Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom: Liturgy and Kardia

 I am joining with Mystie and others for Week 2 of this book study.
Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects. In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person. Hence every liturgy is an education, and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or “understanding” of the world.
Etymologically, the word "liturgy" means public worship, duty, ministry.   But Smith seems to use it in a somewhat fuller sense, as something that calls on every element of the human, not just his head.    His use of the word "kardia" is to show the deeper Christian meaning of the "heart" as not just what we put on a Valentine card but as the core of the human being as human.

Sean has been working on this 3D puzzle of New York's famous St Patrick Cathedral.

This has inspired in Aidan one of his regular Google forays into what he calls "Mass" -- which means he wants to browse distinguished churches.   Here is an inside view of the cathedral, which Aidan had me look up.

Think about traditional forms of worship, the kind that would have taken place when St Patrick's Cathedral was new, or in European village churches or city cathedrals.   In addition to this kind of appeal to the sight, there was music (think of the sacred music of Bach, Handel et al),  music of human voice in chorus and old pipe organs.  Then there was the smell of incense; the richness of vestment and receptacle; the chanted Latin; the careful, ceremonious rubrics of placement and movement required of the priest, his attendants and the congregation.   All were different from the everyday, all dignified, all carefully ordered, all mysterious though deeply embedded in history.   Mystery does not take away from meaning -- it adds to it.   Tradition does not impersonalize -- it calls for a deeply personal response within the specific meaning of that tradition.

Smith wryly describes an ordinary American mall detail by detail, paralleling this traditional liturgical experience -- the preparation, the hush of entrance, the music piped throughout, the little vestibules of worship, the iconry, the sense of lifting up the heart in aspiration and reverence, the rituals of approaching the commercial altar with your offering of cash in exchange for gifts that bring hope and a sense of transcending the ordinary.     Even the mystery and the traditional continuity -- every mall partakes of something of the essence of ALL malls.

This has stuck with me, though we go so seldom to malls that really, we couldn't say we were "practicing mall-goers" in a poll.    We are at the very best, Easter and Christmas mall attenders and perhaps not even that.   I actually don't remember the last time we mall-cruised.

Still, there are other liturgies involved in typical American life.   Smith's point is to bring out that what we receive with our whole selves, what we love, is what we essentially become.

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 “aim” our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God’s healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ’s two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray. 

He calls the typical Christian focus "bobbleheaded".    I instantly pictured one of those cartoony story Bibles designed for children.   I always wondered how that became a good idea, but perhaps it is a true art, representational of a certain mindset.

A while ago while driving up to Oregon, Kevin and I listened to a Teaching Company series on neurology that included a lecture on our mental "body map".    I couldn't find a link that dealt specifically with this idea (though I did find a cool human emotion body map article).  But according to the lecture our internal mental images of our body are distorted.  Our faces and hands are disproportionately exaggerated, etc.

Smith's point is that we usually target Christian education disproportionately to the head, therefore implicitly envisioning a bobble-headed Christian.     He states that Protestants are particularly guilty of this, as opposed presumably to Catholics and Orthodox.    That could be true, but I think his cautionary words apply to Catholics as well, if only as a warning.

He points to "worldview teaching" as an example.   I have been around long enough to remember when "worldview" was really trending in the Christian homeschool world, particularly in Protestant circles.   And yes, I was always suspicious of basically mainlining a specific philosophy straight into a central vein of the brain, so to speak.    As Smith says, education is a matter of formation rather than information, even very good information.   (This is a traditional Ignatian motto).

Formation is something that involves an acknowledgment of every aspect of the human person, not just the cerebral processes.     It takes not just a set of words but a whole manner of life, and the manner of life cannot in turn be enclosed and boundaried by reason, but has to extend outwards into mystery, into what we can never fully grasp but can love and desire.

I like the way the book uses liturgy as a focus.    Liturgy involves habitual action.   It is repetitive in some ways, though there is variety within the repetition.   But you can do something habitually for many years and still walk away from it, if it isn't also associated with love.   Love in the liturgical context is a kind of reverence, a response of aspiration and commitment.

I grew up in an evangelical church which had a strong emphasis on the affective.   In many ways I am very glad of this, though it bothered me often as I grew older because sometimes the appeal to the heart was, well, just stupid --  an offense to my intellect.      You can mainline emotion as well as information.   Emotion can become reductive and crass in an attempt to bypass the intellect.   The American emotional excesses in regard to religion are well known -- and Jesus warned us not to become addicted to the sugar rush of emotion.

Liturgy at its best does not affront reason, it integrates it with the affections and raises it out of the cranky narrowness of the reason alone (Chesterton, Charlotte Mason, and CS Lewis all talk in very different ways about the excesses and deficits of over -reliance on brain without -- take your pick ---  poetry, mystery, atmosphere, the heart, the chest.).  Liturgy ennobles the affective.  This is why church liturgical commitees don't do us any favors by reaching for the banal middle ground with regard to music, rubrics, and church decorations.   We don't need to be "normed" in our religious practices; we need our hearts to be lifted, in the words from the Eucharistic service.

I am sure the book goes more fully into this -- we are only in Part 1.

I have been thinking a lot about the liturgy of the internet : ), the liturgy of house-keeping, the liturgy of the daily schedule around here.   And how our home and our daily doings contribute to the attitude I want my kids to have access to for their whole lives.   No specifics, yet.

We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends. So we are not primarily homo rationale or homo faber or homo economicus; we are not even generically homo religiosis. We are more concretely homo liturgicus; humans are those animals that are religious animals not because we are primarily believing animals but because we are liturgical animals—embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.


  1. I took a look at this study and opted for something solidly Catholic in its place after looking up James K A Smith and reading through his ideas on Catholicism and reform. Interesting to read your take on it here! Love the puzzles!

  2. "Love in the liturgical context is a kind of reverence, a response of aspiration and commitment."

    I love that you said this. It is not *just* habit, but it goes much deeper and that's precisely why it's formative because it reaches the soul *through* the body.

  3. As always, I love what you have to say, Willa!

    Especially this: "But you can do something habitually for many years and still walk away from it, if it isn't also associated with love."

    And this: "You can mainline emotion as well as information. Emotion can become reductive and crass in an attempt to bypass the intellect."

    That is a very good balance to the direction Smith seems to be going.

    You say he might flesh this out later in the book...I just learned this book is ONE OF THREE. Now I wonder if we will get the whole story from this one book. We shall see, I suppose!


We love hearing from our readers. Please share your thoughts or just say hello!