Negatively reviewing a book about culture and the loss of Christian conviction, by theologian David Wells, James K.A. Smith says Wells is not bad on the diagnosis, but way off in his prescription. Wells’s problem, says Smith, is that “he prescribes an intellectual antidote for an imaginative disorder.” Excerpt:
Late in the book, he introduces a metaphor that actually touches on this point. As Wells puts it, believers “live in the midst of their culture,” but “they live by the beat of a different Drummer. They must hear the sounds of a different time, an eternal time, [and] listen for the music from a different place.” The challenge is one of attunement: “How are we going to hear this music? How are we going to hear the Drummer whose beat gets lost in all of the noise of our modern world?” Indeed, this is the psalmist’s question, too: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:4, NASB).
But the metaphor is better than Wells’s actual prescription. Instead of inviting us to absorb the rhythm of the Spirit, he prescribes a regimen of music theory, “a framework of ideas.” But if we’ve been following the wrong drummers, isn’t that because their beat got our toes tapping and captivated our imaginations?
The Spirit reforms our imaginations by a similar dynamic. By inviting us to inhabit the rhythms of embodied, intentional Christian worship, God not only informs our intellects but retrains our heart’s desires. Worship, then, is not just how we express what we already believe. It is also formative—an incubator for a biblical imagination.
Amid the whirlwind of modern culture, what we need most is not a better message, but a fresh encounter with the holy-lover of our souls, who will sweep us off our feet.
Drawing upon Augustine and the phenomenological tradition, Smith argues that instead, humans should be viewed fundamentally, though not exclusively, as lovers, and—post regeneration—primarily as lovers of the Kingdom. Because of this, our nature is to push us outside of ourselves, and so is inherently teleological.
But Smith argues that the fundamentally non-cognitive, affective nature of humanity entails that the telos of love must be construed as a picture, otherwise it will not actually move us. What’s more, Smith contends that these basic desires are “inscribed” into our “dispositions and habits quite apart from our conscious reflection.” Not surprisingly, Smith argues that embodied practices are crucial to forming these pre-conscious habits. He writes:
We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it. Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses. So our affective, noncognitive disposition is an aspect of our animal, bodily nature. The result is a much more holistic (and less dualistic) picture of human persons as essentially embodied.
What has this to do with knowledge and education? Smith argues that the concept of worldview is insufficient (if taken as primary) precisely because it fails to account for this pre-cognitive, embodied nature of humanity. Worldview language is not enough because the Christian faith is fundamentally a set of worshipful practices that undergird our doctrinal commitments. Writes Smith:
I suggest that instead of thinking about worldview as distinctly Christian “knowledge,” we should talk about a Christian “social imaginary” that constitutes a distinctly Chrisitan understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Discipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively “understands” the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel. And insofar as an understanding is implicit in practice, the practices of Christian worship are crucial—the sine qua non—for developing a distinctly Christian understanding of the world.
Smith explicitly states that he isn’t trying to eradicate the cognitive aspect of Christianity, or the role of propositions. Rather, “the point is to situate the cognitive, propositional aspects of Christian faith: they emerge in and from practices.”
Interesting to think about the Protestant Smith’s point in conjunction with Dana Gioia’s recent First Things essay addressed to Catholics, about contemporary Catholicism and the arts. It begins like this:
For years I’ve pondered a cultural and social paradox that diminishes the vitality and diversity of the American arts. This cultural conundrum also reveals the intellectual retreat and creative inertia of American religious life. Stated simply, the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox. It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.
Smith and Gioia are working toward the same goal, it seems to me. I feel what they’re getting at; I want to think about it more. My first reaction to Smith’s review is that when I was a non-believing college student (or a barely-believing one), I was not interested in hearing arguments for Christianity. It took a life-changing encounter with Christian art (well, architecture), and the experience of awe that overtook me in that experience, to open my mind enough even to consider the arguments. Now, nearly 30 years on, I am only just now beginning to understand in my bones the absolute necessity of the Divine Liturgy to ground me in my faith and worldview.