The Role of Imagination and Affections in Human Action and Christian Formation

I am currently reading James K. A. Smith’s new book (the second volume following his first, Desiring the Kingdom) entitled: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. At first I was leery, I was afraid that what, in reality Smith was imagineoffering is something like a virtue ethics (which is quite intellectualist in orientation). But to my welcoming, he is not; he is offering a kind of modified affective-literary rich liturgical anthropology as the basis for promoting a proper Christian understanding of spiritual formation and even critical cultural engagement. I was first put onto “affective” thinking by Ron Frost’s work, and his promotion of what he calls “Affective theology,” as he has retrieved that primarily from his PhD work on the Puritan Richard Sibbes, and the Augustinian anthropology that funded such an approach. I am happy to see that Smith is taking this kind of affective thinking and developing it even further, and by engagement with contemporary literary theory, neuro-science (which Frost would allude to often in his own work, in an incidental way), and some French theorists.

Now the above might sound somewhat obtrusive, or rather academic (and some of it is!); but Smith is aiming at providing a trajectory that is accessible for thoughtful pastors and lay people alike (he says so in the introduction of his book). With this in mind I wanted to whet your appetite by quoting a good summary of what is going on in Smith’s book, and offer a response to that afterwards. Here is Smith on the reality of affections and emotion (different from feeling, as he qualifies), and the role it plays in formation; whether that formation be actually into the image of Christ, or deformation into the tacit narratives and thus emotion-laden planes of reality:

Having fallen prey to the intellectualism of modernity, both Christian worship and Christian pedagogy have underestimated the importance of this body/story nexus—this inextricable link between imagination, narrative, and embodiment—thereby forgetting the ancient Christian sacramental wisdom carried in the historic practices of Christian worship and the embodied legacies of spiritual and monastic disciplines. Failing to appreciate this, we have neglected formational resources that are indigenous to the Christian tradition, as it were; as a result, we have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination. Moreover, because of this neglect and our stunted anthropology, we have failed to recognize the degree and extent to which secular liturgies do implicitly capitalize on our embodied penchant for storied formation. This becomes a way to account for Christian assimilation to consumerism, nationalism, and various stripes of egoisms. These isms have had all the best embodied stories. The devil has had all the best liturgies.

A proper response to this situation is to change our practice—to reactivate and renew those liturgies, rituals, and disciplines that intentionally embody the story of the gospel and enact a vision of the coming kingdom of God in such a way that they’ll seep into our bones and become the background for our perceptions, the baseline for our dispositions, and the basis for our (often unthought) action in the world. While the goal is renewed practice, we cannot simply return to a fabled past, nor can we simply impose foreign practices. In order to generate a desire to renew and reorient our practices, we do well to engage in reflection to help understand why this is needed. So while the goal is practical, the way there is theoretical…. The kinaesthetic link between story, the body, and the imagination is implicit in historic Christian wisdom about spiritual formation and liturgical practice. However, rather than merely excavate that from historical sources, in this chapter I will engage Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment as a catalyst for us to remember the incarnational, sacramental wisdom that is ours. No one has better mapped the interplay between the imagination, perception, the body, and narrative.[1]

This resonates, a little, with Thomas Torrance’s idea of tacit knowledge, which he appropriated from Michael Polyani. But as I was transcribing this quote from Smith, it dawned on me, a bit; what I think Smith is proposing in his liturgical anthropology is a mode of spirituality that becomes heavily bedded down in ecclesiology, and thus not primarily, Christology.

I think Smith might be onto something; I think the affections (or his “emotions”V. “feelings”) have something very important to say to us about how we process and engage with reality as embodied persons. But my concern, in the end is that this is not going to have the kind of Christ concentration — anthropologically — that Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, for example, provide for us. My concern is that with all of the good intention, the focus will end up being on how we are able to manage and manipulate our surroundings, our liturgies, such that we have to master our domain through habitus (habiting or habituating) practices that are self derived or abstract from the vicarious humanity of Christ himself; i.e. which is apocalyptic, and breaks in on our lives moment by moment by the Spirit, afresh and anew unhampered by our intentionality.

Obviously the key here, once again, is to try and travel a path that does not so objectify human action, in God’s action in the Incarnation in Christ for us, that we lose any sense of responsibility and subjectivity that moves from us, ourselves. The key, I think, is to have a proper understanding of the relation between nature and grace; the latter being the reality that predicates a proper concursus between God and man — and that proper concurrence must be understood, by way of order and grounding, by happening first in Jesus Christ’s humanity with us. And we, by the same Holy Spirit, and grace, act and become from Christ and not just toward him.

Anyway, more to come …

[1] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 39-41.



  1. “This resonates, a little, with Thomas Torrance’s idea of tacit knowledge, which he appropriated from Michael Polyani. But as I was transcribing this quote from Smith, it dawned on me, a bit; what I think Smith is proposing in his liturgical anthropology is a mode of spirituality that becomes heavily bedded down in ecclesiology, and thus not primarily, Christology.”

    First, good catch on Polyani and tacit knowledge. There’s resonances with Ricoeur as well on this note (and yet Smith disappoints me that he doesn’t engage Ricoeur more – I think his stuff on narrative would be stronger with more engagement, but that’s my bias talking, which I freely admit being a Ricoeurian and all).

    Second though, you are right that he is offering a thick account of a liturgical anthropology (which, make no mistake, I like Smith a lot here and I’m on board with as far as it can take us), but I’m not so sure its as firmly ecclesiological as you suggest. Now I realize that his book is on worship and that he make references that are in some sense ecclesiological, but at the end of the day his proposal is still primarily an anthropology in a philosophical mode. One can trace his theological backing, but its mainly through the footnotes. And this is just as well I think. He is a philosopher after all, but I think it important to take his book for what it gives us.

    Thirdly, all that being said, I think he gives us some important stuff here, and a liturgical anthropology that can do wonders to help thicken the dreadfully thin ecclesiology of typical evangelical proposals beset with a modernity hangover and nostalgic longing for the ‘good ole days’. But he doesn’t give this ecclesiology outright in my estimation, and for a reason even more fundamental than the caution you raise concerning ecclesiology. I am struck (as I was with his DTK) with how lacking in sufficient Trinitarian grammar his proposal is (unless I’ve missed something). Now this is important because I think Christology and incarnation always go with Trinity. These are co-realities that always imply the other. But also, I sense that Smith is wanting to make more of the Spirit here as well as in other of his works. The issue I am having is that I can’t see how its not repeating the same or at least a similar mistake as Pentecostals/Charismatics who emphasize the Spirit at the expense of Trinity and end up making the Spirit a ‘force’ or disconnected from the Father and Son (which is impossible if we really take the New Testament narrative seriously). I’m not wanting to lay this at his feet definitively. But as he has a history with the Pentecostals it is a concern nevertheless.

    But fourthly, and finally, even beyond this, and back to the question of ecclesiology; I think its not simply a matter of a lack of Christology. In my estimation we need an ecclesiology driven by a theological anthropology that flows from theology proper – ie, the Trinitarian relations of F, S, and Sp – and that thus as a matter of its very grammar includes Christology, Incarnation, and the work of the Spirit. So, in addition to reading Smith alongside Ricoeur for more narrative, I suggest that Stanley Grenz’s ‘The Social God and Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei’ (linked below) is a good place start with a theological anthropology that issues itself into a distinctly theological (ie, Trinitarian) ecclesiology which will be complemented nicely by Smith’s liturgical turn.


  2. Thanks for the insight, Russell.

    Of course, when I say it is more ecclesiocentric than Christocentric, I do so from a Barthian vantage point. I think any kind of anthropology that does not start from a principled theo-anthropology, principled from the humanity of Christ itself, is going to start somewhere else. Whether that be in some sort of abstract pure nature understanding, or from a social Trinitarian vantage point (which is why I demur from Grenz).

    I do agree that Smith as a philosopher is thinking as a philosopher; that said, the very fact that he has a LITURGICAL anthropology smacks with an ecclesiocentric focus–liturgy and churchity go hand in hand. At the end, Russell, for me, I think, Smith is just coming from things too Augustinianly. And I am true blue Barthian, more and more every day.


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