Posted by: gcarkner | February 25, 2018

Reflections on the Core: Loves and Identity, James K.A. Smith

Brilliant Quotes from James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: the spiritual power of habit. (Brazos, 2016)

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James K. A. Smith

Canadian philosopher who is currently Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. He is a notable figure associated with radical orthodoxy, a theo-philosophical movement within postmodern Christianity (although Smith now questions the reality of radical orthodoxy as an ongoing theological movement: “Is ‘radical orthodoxy’ still a thing? I hadn’t realized”). His work is undertaken at the borderlands between philosophy, theology, ethics, aesthetics, science, and politics. Drawing from continental philosophy and informed by a long Augustinian tradition of theological cultural critique—from Augustine and Calvin to Edwards and Kuyper—his interests are in bringing critical thought to bear on the practices of the church and the church’s witness to culture, culminating in the need to interpret and understand what he has called “cultural liturgies”. He is also heavily influenced in his take on the secular age and disenchantment by Canadian iconic philosopher Charles Taylor. His work in this book is cutting edge as a faith and culture interface.

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.


Worship works from the top down, you might say. In worship, we don’t just come to show God our devotion and give him our praise; we are called to worship because in this encounter God (re)makes and molds us top-down. Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.


Learning” virtue—becoming virtuous—is more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory: the goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play “naturally,” as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.


Your deepest desire,” he observes, “is the one manifested by your daily life and habits.” This is because our action—our doing—bubbles up from our loves, which, as we’ve observed, are habits we’ve acquired through the practices we’re immersed in. That means the formation of my loves and desires can be happening “under the hood” of consciousness. I might be learning to love a telos that I’m not even aware of and that nonetheless governs my life in unconscious ways.


Similarly, if I am going to be a teacher of virtue, I need to be a virtuous teacher. If I hope to invite students into a formative educational project, then I, too, need to relinquish any myth of independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency and recognize that my own formation is never final. Virtue is not a one-time accomplishment; it requires a maintenance program.


Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand “the kingdom of God.”


As Blaise Pascal put it in his famous wager: “You have to wager. It is not up to you, you are already committed.” You can’t not bet your life on something. You can’t not be headed somewhere. We live leaning forward, bent on arriving at the place we long for.


Formative Christian worship paints a picture of the beauty of the Lord–and a vision of the shalom he desires for creation–in a way that captures our imagination….The biblical vision of shalom–of a world where the Lamb is our light, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where abundance is enjoyed by all, where people from every tribe and tongue and nation sing the same song of praise, where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream–is the vision that should be enacted in Christian worship.


Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow.


The place we unconsciously strive toward is what ancient philosophers of habit called our telos–our goal, our end. But the telos we live toward is not something we primarily know or believe or think about; rather, our telos is what we want, what we long for, what we crave. It is less an ideal that we have ideas out and more a vision of “the good life” that we desire.


But once you realize that we are not just thinking things but creatures of habit, you’ll then realize that temptation isn’t just about bad ideas or wrong decisions; it’s often a factor of de-formation and wrongly ordered habits. In other words, our sins aren’t just discrete, wrong actions and bad decisions; they reflect vices. And overcoming them requires more than just knowledge; it requires rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves.


Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did they’d run a mile, would take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learned to sit quite tolerably all these years.


Indeed, the telos for a Christian is Christ: Jesus Christ is the very embodiment of what we’re made for, of the end to which we are called….and how does this happen? By being regularly immersed in the drama of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, which is precisely the point of Christian worship–to invite us into that story over and over again, ‘character-izing’ us as we rehearse the gospel drama over and over.


To recognize the limits of knowledge is not to embrace ignorance. We don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. We need to recognize the power of habit.


A video will be available through Apologetics Canada. Conference in Abbotsford March 2-3

Key Questions from a Conference in Langley, BC with James K.A. Smith:

Since all beliefs are currently contestable and fragile, in a secular age, what are the plausibility conditions necessary for Christian belief?

Within the current immanent frame described by Charles Taylor, what does faith in the transcendent look like and how is it accessible? Everyone is feeling cross-pressured by other beliefs and doubts.

With the Nova Effect of multiplication of convictions and beliefs, spiritual journeys, what are the chances or opportunities of Christian re-enchantment of life?

In a secular age, can we bring the transcendent into our politics? Christian politics starts in community.





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