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Q&A with Jamie Smith on 'Desiring the Kingdom'

Q&A with author James K.A. Smith on 'Desiring the Kingdom'

A version of this interview appears at ThinkChristian.

Augustine, you argue, had it right: it’s not what we know, it’s what and whom we love. How and why did Christians start to get this wrong?

Somehow we started to see ourselves differently. What we thought—the ideas and beliefs we had in our head—were seen as the “essence” of who we are. In other words, we start to put less emphasis on what we do and more emphasis on what we believe/think. As I try to suggest in the book, this starts to happen around the 15th and 16th centuries—a new picture of human identity emerges. I don’t mean to lay the entire blame on Descartes, but clearly his picture of the human person as a “thinking thing” is an idea that (ironically!) had legs.

This is also why we’re talking about a distinctly Protestant problem, though at this point it’s hard to discern cause-and-effect. Was there something in Luther’s emphasis on a juridical understanding of the Gospel that made salvation more a matter of cognitive belief, and thus primed the pump for these changes? Or was it rather that the Cartesian “thinking thing” got into the water of continental Europe and Protestants drank in this conception without realizing it? I’m not a historian, so I won’t say. But the consequence is that Protestantism took on board this reductionistic picture of human persons. And as a result, the body (and what we do in our embodiment) sort of dropped off the radar.

Of course, it’s not like Augustine was opposed to “knowledge!” It’s just that Augustine didn’t think our knowledge was sufficient to change our action. Indeed, this is the whole upshot of the climax in his Confessions. In Book VIII (the “conversion” book, so to speak), Augustine says he knows what’s true; he even knows what he needs to do. But he can’t do it! So while knowledge and the intellect are important, they are not sufficient. What’s needed for discipleship is a transformation of our passions.

In other words, we gradually forgot Augustine’s emphasis on love. But when I say that, I’m not extolling some kind of Hallmark mushiness. What I mean is that we actually forgot an entire account of action. So when someone like Descartes focuses our attentions on ideas and beliefs, we become inattentive to the fact that much of what we do is driven by passions and habits that are pre-cognitive. We fail to appreciate how much we are creatures of habit—and that habits can be a good thing! Those are what we call “virtues.” And virtues are the effect of our character (love) being formed through what we do—through practices and rituals that make us a certain kind of people.

Many Christian colleges have spent years trying to shed an atmosphere, or at least perception, of anti-intellectual pietism and prove their academic chops. Will some listen to your argument in this book and say, “I guess the classroom isn’t that important after all; back to the chapel!”

I’m very sympathetic to this concern, since I know what it means to emerge from that sort of anti-intellectual pietism (I was converted to Christian faith through the Plymouth Brethren and had a long sojourn in the Assemblies of God). And I’ve heard this sort of worry in response to Desiring the Kingdom.

But I have to confess: I find it an odd, perhaps even lazy, criticism. Just on the level of the obvious, doesn’t it seem strange to charge me with propagating anti-intellectualism in a book that spends signficant time working with philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre? Believe me, the people who just want to go to chapel will have stopped reading at page 3!

I also think such a concern emerges from a reading that hasn’t paid careful attention to the qualifiers that I regularly pepper throughout the book, beginning on the first page of the Introduction. (The footnotes! The footnotes!)

However, that said, let me take a little bit of the blame for that perception. I think there are two factors here:

First, I was writing this from solidly within the Reformed tradition, particular its Dutch stream, for whom the good of intellectual pursuits is unquestioned. Indeed, it’s from the Reformed tradition that I heard my own vocation as a Christian scholar. So I think I could take that for granted in a way that other readers of this book, in other traditions, cannot. In that respect, I was just assuming “defenses” of Christian intellectual endeavor as seen in books like Plantinga’s Engaging God’s World or Walsh & Middleton’s Transforming Vision, and I would still commend those to folks who have to convince their communities to value intellectual pursuit.

Second, as I think a careful reading will show, my model and argument doesn’t reject the intellect; I’m just trying to situate it. (Some might say I’m trying to relativize it. Perhaps.) The point is not that ideas don’t matter, or that knowledge isn’t important. Rather, my claim is that ideas, knowledge, and beliefs are not the whole picture—and are not even the center of the picture. So thinking critically about our world—which we certainly ought to be doing!–requires that we love the right things in the right way. As Augustine might put it, not only must be believe in order to understand, we love in order to understand well.

You call Christians to a countercultural awareness, to resist the cultural empires of our age. How can we cultivate this awareness while avoiding the pitfalls of resistance movements: self-righteousness, insularity, and oversimplification of complicated conflicts?

Great question. Really great question. Here’s where I think the specifics of historic Christian liturgy make a big difference. Christian worship owns up to the messiness of things in all sorts of ways. The litany of confession obviously comes to mind. But also just the nitty-gritty reality of worshiping with an intergenerational community whose worship is “governed” in a way by practices and rhythms we didn’t invent. The very “gathering” of a collection of folks into a worshiping congregation brings together all this messiness and difference. I tell my kids church is where we go to learn to love people we don’t like (and we hope they’re doing the same!). That in itself is a discipline that should give us pause before identifying “our” cause as “the” cause.

Let me try a concrete example: on the Third Sunday of Advent this year, our service of worship was focused on peace. The entire service, I was very conscious that one of our young men, now in the military, was home for Christmas, and I was imagining how our choral pieces and readings—focused on the brokenness of war—would be received by him. But at the same time, when the elder in the pastoral prayer prayed for American forces in Afghanistan, I (a pacifist) was challenged and chastened.

I don’t know if that makes sense, but my intuition is that somehow congregations that are “disciplined” by historic Christian worship are actually less prone to simplistic renditions of being “countercultural,” and I’m grateful for the discipline.