Archive for January, 2013

Educating our Desires for God’s Kingdom (Review Article)

January 6, 2013

[THIS ARTICLE is an extended review of James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), first published in the Journal of Education and Christian Belief (Vol. 14, No.1, 2010, pp.47-53), and here reprinted with permission from the publisher.]


Keywords:  worldview, worship, Christian education, pedagogy, philosophical anthropology, social imaginary, cultural formation


Christian education is centrally concerned with the teaching of a biblical worldview.  This has been the mantra of many Christian educators for several decades now.  But it has increasingly come under attack in the last while.  Strangely, some of the most forceful criticisms are coming from scholars who have their home in the Reformed tradition, the originators of Christian worldview education.[i]  James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is the latest offering in this emerging literature.  Perhaps it is even stranger that some of us who do not belong to the Reformed tradition feel called to defend Christian worldview education against this barrage of attacks.[ii]

A few years ago, I taught a course on “Worldviews and the Christian Mind” at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, a graduate theological school in Leuven, Belgium.  One of my part-time students, educated in business and now involved in sales, found my position on the Christian mind “very strange.”  Until now he had been dualist, he told me, and thus he had some difficulty appreciating my idea that “work could be a form of worship.”  He was excited about working on his major paper for the course – a Christian approach to economics and business.  After the last class he described my course as “revolutionary” for him.

David Naugle (2002), another current defender of worldview thinking, describes his first exposure to reformed theology and how his gradually deepening understanding of the Christian worldview transformed him. “From then until now, my imagination has been captivated by this biblical vision of the world.”   This vision has also shaped his mission to students, many of whom, when discovering the creation/fall/redemption scenario, “undergo a significant transformation at the root of their being and in the fruit of their lives (pp.xx-xxi).”

This has also been my experience, and so I make no apologies for defending a model of education that I have found to be inspiring and transformative, not only for myself, but also for my students. I have also found it a key to teaching and being a witness to God’s truth within the secular college/university environment where I have spent most of my career.  This does not mean that this model might not require some fine-tuning.  But I do not believe it deserves the sustained attack it receives in Desiring the Kingdom.  It would be a tragic mistake if we took up Smith’s suggestion that “we consider a (temporary) moratorium on the notion of ‘worldview’” (p.65).

Let me first provide a paragraph-summary of the book.  Smith holds as axiomatic that “behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology” (p. 27).  We are not primarily thinking animals, but loving, desiring, affective, imaginative and liturgical animals (pp. 34, 37).  Smith objects to an over-emphasis on rationality and correct ideas that he feels are a part of the Reformed model of Christian worldview education (pp. 31-2).  Education is not primarily about information, according to Smith, but about the formation of our desires (p. 18).  What is needed therefore is a “pedagogy of desire,” a pedagogy “that aims below the head; it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination” (pp. 25-6).  Such a pedagogy will focus not on ideas but on formative practices which involve our bodies (p.24).  Hence, worship, and not worldviews, is the key to Christian education and the formation of students who will desire the kingdom of God.

I concur with much of Smith’s careful articulation of his philosophical anthropology in Chapters 1 & 2.  Drawing on Martin Heidegger, Smith maintains that for the most part we don’t think about a world of objects. Rather we feel our way around the world and are involved in it as traditioned actors (pp. 49-50).  We are fundamentally creatures of desire or love (p. 55).  Our desires are always directed to an ultimate vision of the good life.  This ultimate vision of the good life is better seen as a “picture” which is communicated to us most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays and novels (p. 53).  I agree that children, in particular, come to accept a vision of the good life, largely unconsciously, simply by being initiated into various practices that are an expression of this vision of the good life.  As adults, various practices serve to reinforce this vision of the good life.[iii]  Smith draws on Charles Taylor’s notion of a “social imaginary” to highlight the social nature of our affective, non-cognitive “understanding” of the world (pp. 63-71).  In Chapter 2 Smith provides a more careful analysis of how embodied practices shape our desires.  Of particular significance are “liturgies” which are “ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire” (p. 87).

In Chapter 3, Smith provides a fascinating analysis of contemporary culture “through the lens of worship” (p. 89).  The mall is seen as a representative site for the liturgy of consumerism.  Then there are the rituals and ceremonies of nationalism in our schools – each day students stand for the national anthem and/or recite the Pledge of Allegiance, thus creating in them a sense of loyalty to the nation “that threatens to trump other ultimate loyalties” (p. 104).  Smith also describes universities as “Cathedrals of Learning,” with their own rituals of baptism (Frosh week) and commissioning (graduation). Christians must be on guard against these powerful secular liturgies that shape our imagination.  Instead, we need to have our hearts shaped by Christian worship.

Chapter 5, “Practicing for the Kingdom:  An Exegesis of the Social Imaginary Embedded in Christian Worship,” is therefore described as the heart of Smith’s book (p. 131).  It is a long and interesting “first” analysis of the “essential,” “universal,” “transcultural” and “common” criteria of Christian worship (pp. 152-4).  This is of course to claim an awful lot, and I for one, could not help but wonder whether this analysis would not be more accurately described as an exegesis of worship as found in various high-church traditions.  This raises the additional question as to why the practice of worship in these historical traditions should be seen as normative.

I have a further problem with the overall agenda that underlies Smith’s 60-page analysis of the essential elements of worship.  In the chapters both preceding and following Chapter 5, Smith highlights his agenda of wanting to give priority, in Christian formation, to embodied practice over theoretical knowledge.  The church was a worshipping community before it got its doctrines in order, or articulated the elements of a Christian worldview, says Smith (p. 135).  “Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heady beliefs; Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview” (p. 216).  Instead, what Christians think and believe grows out of what Christians do.

Yes, but we must be very careful whenever we suggest that one thing comes before another, or that one thing is more important than another.  Perhaps doing and thinking are equally important.  Perhaps worship and worldview need to be combined.  Perhaps doctrines were more important to the early church than Smith allows.  Jesus spent a lot of time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines.  A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine (e.g. II Tim. 4:2-4).  In most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application.  Indeed, one of the worship services of the early church included such a long sermon that one of the members fell asleep and died from the resulting fall. After raising this unfortunate worshipper from the dead, Paul continued preaching until daylight (Act 20:7-12).

Smith would no doubt respond that he doesn’t want to rule out entirely the formative power of sermons and ideas, or a Christian worldview (see pp. 11, 63, 191, 216).   Indeed, his analysis of the essentials of worship include includes several idea-focused ingredients – reciting of the creed, reading of Scripture, and the sermon (pp.190-3, 194-7).  But even these elements function more as practices, something we do, performances that shape our imaginations, and that ultimately are “a means of grace” (pp. 190, 197, 135).  For Smith, “The practices of Christian worship function as the altar of Christian formation, the heart and soul, the center of gravity of the task of discipleship” (p. 213).  Here again I wonder whether he is claiming too much.  Formal Christian worship in this narrow sense simply will not carry Smith’s agenda of fostering a genuine “desiring” of the kingdom of God.  The bible is full of warnings about the failure of worship to transform hearts (e.g. Is. 1).  History confirms this.  Various high-church traditions which have been strong on worship, have had rather mixed results in producing radical followers of Jesus Christ.  It was the Anabaptists, to cite just one alternative example, who produced passionate Christians, and they were strong critics of Catholic worship and stressed instead discipline and discipleship.  Jesus reminded us that we can go through worship routines, and still remain far from God (Mark 7:6-7).

Smith recognizes the problem and offers the beginning of an answer to this objection, promising to address this issue in more detail in a later volume (p. 208, #115).  But to suggest that Christian worship might fail because parishioners are too influenced by secular liturgies begs the question, because Smith’s claim is that Christian worship can serve as counter-formation to the powerful secular liturgies we are immersed in by virtue of our living in this world.  In the end, I believe that much of Smith’s emphasis on the efficacy of Christian worship in Christian formation hinges on a sacramental view of worship – God’s grace is dispensed via the elements of worship  (pp.135, 150, 208).   Smith’s argument will therefore carry less weight for anyone who does not share his sacramentalism.[iv]

More problems emerge when all this is specifically applied to education, particularly in a short, final chapter.  Smith sees Christian universities “as extensions of the mission of the church” (p. 220).[v]  A central objective of the book is “to re-vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project” (p.18).  It would seem that Smith’s overall thesis would entail that Christian universities should spend more time in formal worship.  Chapel services would seem to be the most important formative feature of a Christian university.  But, surely we have long seen that this is not enough, and Smith tries to disassociate himself from this implication (p.343).  And yet, given his overall emphasis on formal worship as the key to educating our desires, it would seem to follow that chapel worship should be a key to Christian education.  Indeed, at one point in the final chapter Smith comes close to admitting this when he says that “campus worship becomes an integral element of the academic project of the Christian university” (p. 225).  While I agree that campus worship is important, I believe Smith makes formal Christian worship carry too much of the agenda of Christian formation, not only in higher education, but also in relation to church life generally.

Smith might respond by suggesting that I have overlooked another aspect of his overall argument.  As we have already seen, Smith deals more generally with habits, embodied practices, or “formative practices” as playing a role in directing our desires (p. 24).  Formal worship is one kind of formative practice, but it is not the only kind.  Thus, it is significant that already in the concluding section of the chapter describing the essentials of formal Christian worship, Smith shifts his focus and describes some ancillary practices beyond Sunday worship that also serve to educate the desires (pp. 207-214).

In the final chapter dealing specifically with education, Smith focuses more on this broader notion of  “Christian practices” (p. 223).  Indeed, the penultimate section of the final chapter, entitled “Reconnecting Body and Mind:  Embodied Learning,” contains some fascinating suggestions regarding embodied learning (pp. 228-30).  For example, an advanced seminar in contemporary continental philosophy, investigating the theme of hospitality as found in the work of Levinas and Derrida, could require students to adopt intentional practices of hospitality throughout the semester.  I quite agree that such practical assignments could make a significant contribution to forming the imagination and shaping the character of students (p. 228).  Indeed, such “formative practices” might be just as effective, perhaps even more effective, than formal worship.  But again, why then the strong emphasis on Christian worship as being “the center of gravity of the task of discipleship” (p. 213)?

I return to another major theme in Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith believes that the teaching of a Christian worldview is not that important for Christian education.  Yes, occasionally he is careful to qualify his position by suggesting that he doesn’t want to reject worldview talk entirely, or that he is merely opposed to a distorted form of worldview talk (pp. 11, 13, 24, 63).  But the overall impression given in the book is that there is something wrong with conceiving of Christian education in terms of teaching a Christian worldview.

This assessment is reinforced by the sheer frequency of critical comments made about the Christian worldview model of education throughout the book.  (The list of references would be long!)  Then there is the “either-or” language used by Smith.  For example, he offers his “person-as-lover” model as an “alternative” to the “person-as-thinker” model (p. 62).  Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices” (p. 220).   He describes his approach to education and the worldview approach as “two very different understandings of education” (p. 44).  Smith at one point also calls for a temporary moratorium on the notion of “worldview” (p.65).  And in the final chapter dealing specifically with education, the reader is hard pressed to find any significant role that a Christian worldview could play in Smith’s analysis of Christian education.  Smith’s overall project is seriously weakened by his near complete rejection of the notion of a Christian worldview as important for Christian education.  I further believe such a rejection is entirely unnecessary.

Smith’s analysis would be much stronger if he understood his project as one of “refining” the Reformed worldview model of education.  All the Reformed thinkers that I have read put faith and pre-theoretical commitment at the core of any worldview, as Smith himself acknowledges at one point (p. 25).  Indeed, I find Smith’s analysis of worship to be a helpful way to describe this pre-theoretical core at the heart of any worldview.  I would agree that there is a danger of Christian educators placing too much emphasis on the ideas of a Christian worldview.  But this is a danger only.  It is not an inherent weakness in the Christian worldview model of education.  Smith is simply mistaken when he maintains that, “worldview talk has misconstrued the nature and task of Christian education because the operative notion of worldview at work there has been tied to a stunted, rationalist picture of the human person” (p. 32 ).  The Reformed notion of worldview need not, and most often, has not been tied to a stunted rationalist picture of the human person.

Healthy worldview education can play a significant role in shaping the Christian imaginary and in Christian formation (see my examples in the introduction).  Smith’s attack on Christian worldview education, particularly in the last chapter, rests largely on a caricature of such education.  It is simply unfair to suggest that an emphasis on Christian perspectives in education entails resistance to Christian formation (p. 219 #6).  It is unfair to suggest that Christian worldview education domesticates the radicality of the gospel, and turns out professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do (p. 218).  In the Christian worldview courses that I have taught, my aim has always been to show how radically the gospel changes all spheres of thought and practice, and to inspire students to take up the challenge of being obedient and radical Christians in their later professions.

My criticisms thus far point to a deeper problem still.  Smith correctly maintains that ultimately pedagogy is rooted in philosophical anthropology.  He argues that “we inhabit the world not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it” (p. 47).  But, why can’t we inhabit the world as both thinking and affective creatures?  Smith does at times advocate a more holistic view of human nature (pp.39, 57), but in the end he tends to be nearly as reductionistic as the rationalists he criticizes.  I would suggest that we are both desiring and rational animals.  It is not one or the other.  A biblical anthropology combines heart and mind.  Contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience research shows that the cognitive and non-cognitive areas of our brains are much more interconnected than previously thought (cf. p. 60).  While I agree that we are fundamentally lovers and worshippers, the biblical notion of love and worship includes our entire being – loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind (Mark 12:30), and worshipping God in everything we do (Phil. 3:17).

So, what then should Christian education look like?  We need a balance between educating the desires and educating the mind.  We need a balance between teaching the ideas essential to a Christian worldview, and forming the desires that are at the heart of a Christian worldview.  We need Christian worship (a liturgical formative practice), as well as the inculcation of habits of obedience to Christ (formative practices in the broader sense).  Only such education will lead to the formation of genuinely transformed lives of students at Christian schools, colleges and universities.


Jacobsen, D. & Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Eds).  (2004).  Scholarship & Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Naugle, David K. (2002).  Worldview:  The History of a Concept.  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2002) pp. xx-xxi.

Thiessen, E.J. (2007).  Refining the Conversation: Some Concerns about Contemporary Trends in Thinking about Worldviews, Christian Scholarship and Higher Education. The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible And Theology, 79(2):133-152.

Walsh, B.J. (2000).  Transformation:  Dynamic Worldview or Repressive Ideology. Journal of Education & Christian Belief , 4(2):101-114.

Wolterstorff, N. (1980). Educating for Responsible Action. Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans.



[i] Nicholas Wolterstorff  (1980) has expressed concerns about worldview education as not being concerned enough with praxis.  Brian J. Walsh (2000) addresses some reservations about the notion of a Christian worldview.  In the fall of 2004, a conference provocatively titled, “After Worldview:  Christian Higher Education in Postmodern Worlds,” was held in Michigan. The roster of presenters at this conference included a number of Reformed scholars.

[ii] See for example, my response (Thiessen 2007) to Jacobsen and Jacobsen (2004), an anthology critiquing the Reformed approach to scholarship and education.

[iii] Although Smith does on occasion mention developmental factors (e.g. p. 56), I believe more attention needs to be paid to how formative practices function differently for children and adults.

[iv]  I also wonder whether Smith’s defense of the importance of worship rests on a confusion of revelation and sacrament (cf. p. 149).

[v] Smith is mainly concerned with higher education, though he points out that many of the same issues and concerns arise in K-12 education (pp. 18n3; 217n4).