Desiring “the good life”–but which good life?

Thoughts sparked by  Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith, 2009.

By “desire,” Smith means love, a longing for, a setting of our affections. It springs from the gut, the heart (Greek: kardia). Human beings were designed to love, to desire. We are “desiring beings.”

As Augustine said, God made us for himself (to desire/love Him), and our hearts are restless till they rest in God. We can’t help desiring something outside ourselves because it’s our nature to do so. The question is, what will be the object of our desire? On what/whom will we set our affections? This is a big question—maybe the biggest. “The worth and excellence of a soul are determined by the object of its love,” said Henry Scougal (quoted by John Piper in The Pleasures of God.)

We are defined by what we want.

Augustine says we are what we love.

Smith says we’re defined by what we practice and worship more than by what we think/believe. “Because I think that we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love…. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like” pp. 26-27.

Smith uses the word “kingdom” to mean “the good life”—whatever we’re striving toward, the way we think the world and our lives ought to be. It may be the kingdom of God, which Jesus taught us to pray for. Or it may be a materialistic, comfortable, fun personal experience. Or it may be National Socialism, which was Hitler’s vision of the good life, his kingdom, and he certainly used education and cultural “liturgies” to indoctrinate people so that they would set their affections on his kingdom.

By “liturgy” Smith means practice. A liturgy is any activity we repeatedly do that reminds us of what we want, what the good life looks like so we can remember to aim at it. Worship liturgies include saying the creed, reading Scripture, confessing our sins—things that draw us toward life as God meant us to live. But Smith also uses the term “liturgy” to refer to singing the national anthem at sports events, watching commercials on television (“television was invented to create audiences for advertising, not the other way around” claims Smith in a footnote on p. 95). These things are liturgies because they draw us toward a particular picture of the good life.

Questions I think the book is asking:

  • What determines what I want, where I set my affection?
  • How am I influenced/formed by culture and education and the places I spend time?

Smith only implies it, but of course free will is a factor: two people exposed to the same formative influences might choose to respond differently (thus the value of being alert to the forces trying to shape me). And inherited temperament plays a role. But he is most interested in the role education and worship can play. Culture is a huge force influencing us and our children, and Christian education, specifically, needs to more effectively harness the power of engagement (practices/liturgies). Here he is arguing against the distorted concept that simply giving young people a list of the correct information to believe will equip them with a Christian worldview and make them immune to lures of materialism, egoism, and other false kingdoms

The analogy that comes to my mind is that liturgies are like a river. Our malleable selves are the land over which the river runs. Each repetition carves a tiny bit deeper, shaping us in ways we probably don’t realize and may not intend. But it is possible to be intentional about the liturgies of our daily and weekly and yearly lives.

Our livelong project is to put our loves in order (Augustine, Dante).

  • by intentionally participating in rituals that point us toward the highest good
  • by intentionally establishing habits that shape us into who we want to be—to live the truly good life as a citizen in the highest kingdom. Habits matter because “we are what we repeatedly do” (who said that?)
  • by “practicing the presence of God,” to use Brother Lawrence’s term. It doesn’t do any good to know God is always with me if I don’t train my attention to focus on Him.

From The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis, p. 26-27, cited by Ken Meyers in interview with Smith: “St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made words of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.’”

Smith says it this way: “Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love” (p. 32).

“The liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, 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 “aims” our love toward the kingdom of God” (p. 33).

“Education is not something that traffics primarily in abstract, disembodied ideas; rather, education is a holistic endeavor that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in a process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination, and orients us to the world” (p. 39).

Practical application

  1. How do I spend my time? What is it that I practice, that I do regularly?
    What vision of “the good life” is propagated by this activity/experience? To what is my desire being drawn?
  2. What do I want? Why? What will that get me? What life am I trying to make for myself or my family/community? Is that what I really want deep down?
    Deep down, what do I want to want?
    How can I reform/re-educate myself to put my loves/desires in order so that I set my affections on higher things, ultimately the highest good, which is God and his kingdom, true human flourishing, shalom. (“The glory of God is man fully alive.”)
  3. In addition to putting my loves in order, how can I keep them in order; i.e., how can I intentionally set up liturgies/routines/habits/disciplines in my life to help me remember what I want?
  4. What influence do I have in the education/formation of other people? How can I most effectively use that influence to draw their affection toward goodness?

The good news: affections can be set. I can change the object of my love; I can change my hearts’ priorities. But it’s not a simple matter of deciding. It involves the long, gradual process of re-forming myself, like training my weak and slumping spine to hold itself upright. There’s nothing for it but exercise, practice, repetition. Training my heart to love God and seek his kingdom is a lifelong project, but it can be done! Is there anything more worth doing?

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I am a Christian thinker, reader, and writer, who never travels without chocolate. See the “About” page for details.
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One Response to "Desiring “the good life”–but which good life?"

  1. Teri Hyrkas says:

    What a wonderful summation and review, Tracey! I enjoyed the book, and appreciated the approach that Dr. Smith took as he presented his concerns about what he describes as the commonly held definition of the Christian worldview, Christian education, the role of liturgies and the telos of life. Lots to talk about! I also listened (again) to the Gourian podcast, which really added depth to my idea of liturgy. Hope others had a chance to listen to the extended interview, or the podcast from Krista Tippett’s show “On Being”, with Gourian. See you soon.


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