Reflection Paper on James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom

Posted: June 17, 2016 in Book and Article Reviews
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In Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith further defines what he means by “homo liturgicus.”  He does this primarily through two terms: praktognosia and habitusPraktognosia challenges the intellectualist assumptions of the Enlightenment, which focuses primarily on epistemology and knowing by means of the intellect.  This approach neglects the affective, bodily comportment of our epistemologies.  This is praktognosia.  It is the bodily means by which we come to know and inhabit a world without needing to continuously reflect on our actions.  They become so ingrained in our being that we often act of this knowledge without need for reflection.  For instance, walking in a store’s aisle, we have been accustomed to walking on the right-hand side of the aisle.  Walking on the opposite side would be a violation of the surrounding culture’s praktognosia.  This is not done while asking why or how we have come to these kinds of practices, they are just assumed.

Habitus is a “fundamental orientation to the world… embedded in our bodies” (94).  We become part of a “social order or social body… by conscripting my body through the most mundane means: through bodily postures, repeated words, ritualized cadences” (94-95).  In other words, habitus is the social practices arising from a culture that create disciples of that culture.  In our nation, for instance, we stand, place our right hand over our heart, and pledge allegiance to a flag in unison.  Smith notes that habitus implants an orientation to the world in me by means of the practices and habits that are formed through routine.  Ultimately, this shapes the social and individual imagination (think desires) toward a particular orientation to the world.  This orientation is assumed as true and is difficult to recognize in ourselves because it has become such a deep part of us.

I think this has significant implications for how we understand media and technology and its impact on us.  As Smith notes, every form has underlying assumptions about the world and a particular teleological trajectory.  And, if we are truly formed by our practices and bodily postures, then media and technology, along with its various rhythms in our lives, have a tremendous impact on how we perceive the world and live accordingly.  For instance, iphones and computers teach me that power, information, and my desires are all available at the tips of my fingers and from any location (quite often) in the world.  There is little physical or mental exertion to diligently gain knowledge or experience or my desire.  It is there instantly.  If I don’t get it instantly, I become irritated.

Plus, I am instantly and constantly connected with what is happening in my world and with my friends.  Or, so I think.  The internet and its various media create the perception that I am privy to everything of importance happening in the world.  It is a superficial omniscience that I possess through the various technologies at my disposal.  Not to mention, much of the various forms on the internet are specifically advertising and catering to my likes or desires.  As such, I am shaped to believe that the world is centered on me and my whims.  This plays into the rampant individualism and egocentrism of our culture.  As burden of proof, the DSM V has discontinued the diagnosis of narcissism, primarily because it is so prevalent that it is deemed “normal.”  It seems that our technologies have helped shape us to this point.

Also, our technologies have made “efficiency” and speed priorities.  Not only should our desires be met but they should be met instantaneously.  Delays are problematic and discouraged.  This has significant repercussions for worship and discipleship.  We want instantaneous salvation and sanctification.  We want a life of holiness without the difficult disciplines of discipleship!  Worship that extends beyond our attention spans is “boring” and, therefore, deemed less than important or inconvenient.  We want quick fixes to our deepest issues.

This significantly shapes worship and the Christian community.  If I have come to believe the world is centered on me, then I will extend this bodily orientation to worship.  If the music, or speaker, or community does not meet my “needs” or desires, then I can simply search out another church that will fill those desires.  If I disagree or feel uncomfortable or unfulfilled, then I can justify church-hopping because my current church is “incapable” of adequately supplying for my perceived needs.  Of course, the Church (at least in North America) is not totally without blame.  We have re-shaped worship to reflect our technologically-driven, therapeutically-anesthetized lives.  We have tried to make worship entertaining or about self-fulfillment and self-help.  We are getting the kinds of disciples we shape – consumers.

I like Smith’s concept of liturgical practices and the value they hold for the Christian community.  They teach us to “take the right things for granted.”  In other words, the rituals and rhythms are ways by which we are trained to perceive the world differently and thus to inhabit a world differently.  Or, more appropriately, to inhabit a different world altogether.

Part of the way that cultural liturgies shape us is through the narrative and stories that are embodied in those same practices.  For instance, Smith tells a story about a man that regularly attended worship where confession and absolution were part of the natural rhythms of worship every week.  A significant and difficult situation happened with the man’s son getting into trouble with the law.  Upon entering the room where the son was being held, the son wrapped his arms around his dad and said how sorry he was.  Due to worship where he had received pardon for his sins every week, the man’s only “logical” response was to extend the same forgiveness to the son.  The liturgical worship practices embody a story of forgiveness that helps the man to perceive the world in a different way.

Flowing out of Smith’s work, it seems to me that we need to develop an aesthetics of preaching.  I do not discount Smith’s emphasis on things like sacraments.  However, in my tradition preaching plays a large role in worship, which includes its relation to the sacraments.  I think we need to re-think preaching in light of praktognosia and habitus.  Typically, Enlightenment styles of preaching have focused on principles, points, the underlying message, or the theoretical meaning of texts.  It has been primarily concerned with the dissemination of information.  Salvation was conceived as giving people the right information and allowing them to make the “right decision.”

Fred Craddock was one of the first major voices to confront this emphasis on logic and intellect, from which developed the New Homiletic.  This perspective suggests that the words in our preaching are not merely about “what” we say but also about “how” we say it.  This is akin to Smith’s forms, which cannot be separated from content.  In shaping disciples through preaching, it must move beyond intellect and incorporate into the aesthetic, bodily modes of reality which we inhabit.  That’s not to say intellect is unimportant.  But, we recall Smith’s notion that we are about shaping desire not simply decisions.  There is a difference in a sermon that I find logical and one that grips me in my gut.  Both may communicate similar “ideas” but the impact is significantly different.  I think faithful preaching will continue to facilitate discipleship through “(kin)aesthetic” means.  It still holds a significant place in the shaping of imagination for the Church.

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