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Baylor University

George W. Truett Theological Seminary


Christian Worship THEO 7316
Elí Gutiérrez

Chapter 2 “Love takes practice. Liturgy, formation and counter-formation”


James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

The fundamental argument of Smith is that human beings are fundamentally lovers. We are not
primarily thinking things or believing animals but rather desiring agents with a passional
orientation to an ultimate vision of the good life, what Smith calls “kingdom”. Above all we are
lovers, and the question is not whether we love but what we love.
For Smith, this is something that the marketing industry has understood much better than
the church. The marketing industry promises an erotically charged transcendence through media
that connects to our heart and imagination. Its operation contains a better, more creational,
more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the church. For Smith, the
marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly
discerned that we are embodied and desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by
the imagination. Moreover, the church has not been efficient in providing an alternative to the
kind of good life that the world imagines. The church has been trying to counter the consumer
formation of the heart by focusing on the head, ideas and beliefs. Smith proposes a different
approach. We should not see passion and desire as such as the problem, but rather search to
redirect them. He proposes to honor what the marketing industry has got right, that we are
creatures primarily of love and desire. Then church must respond in kind with counter-measures
that focus on our passions, not primarily on our thoughts or beliefs. The church must begin with
an affirmation of our passional nature and then search to redirect it. These issues and the
anthropology of love that he affirms primes to adopt what he calls romantic theology.
Furthermore, the way our love or desire gets aimed in specific directions is through
practices that shape, mold, and direct our love. Habits are automatic practices which can be
acquired intentionally or unintentionally. Habits are rituals and routines that train our bodies, as
it were, to react automatically in certain situations and environments. There is quite a range of
things that would count as practices (or habits) precisely because there are different kinds of
goals.
Smith classifies habits in two groups. Thin or mundane habits are not usually pursued for
their own sake; rather, they are instrumental to some other end. They also are not the sort of
things that tend to touch on our identity. These practices and habits don’t touch our love or
fundamental desire. Thick or meaningful habits are habits that play a significant role in shaping
our identity. Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also
keeps shaping us into that kind of person. So, thick habits often both signal and shape our core
values or our most significant desires. Here is where we would often locate religious habits and
practices. It is not always easy to discern between thick and thin habits. Sometimes, what might
seem to be thin practices are actually thick ones. At the end, all habits and practices are ultimately
trying to make us into a certain kind of person. That’s why it is important to ask what kind of
person is any habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed?
Smith claims that our thickest practices constitute and function as liturgies. practices are
sorts of rituals: they are material, embodied routines that we do over and over again; they are
usually aimed at a specific end, or goal; and their repetition and practice has the effect of making
them more and more automatic such that they become part of the very fiber of our character.
Liturgies as rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate
particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations.
This is not only true for religious practices but for all kind of practices. As we see in the example
of the mall. Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing
less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately and shape our identity by
shaping our desire for what we envision as the kingdom. In ritual forces of culture is embedded
a sense of what ultimately matters.
From the perspective of Christian faith, these secular liturgies will often constitute a mis-
formation of our desires, aiming our heart away from the Creator to some aspect of the creation
as if it were God. For Smith, Christian worship needs to be intentionally liturgical, formative, and
pedagogical in order to counter such mis-formations and misdirections.