Apr 10 2012

The Anabaptist’s Will, The Pietist’s Heart & The Lover’s Gaze

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[Part 3 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.]

by Scott Holland

I’m writing my rather tardy contribution to the Brethren Life and Thought Blog on Easter weekend, a time when many Christians celebrate the bodily life and resurrection of Jesus. We are reminded at Easter that unlike the Greek philosopher Socrates, who faced his sentence of capital punishment with a calm, welcome acceptance as the cup of poison hemlock was placed in front of him, Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, resisted his death with the anguished plea, “Father, if it is possible remove this cup from me.” For Socrates, the body was the mere prison of the soul. For Rabbi Jesus, the body and the book and the beloved world were imagined as united in God and thus believed to be blessed by God.

James Smith’s marvelous book, Desiring the Kingdom, offers his readers a well integrated philosophy of God, world, self and others. As a philosopher schooled in both classical theologies and Continental philosophies, Smith offers us a theology of culture in which the heart, head and hand cannot be pried apart in naming ourselves and rendering God’s name in history. This theology of culture makes four important moves: First, it offers an anthropology of humans as embodied actors rather than thinking, theorizing, talking heads. It prioritizes practices rather than ideas or doctrines. It looks at these cultural practices through the lens of worship, liturgy and ritual. Finally, it offers a culturally engaged rhetoric and practice of antithesis without being against culture.

Working out of the best of the Reformed tradition, Smith critiques the rationalism so dominant in the academy and public life by offering a more holistic understanding of the human person as “a desiring, imaginative animal.” However, Smith’s project doesn’t merely replace the thinking head of rationalism with the believing body of the Christian. Indeed, in James Smith’s theological vision, the human is more than a reasoning, believing, narratological animal; the human being is also a longing, loving actor in a blessed, broken world. In this vision, we are offered a robust understanding of the narrative and performative constitution of the self.

Professor Smith trained at Villanova University, a school where classical Augustinian Christianity dances with postmodern, phenomenological and Continental philosophy. Desiring the Kingdom brings these rich intellectual and spiritual traditions into both implicit and explicit conversation with the Reformed view of theology and education. Much like Smith, I trained at a school known for blending a Catholic analogical imagination with Continental phenomenology: Duquesne University. For a window into how our theologies nicely intersect see my How Do Stories Save Us?.2

Brian Gumm’s blog suggests that James Smith’s work might resonate with my “The Pietist as Strong Poet.” Indeed it does. In that piece I accent the Pietist’s epistemology of the heart and theopoetics of desire as a corrective to received theological and philosophical orthodoxies. With James Smith’s satisfying book open on my desk let me reflect briefly on the “The Anabaptist’s Will, the Pietist’s Heart and the Lover’s Gaze.”

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  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Holland, Scott. How Do Stories Save Us?: An Essay on the Question With the Theological Hermeneutics of David Tracy in View. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Louvain: Peeters, 2006. []
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Mar 13 2012

In place of (non-)sacraments: Re-enchanting the Brethren

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[Part 2 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 1 is here and part 3 will be up next week!]

by Brian R. Gumm

A few weeks ago I wrote a post for the Anabaptist Missional Project blog entitled “The Sacrament of Mission,” which attempted to take key points of James K.A. Smith’s somewhat recent book – Desiring the Kingdom  - and explore its implications to Christian mission. My choice of title was there (and is here) a playful jab at the Anabaptist tradition which raised me, being as it is a mostly non-sacramental tradition for its five centuries of existence in various expressions.

While the Schwarzenau Brethren have long practiced the beautiful biblical-mimetic ritual we call “Love Feast,” there’s been the insistence that such practices – like baptism – are “ordinances” from Jesus. So we do them primarily because Jesus told us to, not because they have some “mystical” or “magical” power. Combined with a free church “priesthood of all believers” ecclesiology and liturgical practices, Vernard Eller could look at high church sacramental traditions in his book, In Place of Sacraments2, and pejoratively describe them as “commissaries,” dispensing with mystical goods and services. Better than all that, Eller described the (surprise!) free church model which he called the “caravan” approach to practices like the Lord’s Supper and baptism.

While honoring the good historical reasons that Anabaptists opted out of sacramental traditions (to their own peril, initially), appreciating much of Eller’s positive work in In Place of Sacraments, and being happy in our contemporary circumstances as a believers church tradition, still I wonder: Should we reconsider our bad attitude about the sacraments? In our desire to avoid magic-thinking, is there a way in which we’ve swung too far the other direction and depleted our social imagination as Anabaptists worshipping and serving a crucified and resurrected, therefore living, God? Have we thrown the genius of narrative-shaped ritual out with the sacramental bathwater?

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  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Eller, Vernard. In Place of Sacraments. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972. []
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Mar 6 2012

Ascetic Christianity: Brethren Dress and Smith’s Cultural Liturgies

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[Part 1 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.]

by Joshua Brockway

James K. A. Smith has written an accessible and insightful discussion of practices and the Christian faith. Smith turns to consider practices and liturgies as foundational for the ways we act in the world as Christians thus challenging worldview understandings of Christian education and formation,. Rather than discuss these practices in ideological terms Smith defines these liturgical practices as “a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God.”2 Yet, Smith is clear that liturgies are not just proprietary to the Church. All cultures have within them liturgical practices which aim a person’s desires towards some other ultimate end end.

Brethren, however, have not been warm to the language of liturgy. Following many other Radical Reformation traditions, we have come to define our worship as “Free Church” and our theology as asacramental. These moves are rightly understood as reactions to the clericalism of 16th and 17th century Europe. Yet, the effect has been that we are not attentive to the ways rituals and liturgies shape our actions. Smith’s work, on the other hand, makes very clear that the question is better framed not by a rejection of liturgy, but by asking which liturgy defines us.

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  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 33 []
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Mar 5 2012

Coming Up…

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Now that the series from the Young Adult Forum is complete, here is what’s up next.

This week we will be starting a seriers of reflection/responses to Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith.  Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. He has written a number of books and weighed in on topics such as hermeneutics, Radical Orthodoxy, Post-Modernism, and Calvinism.

So why engage Desiring the Kingdom? Simply stated, too many theologians, philosophers, and psychologists have shown that what we think has little to do with how we live. We might know a lot of things, or even for that matter believe, certain things, but those beliefs are often contradicted by our actions in the world. This is especially true in the ways Christians have approached education. Smith comments on this reality near the end of the book:

To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an 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.’1

Our next three posts then will engage Smith’s insightful work. These posts will come from Joshua Brockway- director, spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren; Brian Gumm- licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University’s Seminary and Center for Justice & Peacebuilding; and Scott Holland Professor of Theology and Culture and Director of Peace Studies and Cross-Cultural Studies for Bethany Theological Seminary.

 

  1. James K. A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom, 219 []
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