom as the metaphor for whatever is perceived to be the good life.)  So from this angle he sees that certain aspects of our lives are moving us towards a version of the good life (kingdom) and that they are acting upon us at the point of desire and thus shaping our thinking whether or not we are even conscious of them.  To illustrate this he paints a brilliant picture of how the local mall is a type of worship experience where parishioners (shoppers) arrive and meet in a sanctuary from the world with its own religious pictures and icons (advertisements and mannequins) that prod shoppers towards its picture of the good life (kingdom).  Products are attained and an offering is made at the counter.  While this picture of the mall as a religious institution may seem silly (it is developed much better by Smith than my little summary) he makes the point that advertisers and marketers have realized something of which those waging the culture wars of ideas and beliefs have seemed ignorant which is that our lives are shaped by liturgies (whether secular as in the case of shopping at the mall or religious) that orient our desires towards a kingdom (version of the good life).  Thus we are continually being shaped in our beliefs and thinking by going through the rituals (liturgies) of shopping at the local mall, mostly without even recognizing it.  We see the promise of happiness in wall-sized advertisements of shiny happy people enjoying life and it gets at us at a gut level – our desires.  Without even being aware we begin to move in the direction of that version of the kingdom precisely because it isn’t trying to argue with us about intellectual ideas and beliefs but because it is reaching us and shaping us through our participation at a much deeper level. 

Smith points out how we are shaped and formed by liturgies:
“Liturgies, whether “sacred” or “secular”,—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.  In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.  They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down.  Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies.  They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects.  In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person.” (P. 25)

Thus Smith argues that students in college are formed as much or perhaps more by the routines of a university whether dorm life, frat parties, and meals in the cafeteria as they are by the actual information they receive in classes.  These routines (types of liturgies) have a profound way of shaping the way people think and believe. 

Smith makes the point that the primary mode of Christian formation in the church does not come in the dissemination of beliefs in the sermon but in the actions of worship when people actively participate in liturgy (this is a point many a pastor already suspects and maybe even dreads because there has been such a focus on the sermon as the centerpiece of church gatherings).  (note: Smith makes it clear that liturgy is not simply the stuff of more traditional churches but is every bit as present in Pentecostal and other nondenominational churches because a liturgy is simply the action of worship whether Charismatic and flamboyant or high Church.)  The Christian liturgy is engaging people in their desire for love by activity that directs their desire towards the Kingdom of God. 

In the final chapter of Desiring the Kingdom Smith turns his attention to Christian education which is admittedly part of the reason he wrote this book.  I will close this blog with a quote from this concluding chapter A Christian University is for Lovers:

“Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?  By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework—a “perspective” or a “worldview”—we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship.  And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits… To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate and army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective”(P.218).

In conclusion, I found Desiring the Kingdom to offer fresh and insightful perspective on issues of faith and culture which have become so bogged down in the wrong kinds of debates in recent years.  The biggest weakness I found in this book was in terms of the practical ways of implementing this approach of steering desire towards God’s kingdom.  But perhaps this shows Smith’s gifting more as a philosopher than practitioner.  For my part I will definitely be wrestling with these ideas and their implications for a good while as I endeavor to connect people with the kingdom of God in my little corner of the world.


boscobassman said...

From your review it sounds like an interseting book. Epicurus (whose name has ironically been associated with the exact opposite of his philosphy) wrote extensively about the religion of the marketplace around 320 B.C. Alain de Botton's book "The Consolations Of Philosphy" gives a great synopsis of his teaching along with several other major philosopers. I highly recommend it and his video series based on the book... . His book "Status Anxiety" goes even further and gives as sociological/philosophical/theological and psychological perspective...and describes the profound pressures of the marketplace on people in modern is just excelllent. "American Mania" by Peter C. Whybrow is one of the best books I have read on this subject matter from a mostly secular perspective....psychological and philosophical. Jacob Needleman's book "Why Can't We be Good" is the best I have read from a theological/philosophical perspective. Sounds like you had a productive retreat. Don't miss the videos...esp the ones onj Socrates, Epicurus, Montaigne and Nietzshe. Of course there is not substitute for reading their books but de Botton has some really unique interpretations and explains his theories extremely welll.
So many little time...almost have to get away like you did to stay abreast. Of course that is the beauty of higher education to have to make the time if you choose to do it right! Good Review Crispin...obviously it stimulated me to think and share further on this topic. Thanks! g-

Pi Man said...

Having studied the Great Philosophers while in undergraduate school, though admittedly I have forgotten most and would need an intense review, I had a deep respect for Descartes. He is my favorite mathematician and philosopher. As I recall, his famous Latin quote of Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am - is what he used as the very basis of his Existentialism philosophical beliefs. His premise being that we can prove we exist because we can think, reason, feel, etc. Interestingly, he concluded that it (that stamement) does not prove that others exist. So reading it used with this context is, at the very least, different and worthy of further thought for me. So I’ll get back to ya’ on that one. Thanks as always for your well thought out review. TA