Updated: Feb 18, 2020
James K. A. Smith
Baker Academic: 2009
According to Smith, we are desiring creatures more than we are thinking animals. What we love shapes us more than what we think. At the core of being human is that we are liturgical creatures. In the last chapter of the book he summarizes this thesis and what it means for us:
Our loves and desires are aimed and directed by habits that dispose us to be the kind of people aimed at certain visions of the good life, particular visions of the kingdom (chapter 1). Those habits are formed through practices that train our desire by fueling our imagination through concrete, material rituals. Such formation is largely affective, and precognitive, shaping our adaptive unconscious; but because we are affective, imaginative creatures, this makes such formation all the more powerful and effective (even if it might also be covert and subterranean (Smith, 215). What are Liturgical Creatures?
The quote begins to show what Smith means when he says we are liturgical creatures. He seeks to show that people are constantly being shaped by what he calls “cultural liturgies.” He provides a convincing analysis of the mall along these lines. I won’t take the time to recount his analysis here. However, he makes a persuasive argument that a trip to the mall involves a kind of secular liturgy. We are constantly being shaped by secular liturgies like the mall, and usually we are not aware that it is happening.
Material practices, of which the mall is just one example, influence us dramatically. They do so precisely because they meet us according to our God-given nature as desiring, loving creatures. The mall presents us with a rich sensory environment. It appeals to us as liturgical creatures. It invites us to take part in consistent repetitive practices each time we visit. These secular liturgies are so effective in forming us because they take into account that we are embodied people. They shape us accordingly.
Cultural liturgies inculcate a particular vision for the good life. As Smith says, they aim us toward something. That something is a particular conception of human thriving. A Christian who could accurately profess the proper doctrinal commitments may well be more directed by secular liturgies to a secular vision of the good life. The world is too often more successful in directing our imaginations. It approaches us in a way consistent with who God has made us. It engages us as liturgical creatures.
The church, and the Protestant church especially, has tended to seek to form people primarily through rational argument. Smith is thus critiquing what he calls “bobble head Christianity” (42). We have been guilty of approaching people essentially as disembodied minds. According to Smith, however, the Christian liturgy is the church’s most potent resource for change. It offers material practices that shape us consistent with who we are as human people. Indeed, Christian liturgy is more powerful than the secular alternatives. God has promised to use it to shape us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Liturgical Creatures and Christian Education
Smith explores how Christian Education might be reformed to attune it more adequately to our nature as liturgical creatures. It would approach people as embodied actors rather merely as thinking creatures. It would prioritize practices even more than ideas as the cutting edge of change. It would evaluate cultural practices through the lens of worship or liturgy. It would, in turn, better resist those practices where necessary. It would, in sum, commend a robust sense of antithesis with the world without being anti-cultural per se. He admits that reconfiguring Christian Education in this way would also require a ecclesial center of gravity for the entire enterprise.
I have one minor critique of Smith’s perspective. I agree that we are liturgical creatures. What I would call his overstatement might be a rhetorical device to radically redress our neglect. Still, though, I wonder if it is really true that we are more loving people than thinking people. How would one parse out the percentages? He argues that desire forms knowledge. I don’t disagree. But isn’t it also true that knowledge forms desire? It seems to me that Paul’s experience that sin seized upon the commandment to produce covetousness in him requires us to admit that desire is also shaped by knowledge (Romans 7:8).
It is probably more accurate to say that we are loving and desiring as well as thinking people. If the senses are portals to the heart, so is the mind. If it is a pathway to heart, then we don’t want to allow that path to become overgrown and impassable, even if we do want to recapture the conviction that the heart must also be reached through desire, and thus embodied practices. A healthy approach would acknowledge the place of both, and strive to neglect neither.
Liturgical Creatures: A Necessary Corrective
Notwithstanding that minor critique, I do believe that Smith’s thesis in this book is a necessary corrective. I would highly recommend the book for Christian educators of all levels, pastors, worshipers, and parents. For me personally, it has provided a vocabulary to articulate a growing conviction that we are not merely thinking creatures. Material practices do form us.
We in the church have become overly dependent on rational arguments to the neglect of the liturgical. We need to correct that negligence if we are to become more faithful to means of formation commended by our Lord. We need to engage people in a way more consistent with our God-given nature. Real change requires a liturgical engagement. We need to admit that love really does take practice. As Christians, we of all people, ought to be liturgical creatures.