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.


Jamie Smith on Calvinism as Christianity

Is Calvinism synonymous with Christianity? Or maybe Augustinian is actually what encapsulates what ‘Christianity’ actuall is? I think the language of ‘Calvinism’ helps to identify a particular tradition within Christianity, but I am not willing to go so far as to say that ‘Calvinism’ constitutes what Christianity is. It appears that Jamie Smith demurs here as well, at least with ‘Calvinism’; he though seems to make the same error by believing that we can reduce Christianity to the language of ‘Augustinian’ in lieu of ‘Calvinist’. Here’s what he says (he is commenting on how Kuyper approached this, and then Smith nods his head at Kuyper, in general):

I came to appreciate this rich, comprehensive understanding of Calvinism from its Dutch stream, and from Abraham Kuyper in particular. Indeed, Kuyper’s 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary — published simply under the title Calvinism — should be an essential part of your library. In his opening lecture, on Calvinism as a “life-system,” Kuyper cautions against reducing Calvinism to a specifically doctrinal matter, and to a specific doctrine in particular. “In this sense,” he notes, “a Calvinist is represented exclusively as the outspoken subscriber to the dogma of fore-ordination” (13). But as he points out, even ardent defenders of predestination such as Charles Hodge resisted the reduction of Calvinism to this one point, and thus preferred to describe themselves as “Augustinians” (as do I). In contrast, throughout these lectures Kuyper articulates Calvinism as, variously, a “complex,” a “life-system,” a “general tendency,” a “general system of life,” and, finally, a “world- and life-view.” As such, he doesn’t think Calvinism’s competitor is something like Arminianism, but radically different, comprehensive life-systems like Islam, Buddhism, and modernism. Every life-system, according to Kuyper, not only spells out how “I” can be saved but spells out an entire vision of and for the totality of human life, ultimately articulating an understanding of three “fundamental relations of all human life”: our relation to God, our relation to other persons (and human flourishing in general), and humanity’s relation to the natural world. And Calvinism, Kuyper claims, is nothing less than such a “complex,” such a “life-system.” Indeed, he thinks Calvinism was, in its own sense, revolutionary . . . . (James K. A. Smith, “Letters To A Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition,” 97-98)

There is much to be commended in what Smith (through briefly sketching Kuyper) has to say; especially in regards to reducing “Calvinism” to the ‘competitor’ of Arminianism as its sole offering to the theological world. Indeed, Smith even states that he can be critical of Kuyper in certain details; yet relative to Kuyper’s general thesis — about Calvinism (or Augustinianism) as “life-system” — Jamie Smith is in full agreement. I would want to demur at this point. While I believe that Evangelical Calvinism, for example, has something very significant and substantial to offer to Christendom; at the same time, I do not think that ‘EC’ is Christianity. Which for all intents and purposes, it does appear that Smith believes that ‘Calvinism’ is in fact Christianity (or that Christianity in its best form can be reduced to ‘Calvinism’); something in line with sentiment that Charles Spurgeon preached:

I have my own opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. (HT: TCC)

I agree with the idea of “life-system,” but I think we shouldn’t use ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Augustinian’ to capture this; instead we should replace that, in contradistinction from Smith’s accounting, with Christianity. In other words, ‘Christianity’ and ‘Calvinism’ are not synonymous, in my estimation. Yet, this seems to be the implication of what Smith is getting at. This kind of thought, in the end, only has the potential to bottom out in that ugly ditch called Sectarianism.

I think Smith’s devotion is laudable, for sure; I just think that in his zeal he overstates on the reach that ‘Calvinism’ provides relative to its ‘role’ (maybe as a corrective in its ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ form 😉 ) in the broader river known as Christendom!

'Letters To A Young Calvinist': God as 'Father', the Heidelberg Catechism

I am sitting here reading James K. A. Smith’s new little book: Letters To A Young Calvinist — in the book he is corresponding with a former member of a college group that he led at his church back in Hawthorne (go L.A. county 😉 ); this student has just been turned on to “Calvinism.” The correspondence is a series of “letters” between Smith and the college aged guy, Jesse. In one of the letters, Smith is glossing on how much that he values the ‘confessional’ nature of the ‘Reformed faith’; he is trying to encourage younger, Jesse, to see the value that the Reformed confessions and catechisms can offer someone interested in growing in the Reformed tradition. But, more, growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. What I find insightful, from Smith, is his point on the differences in orientation and ‘feel’ that he sensed between the ‘Westminster Standards’ (WCF and WLC & WSC) and the Heidelberg Catechism; he says:

But I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert of Westminster’s cool scholasticism. The God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just a Sovereign Lord of the Universe, nor merely the impartial Judge at the trial of justification; the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as a Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: “He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.” (James K. A. Smith, “Letters To A Young Calvinist,” 55)

Of the ‘Reformed’ Confessions & Catechisms, two of them are very central to ‘Evangelical Calvinism’; the (1) being ‘The Scots Confession, 1560’ and then (2) ‘The Heidelberg Catechism’, for the very reason that Smith just highlights. It is the all important ‘Doctrine of God’ embedded within these statements that ‘EC’ believes is very important. In other words, as Smith notes, it is the language of ‘Father’ that should be emphasized; the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit — or the ‘Trinitarian nature of God’ we have become so accustomed to by looking at Jesus through reading Scripture. This is a central reality to ‘EC’, that God is ‘Father/Son’ (by the Holy Spirit) — constituently — before He ever becomes Creator (‘Law-giver’ etc.). He becomes ‘Creator’ by a free act of gracious love for the other, and out of this free un-restrained act (except for the restraint that obtains within the onto-relating of the person’s of God’s one being) He ‘graciously’ creates because He is a lover first; which shapes His creating (and saving and re-creating) activity in grace.

This is a significant point, and Smith makes it readily!