John Heaton reviews James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

In 2009 shortly after taking office, President Obama appointed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. After only two months on the job Mr. Duncan announced that up to 82% of America’s public schools could be failing under the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. He argued for immediate changes to the law and initiated the “Race
to the Top” to encourage innovation in the public sector of education.

Simultaneously, a less-noticed project, but one of vastly greater importance to Christian educators, arrived from James K.A. Smith. I picked up a copy right away, and I’ve since been savoring it privately and with my faculty. No “race to the top” here; if anything, it’s a race to the past, in a vein classical educators should relish. As we often muse in classical, Christian circles, most of what we teach is not new, though nearly all of it seems revolutionary.

The burden of Desiring the Kingdom (DTK) is to explore the relationship between learning and worship, and the book is organized neatly into two sections around this theme. Dr. Smith challenges the notion that learning is merely cognitive, an assertion with which we would readily agree, but which, as he points out, we often fail to recognize in practice. Because cognitive learning takes place in the context of a set of pre-cognitive, affective dispositions, the learner possesses a whole web of desires that constitute the pre-conditions of learning. Those desires are rarely, if ever, addressed through cognitive methods teachers learn in undergraduate majors such as education or even early childhood development. Rather, affective desires
are shaped by habits, practices and influences, some of which are experienced unconsciously. Even those that are recognized are rarely comprehended as having anything to do with learning.

In short, “…because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is…rituals and practices…that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world”(25). This assertion finds broad support in Aristotle and in St. Augustine, and, as such, it is neither new nor innovative. It does answer the nagging question that makes teachers scratch their heads about why Johnny can’t read (Latin). It’s not that he can’t. It’s that he won’t. He doesn’t want to do that or many other challenging inclusions in the classical, Christian curriculum because so much of his basic desire is bent in other directions by a hundred influences that put downward pressure on Latin.

Thus, Dr. Smith moves us from the modern and reductionist view of man, homo sapiens (thinking man), to the more robust view, homo liturgicus, or worshipping man (39). It is here that DTK is most relevant, taking aim squarely at “world-view talk in its distorted form” (63). I understand his argument as offering a much needed corrective to the deficiencies that have developed in the evolving concept of “worldview.”

With the broad influence of C. S. Lewis and to a narrower degree, that of Francis Shaeffer, Christian educators have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that our presuppositions are the primary drivers that determine how we make sense of our world and inform our worldview. To give due credit, we have to admit that it has been those in the reformed tradition that have led in shaping our awareness, not to mention our understanding of this important fact. Though he doesn’t say so directly, Dr. Smith, who teaches at Calvin College, seems to be conducting an intramural critique of this 50-year old worldview project, which has been influenced by a (narrowly) resurging Calvinism. Classical, Christian educators, many of whom share the reformed tradition, have good reason to pay attention. The overt emphasis upon rationalism is evident in the literature of this tradition, and it is not an overstatement to suggest that a straight line exists from reformed theologians to the centrality of logic in the classical curriculum.

While this is by no means a critical error, Dr. Smith argues that it is incomplete. The “social imaginary,” as he puts it, “is an affective, non-cognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect” (68, emphasis his). Love or desire is a “structural feature of the human being” (51) and as such it aims at a vision of the good life, turning on the “the fulcrum” of habits.

This brings us to the most compelling feature of DTK, which is the attention given to “embodiment” in learning. This theme is woven throughout the first section and leads to his discussion of practices which he helpfully describes as “thick” and “thin” (82). That is to say, many of our habits, such as brushing our teeth, are inconsequential insofar as they do not shape identity—they are thin. Our vision of the good life, however, is shaped by the “thick” habits that are “rituals of ultimate concern” (86), like going to church, engaging in daily prayer. But meeting regularly with two or three friends for breakfast might fall into a thick habit, if it contributes to and expresses our sense of community and identity in relation to others (83)

Alert educators do well to reflect upon the many rituals of day-school education, testing them along the lines of this matrix. For example, a school might establish the ordered habit of having students stand when an adult enters the classroom, a thick habit that fosters respect. That same school might discover upon reflection that the lunchroom is pure chaos between 11 and 12:30 pm, assuming that how we eat is a thin habit that can be ignored. Habits are uneven and often work at cross purposes to one another.

In Part 2 Dr. Smith takes up the specific question of worship and its relevance to the educational endeavor. He admits that many attempts at formative influences in the affective domain are not explicitly religious. Noteworthy is the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, which overtly borrows religious architecture for an
overtly secular purpose. Nevertheless, such influences are implicitly religious insofar as they mimic religious worship in their power and invitation to a way of being. Christian worship therefore should be considered as a precursor to education, if not its mainspring. At this point, many K-12 educators in classical, Christian schools will find DTK less helpful, but only because they may labor in contexts in which worship is excluded from the weekly or daily regimen of their independent, Christian school. DTK does not assert that chapel should be in your program. More broadly, he maintains that if man is fundamentally homo liturgicus, then what we worship—and most importantly— how we worship moves front and center and should not be overlooked.

This leads to a lengthy evaluation of worship in general, and, judging from the context, reformed worship in particular, although this may be misstating the case. Drawing upon diverse sources that form a broader historical point of view (Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, for example), Dr. Smith clearly advocates a return to an overtly sacramental view of worship and the world, which those of us in the Anglican tradition, myself included, or other liturgical traditions, would welcome.

The project weakens at this point, however, for, in spite of its length, his treatise on worship is less coherent than the first section. There is plenty to tweak the sensibilities of those in the reformed tradition, whom he assumes will not only be unfamiliar with the terminology, but experientially removed and, therefore, resistant to his liturgical proposals. Those in Orthodox, Anglican, or Catholic traditions—all of which are represented on the faculties of classical, Christian schools—will applaud the effort but leave feeling that the book only makes a good start in the right direction.

These are mild criticisms to which I would add that the book is written to the educated reader, and some will find it unnecessarily complex. While the writing style is clear, it often feels like driving down a washboard dirt road. It is heavily footnoted to the extent that the fine print is almost a book within a book. At times the attempts at emphasis or clarity bleed into redundancy. At other times it seems that the harder word could be replaced with the simpler one with a salutary effect.

Finally, there are oblique references to a variety of issues that are in current debate in the author’s circles, which may or may not attract attention from a casual reader. Nevertheless, they may clang on some ears. Two are worth mentioning, as in the reference to “the minister [who] raises her hands, and we stretch out ours to receive (emphasis mine)” (207). Okay, maybe in his church she is the minister and that’s normal; it’s not in mine. Dr. Smith is not even arguing the point, but one wonders at whom he is throwing the elbow. Perhaps more serious is the following explanatory comment which really doesn’t explain: “I don’t mean to communicate an alarmist fear of culture in the spirit of the ‘culture wars’ (which, by the way, I think are often tilting at windmills rather than targeting the real, substantive threats to Christian discipleship—fixated on gay marriage but eagerly affirming capitalism)” (126). This reviewer doesn’t think that opposing gay marriage is tilting at windmills or that it is such a great trespass to affirm free markets.

No author expects that you will agree on every point, even in serious matters. In DTK, Dr. Smith has given voice to what many classical, Christian educators have been thinking for a long time. Education is not merely the transfer of information from teacher to student, but the shaping of a whole person. If you wish to reflect on how that process might proceed, DTK is a very good place to begin the conversation.

More Posts