Imagining the Kingdom: On Christian Action

May 29, 2012

Professor James K.A. Smith
The New College Lectures are over for another year. This year Professor James K.A. Smith spoke on the theme ‘Imagining the Kingdom: On Christian Action’. Professor Smith was invited to Sydney to deliver two lectures, as well as a plenary address to the ‘Education as Formation’ conference. The latter was planned and run by New College under the umbrella of CASE, in association with the Anglican Education Commission (AEC) and, the Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation (SASC). You can read my report on the 'Education as Formation' conference in a separate post (HERE). Professor Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, USA). He is the author of many publications including the well-known book ‘Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation’.

Erotic Comprehension: The Bodily Basis of Meaning - Lecture 1 (24th May 2012)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Professor Smith's first lecture drew on the Augustinian idea that we are what we love, which he extended with the insight that ‘we do what we love’. He argued that our identity and our action flow from our most fundamental desires, longings and loves. In his first lecture he suggested that we are too dependent on intellectualist models of personhood and that we need to balance or correct this with a new anthropology. Such an anthropology should be the basis for Christian formation, both in worship and education. He drew on the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as a type of 'conceptual toolbox'. Using this work, he suggested that:

“love is a kind of erotic comprehension of the world—a way that we make sense of our world on a bodily register… a kind of understanding we carry in our bodies, an ‘incarnate significance’ that seeps into our bones, shaping how we perceive the world—and hence how we act within the world.” 

He closed his talk by suggesting that Christian faith is more than just a set of beliefs and doctrines; rather, it is a mode of “erotic comprehension by which we imagine the world differently”.

Sanctified Perception: How Worship Works - Lecture 2 (25th May, 2012)

He began his second talk by suggesting that contemporary psychology and cognitive science have begun to appreciate what Christian spirituality has known for ages, that action flows out of our habits. Action is not the deductive outcome of individual decisions based on specific beliefs; our action and behavior reflect dispositions and habits that have become “second nature”. It is these actions that incline us to respond in almost automatic ways. Such good habits have been seen historically as virtues. These he suggested are no less than Christian and secular liturgies, that are embodied, enacted performances and that “…inscribe in us a faith that gets under our skin”.

However, these virtues he argued are bound up with perception; we are inclined to respond to situations because we have already perceived the situation in a specific way. So, when our perception is shaped, it inevitably generates action. The perception that drives such action is more reflective of the imagination than the intellect, in his words “more like a ‘feel for the game’ than an objective analysis”. Professor Smith drew on the work of social theorist Pierre Bourdieu to help us appreciate how our perception is shaped by communal practices that inscribe in us a “habitus,” which as Bourdieu describes it, is a pre-intellectual way of relating to and perceiving our world. This then, encourages specific action. As a result we need to be attentive to the way that cultural practices might be mis-shaping our perception.

In light of the above, Professor Smith suggested that the goal of Christian worship and Christian education should be to “sanctify” perception in order to shape us as Christians, and mould our habitual dispositions. We far too easily become habituated to ways of life that run counter to what God envisions for our flourishing. There is unconscious liturgical formation constantly at work:

"as we are unwittingly conscripted into stories that are rival tellings of what’s in store for the world. These narratives and their metaphorical power seep into our bones in such a way that they come to dominate our ‘background’ and thus begin to shape our very perception of the world. This in turn orients our habitual action.” We are pulled toward a different ‘telos’ rivaling the coming Kingdom of God. Through a complex repertoire of secular liturgies “…we are assimilated to the earthly city or disordered loves, governed by self-love”.

So if Christian formation is going to foster Christian action for the kingdom, such formation needs to be nothing short of a sanctification of our perception. We need to be moved ‘imaginatively’, not just convinced. Sanctification requires not just the conviction of intellect, but also the capturing of our imaginations and the conversion of our habits. This has great significance for our thinking about worship and education, each of which is used by God to form and shape us as image-bearers of Christ 'indexed to the Kingdom of God'.

You can listen to both talks by downloading 
MP3 files of each lecture HERE.

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