Synopsis of James K.A Smith's "Imagining and Desiring the Kingdom" Lecture


Article by SPS Student Megan Wildhood.

On May 1, 2014, author and professor James K.A Smith engaged a varied cross-section of SPU’s populace at the Fine Center in First Free Methodist on re-contextualizing Christian Education in the direction of his eponymous book, “Imagining the Kingdom.”  Smith opened the conversation with a question: “What is it that makes discipleship and transformation possible?”  He would argue that systems of thought and doctrines are not the things that really motivate us. 

Christian higher education is not just about information, but formation, Smith says.  It is not just depositing stuff in eager young minds but also forming them as disciples.  Intellects are formed and informed by love for the world they are called to serve.  In this way, Christian education is and should be about the reformation of their loves.  Our students are not just thinkers, we don’t just want to just form “brains on a stick.”  We want to touch the language of the heart. 

One of the roadblocks to reformation is the language of the heart.  It has been hijacked by our culture and twisted into sentimentality.  But in terms of the biblical, New Testament understanding, the heart is about the core of who we are – our loves, longings, and affections.  The Greek word is kardia, or as Smith would say, gut, the center of who we are.  It’s not “you are what you think,” it’s “you are what you love.”  If any institution is going to take that seriously, it must be the Christian university.  Smith does not advocate for a separation of the intellect and heart – both are in the communal pursuit in the love and desire for God.

If the task of Christian higher education is about reforming our loves, then it is also about rehabilitation because love is a habit and a habit is pre-conscious.  This means that Christian education is a formation of virtue and, as Smith says, “you don’t think your way into virtue.”  As Smith understands it, you acquire the habits through exemplars and practices.  You also acquire it through narratives.  Christian universities, then, should be trying to restoring and “re-storying” who its students are.  It is necessary for the Christian university to be part of the sanctification of the students.  This sanctification should reach our imaginations and our very perceptions of the world.  Before we see the world, Smith argues, we have already imagined the world in ways we have not articulated.  We are storied creatures; we learn to love certain versions of the good life because our hearts have been captured by stories.

Universities are incubators of the imagination by nature.  The question Smith wants to focus on is what is being incubated.  It’s important to consider this because, as he quotes Stanley Hauerwas, “Every education is a moral formation.”  Education teaches you to imagine the world in ways that are not on the syllabus.  It should be expected that there are implicit liturgies that form us more at the level of the imagination rather than primarily the intellect.  Much of education is pre-intellectual and co-intellectual.  The Christian university can be intentional about cultivating this imagination. 

How?  Smith quotes “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to explain:  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood.  Teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  This longing is not imparted by explanation alone.   In a sense, explanations are paraphrases and, in relation to poetry, what poetry critic Cleanth Brooks calls the “heresy of paraphrase.”  In other words, a poem means what it means – it cannot be explained any other way.  Smith tells the story of an instance where T. S. Eliot gave a reading of “The Wasteland” and, when asked by an audience member what it meant, he replied, “It means to read ‘The Wasteland’ again.” 

Smith would say that the Christian life can be examined the same way.  The immersion in the practices of Christian worship can’t be paraphrased – they can’t be practiced any other way.  During the question-and-answer time, SPU Professor of Old Testament Dr. Frank Spina asked, “Aren’t all denominations paraphrases?”  Smith answered in the affirmative.  The heresy of paraphrase does not mean you can’t paraphrase; rather, it is a caution against confusing the paraphrase with the experience – of the poem, of the Eucharist, of the Scriptures.

The viability and success of Christian higher education depends on these liturgies of Christian worship.  One of the other projects Smith has in mind is reconnecting the college and the Church.  The college is almost its own para-church organization, he says.  If the aim is rejoining, then the college can’t be sending signals that it is the Church.  College-campus worship can’t send signals that it replaces Christian worship in congregations.  But Christian institutions can and should be intentional about shaping their ethos.  Smith says this is done primarily through reinforcing stories and mythologies because ethos is not primarily an intellectual project: “It’s more like the water we’re swimming in.”

This shaping occurs in subtle, small ways over time.  He quotes French theorist Pierre Bourdieu in explaining: “Little things have disproportionate significance.”  Little things repeated over time are doing things to you that are disproportionately large.  As an example, Smith asks this chilling question: “How do you get a boy from Nebraska to sign up to go halfway around the world to a country he’s never heard of to kill people he’s never seen?”  Smith’s answer was equally chilling: “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” every, single day.

Smith engaged the audience after his talk.  Professor of Moral and Historical Theology and Associate Dean of SPU’s Seminary Rick Steele asked, “How do faculty, staff, administrators, etc. deal with students who are in good academic standing but are known to love wrongly?”  Smith replied, “Make them uncomfortable by telling the [Christian] story as an invitation.  It’s carrot, not stick.”

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2014