Desiring the KingdomI finished reading Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith last week. It's a superb book, with a broad theme and a narrow theme.

The broad theme is the question of what drives us as human beings. In many Christian circles, the assumption is that we are most fundamentally thinking-and-believing creatures. We have a worldview, which is a set of our basic beliefs and convictions, and our lives derive their direction from this worldview. We are shaped by our exposure to ideas. So, in order to grow as Christians, we need to tackle false ideas and have our minds informed by solid Christian thinking, to help us to formulate in our minds a coherent Christian view of everything. Smith challenges this, arguing (persuasively) that we are more fundamentally desiring-and-loving creatures. We all have a vision for the good life (or the "kingdom"), and it is our love for that vision that drives us and shapes our lives. We are most deeply shaped, not so much by the ideas we encounter, but by participating in powerful embodied practices ("cultural liturgies"). So, in order to grow as Christians, we need to recognise the cultural liturgies of the world around us (such as the consumerist liturgies that train us, mind and body, to love shopping) and we need to engage in the embodied practices of Christian worship, so that our minds and bodies can be formed in such a way that we grow to love the kingdom of God with all of our being.

It's a powerful and important message with implications for all sorts of things. For more, see my post from September, which contains a video of Smith speaking about this broad theme from his book.

But it's the narrow theme of the book to which I should like to call your attention in this post (despite appearances to the contrary!). This is the theme of Christian education.

What is a Christian education?

Following the "thinking-thing" model for anthropology, a "Christian education" would be an education characterised by Christian ideas and Christian perspectives. Smith's concern is that this may be woefully inadequate:

Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn't actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? (p.218)

But what might a Christian education look like, if we recognise that people are primarily lovers, rather than (primarily) thinkers?

It will be an educational experience in which Christian formation is central, rather than merely Christian information.

Its goal, I'm suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God's image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation—but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus's cruciform cultural labor (p.220).

Smith provides three examples of what this could mean in practice.

  1. An important role for the university chapel as "a kind of 'mediating institution' between the university and the church" (p.225). "[T]he role of the chapel is not to stir our emotions or merely fuel our 'spiritual' needs; rather, it is the space in which the ecclesial university community gathers to practice (for) the kingdom by engaging in the liturgical practices that form the imagination" (p.224).
  2. A whole-life rhythm of communal Christian living. This provides an alternative to participating in the powerful and formative secular liturgies of consumerism or of typical undergraduate life. "What if we saw the wider environment of the university as also a space for fostering Christian practices, including liturgical practices? The unique nature of residential higher education provides an opportunity to create intentional communities within the dorms that not only gather for Bible study and prayer but also engage in a range of full-bodied Christian practices, including liturgical practices such as prayerful observance of the Daily Office or 'Divine Hours'. Such intentional community could also include commitments to common meals; Sabbath observance; works of mercy in the neighborhood, weekly acts of hospitality for students, faculty, or those outside the university community; fasting together once a week; worship together at a local parish; a yearly service project; and more. Together these practices would constitute a rich fabric of formation that would nourish the imagination and prime the community for thinking Christianly in their learning and scholarship" (p.226-7).
  3. Embodied learning. The first two examples haven't touched on the actual teaching that goes on within the university. How might that be affected? Learning needs to move beyond "read and talk" courses to include some embodied practices. For example, while reading philosophical texts discussing hospitality, students could also be given assignments requiring them to engage with the poor, homeless and needy to extend (and receive) hospitality. This kind of learning would be formative as well as informative.

Smith is writing within a North American context, where there are plenty of explicitly Christian universities and colleges. Such things are not so common in the UK, and most Christian undergraduates study at "secular" universities. However, having read Smith's book, I'd like to pose a question: Is it possible to get a 99% Christian education at a secular university? I suspect the answer might be "yes". If a fully Christian education is, say, 95% about formative practices and 5% about Christian ideas and perspectives, then it seems to me that a "secular" university in the UK leaves plenty of space for Christian students to fill their lives with Christian practices (1 and 2 above), to find creative ways of supplementing their "read and talk" studies with embodied learning (3 above), and also to do some "Christian perspective" private study on the side. And maybe this kind of Christian education within the secular university is a better model for Christian engagement in the world than having separate institutions for Christian higher education?

If we really grasp this vision for embodied and formative Christian university education, this could have all sorts of exciting implications not only for Christian faculty, but also for churches, chaplaincies and organisations working with Christian students... Comments welcome!

Finally, I can't resist quoting from the final paragraph of the book, in which Smith touches on the issue of Christian scholarship, linking it with the role of worship in shaping the imagination:

If our theorizing and scholarship are going to be informed by Christian accounts of the world, our imaginations must first be fueled by a vision of the kingdom, and such formation of the imagination takes place in the practices of Christian worship, which carry a unique understanding of the world ("I worship in order to understand") (p.230).