Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Desiring the Kingdom is the first of his three-volume theology of culture. In this book, Smith shares his “vision of what authentic, integral Christian learning looks like, emphasizing how learning is connected to worship” (11). His goal is to challenge Christian educators to realize that education is a formative process that should enflame our love for God’s kingdom and our longing to see this kingdom come. Likewise, he wants Christian worshippers to realize, too, that worship is a pedagogical exercise that should cultivate our love for God and others.
Smith argues that the chief end of education is not primarily to inform the mind but to form the heart. Thus, contrary to general opinion, for him, education is a formative rather than just an informative undertaking. Without devaluing the importance of saturating our minds, he emphasizes the transformation of our hearts as the result of our learning. In his own words, “the primary goal of Christian education is the formation of a peculiar people—people who desire the kingdom of God and thus undertake their vocations as an expression of that desire.” He then views a Christian school, college, or university as “a formative institution that constitutes part of the teaching mission of the church” (34). He looks at a Christian college, for instance, as an extension of the life and practices of the church. And he prefers the adjective “ecclesial” to describe this institution (e.g., he prefers the term “ecclesial college” over “Christian college”). A Christian college, he says, is usually taken as a place of learning, detached from the church; whereas, an ecclesial college is a place of learning, closely connected to the worship of the church. As such, an ecclesial college becomes a place of worship, too. And interestingly, Smith understands worship as an education that should help us become more lovers of God’s kingdom. To let him speak, the liturgy (which Smith understands as synonymous with worship) is “a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God” (33).
The author admits that his vision is not new at all. What may be considered new about it is the way he presents it. He writes contemporarily “from within the Reformed tradition, with a view of reaching an audience that is both catholic and evangelical,” focusing particularly on “the shape and task of Christian higher education” (15). While I don’t agree with everything written in his book, such as his repeated reference to human beings as animals, Smith’s vision is commendable. The truth is, we live in the world where education, yes, even Christian education, is mainly perceived as the mere impartation of ideas to the mind, rather than as the formation of the heart. For those of us who are teachers, Smith’s book will challenge us to rethink the way we educate our students. We should capture his vision and follow his advice to look at our vocation as educators and the education that we give to our students through the lens of our worship of God. The Christian institution where we work should be an extension of the worship of the church. “Thus,” Smith concludes, “any Christian scholarship worth the name must emerge from the matrix of worship. In short, Christian scholarship must be ecclesial scholarship” (230).