Monday, July 19, 2010

Desiring the Kingdom: Book Review

“Preach the Gospel always; if necessary use words.” This advice, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, is often heard today, also in our circles. It is usually quoted to remind Christians of the need to combine verbal evangelism with a truly Christian lifestyle, but it is also used in attacks on what are seen as intellectualist tendencies in the Protestant tradition. St. Francis’ words then serve to show that practice must come before doctrine, knowledge of the heart before knowledge of the mind, and discipleship before abstract teaching.

In his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith joins the debate in support of the second usage. His thesis is that human beings are primarily desiring creatures rather than “thinking things,” and that Christian education must therefore focus not first of all on the inculcation of ideas, but on the development of the proper desires – that is, desires that are directed to God’s Kingdom. For a review of this informative and provocative study see our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here.


Richard Oosterhoff said...

Dr. Oosterhoff,

I'm glad to see this excellent book reviewed here! In general, I share your sentiments about the book. I wonder, however, whether it would help to place Smith's anti-intellectualism more vividly among his interlocutors. Of course, in a sense he wants all evangelicals (and others!) to read this book. But don't you think he is worried about some tendencies within the Reformed tradition, generally. Is he off-base there? More specifically, in the opening of the book he suggests his interlocutors are not the broader evangelical public, but more specifically the authors of the "worldview" literature. Here he is concerned about the ICS crowd--his teachers--I suspect. If this is the case, we can ask whether his characterization of them is faithful. Perhaps the turn to narrative by people like Craig Bartholomew and Goheen, or the aesthetic work of Cal Seerveld, don't fit well with Smith's assumed picture of "worldview" literature.

The book can be read as an argument against intellect, but I wonder if Smith sees it as an either/or question. What is the connection between the two? What does Smith means by intellect or affect? The book, in fact, is an exercise of intellect in the service of affect. At the same time, Smith works on our affects by means of aesthetically pleasing metaphors, evocative imagery, to encourage our own intellectual comprehension. We, the readers, don't get to simply revel in affect, if we are to understand him. In other words, I don't come away from the book with the assumption that heart knowledge has pre-eminence over head knowledge, as if they were truly separate. Instead, I suspect that he thinks a rightly ordered relationship between affects and intellect will insist that loving rightly will result in cognizing rightly. This is rather Calvinist, after all; through Word and sacrament, union with Christ orders one's heart, so that one can rightly view the world. I will be disappointed if the remaining two thirds of the projected trilogy (of which this is the first volume) don't argue for some such connection between the two.

Not having the book in front of me just at this moment, I can't offer text to support this reading of Smith. But he does resonate with my own experience of North American reformed culture. I'm sure you can think of examples where technically precise formulation has driven out winsome formulation, as if the two were oil and water. Surely there are plenty of Johnny and Suzies who have sat through plenty of catechism classes, but love the face of their ipod better than the face of Christ among the poor, the imprisoned, the widowed. (To be honest, I'm guilty as any.) Isn't that a problem of wrongly ordered loves, as Augustine would say--wrongly ordered affect and intellect, as Smith would say?

All that said, I'll be among the first to agree that North American Christianity doesn't suffer from too much intellectual integrity, energy, or curiosity.

Richard Oosterhoff
Paris, France

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Richard, for drawing attention to a weakness in my review of James K.A. Smith’s study. You are right: Smith is from a Reformed background and draws attention primarily to aridly intellectualist tendencies in his own tradition – specifically its North-American version. (It is striking, by the way, how often he backs up his arguments with reference to a continental Reformed theologian like Klaas Schilder, something I failed to point out in my review.)

This is not to say, of course, that the continental tradition was (or is) free from intellectualism. I personally am convinced that much of the current unrest in the Dutch Reformed churches, and also much of the current questioning in their offspring, our CanRC, must be explained, at least in large part, as a reaction to this intellectualism. Your summary of Smith’s thesis that “a rightly ordered relationship between affects and intellect will insist that loving rightly will result in cognizing rightly” is enlightening and altogether to the point. As you say, Smith recalls here a classically Reformed conviction that was in danger of being forgotten, much to our detriment. Perhaps the Augustinian-Anselmian motto “I believe in order to understand” should be supplemented by “I love in order to understand.” (Of course, there should not really be a difference between the two.)

Thanks again! I sincerely hope that Desiring the Kingdom will find many readers among us.