Monday, 1 November 2010

Loving not Thinking




I've been reading James Smith's 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation'. Very insightful. He takes what I have long thought the right approach that sees our desires as more fundamental than our thoughts. In other words we are driven more by our loves than our ideas, our hearts rather than our heads, our feelings rather than our principles. It is of course Augustine's anthropology reproduced in Pascal and others. At the end of the day we do what we want to do, because that is the way we are made. We are loving, desiring animals before we are thinking beings, and our ideas are shaped more by our loves and desires than we care to admit. So the key to Christian life and growth is not suppressing our desires but changing them. It is no use trying to get people to change by feeding them information, or just by 'teaching' them truth (even biblical truth!). First they have to learn to love truth. Smith puts it well - we are primarily lovers before we are thinkers or actors. Our desires define us, shape us and are more fundamental than anything else in us. Thinking is in fact our reflection on our desires and ordering them rightly, assessing which ones are healthy and which aren't.

Smith focusses on worship and 'liturgy' understood in the broadest sense as shaping our desires and loves. The practices we perform regularly educate and train us to desire what they point to. For example, going into a shopping mall draws us into a story that makes us desire to be part of it. It tells us that to what we really want is sleek hair, so we need l'Oreal shampoo, or we want carefree driving on empty roads, so we need to buy a Mercedes, or we want sex, so we need we need to buy Lynx deodorant. In other words they sell us a desire, a vision of what it will take for us to flourish, and tell us how to satisfy it. More generally Smith says it is vital to watch habits and practices we do regularly, so that we are educated to love the right things, to long for what is good and healthy, not what is destructive and damaging. He shows how 'secular liturgies' - the assumptions and practices that we engage in in malls, universities and sports events train us to desire a certain way of life or 'vision of human flourishing'. Therefore central to Christian formation is liturgy - regular practices that train us in desiring the Kingdom of God.

I have two minor critiques: one is that he focusses on the need to desire the Kingdom, whereas I would have thought the primary Christian desire to be cultivated is a desire for God - a subtle distinction but an important one. Certainly that's what Augustine would have said, and focussing on the Kingdom rather than God himself seems to me a little little like focussing on God's gifts rather than God himself. Worship has to cultivate a desire for God first and his Kingdom second. The second is that he overestimates the power of 'liturgies', however broadly understood, and underestimates the power of community to shape us. It seems to me we are shaped in our desires as much by the people we choose to spend time with as the practices we engage in. Choosing your friends wisely seems a vital decision is deciding what you will end up loving, and therefore what you will turn out to be.

Anyway a good read and well worth the effort.



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Location:St Albans,United Kingdom

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