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