Is drinking Starbucks coffee a ritual? Is Mall-Shopping a form of liturgy? This is a question that I hadn’t considered carefully until I started reading James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom recently. There is a practice to shopping at the mall, which mirrors religion in some ways: there are icons out front (mannequins) which draw us into the ‘temple’; we have a sense of need, and seek through the racks to find the ‘holy object’ which we proceed with to the altar (cash register) to consummate our sacrifice. Smith says: “And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. When invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give’; we are also invited to take.” Of course Smiths description is tongue-in-cheek– a way of poking fun at our consumeristic tendencies while also making a point about how shopping is in some ways like a religious practice.
But the point isn’t that shopping is religious– it is that shopping and religious practice and anything we do with our body train us affectually and habitually to learn certain practices and connections in our spirit. For example, I just started going back to spin class this weekend– and the good feelings I get when I do that intense exercise started again. I have not intellectually learned that exercise makes me feel better– my body has realized that affectually– through my affections or feelings. In his book Desiring the Kingdom Smith is pointing out the importance of our bodily practices and habits– how these form how we look at the world, and what we know. He says that Christians often focus so much on believing the right information and theology that they don’t pay enough attention to affective ways of knowing– learning through habit and bodily practice.
The Christianity I was raised with was in some ways intellectual– focused on learning the right thoughts, ideas, theology, correct Biblical understanding. The most intense affectual learning came, I think, through singing– which is why some of those hymns still bring tears to my eyes– as well as the ardent prayers. At any rate, there wasn’t a whole lot of outward bodily worship or practice involved in the Christianity I had– there may have been intense inward experiences at times that were not merely intellectual– but those were not bodily (except for the singing, or audible prayers with mouths)– generally they were emotive, inward, not bodily. But still those were affectual training of the heart.
While some Christians lay prostrate when they pray, or lift their hands, or use smells and bells or kneel, for many evangelicals, these bodily practices are distracting. Many of us Christians are kind of like the ancient Greeks in our thinking– Plato and Socrates saw the body as a distracting nuisance from pure thought. We have bought into a postivistic modern notion that real learning comes primarily through intellectual enlightenment and correct information. The gnostics who Paul sometimes preached against also thought that gnosis– i.e., knowledge– was the path to salvation. So in some ways that kind of faith is a gnostic Christianity– focused primarily on intellectual knowledge sometimes. The real way to be a better Christian is to learn about Jesus and then implement that knowledge. We focus on the cognitive ways of learning, but in doing that sometimes we ignore the bodily practices which can help us to be more fully Christian.
But I grew up in a pietist Christian heritage, who tried to guard against an overly-gnostic overly-intellectual Christianity (although not using the body much in the process). Pietists practice a form of Christianity which especially seeks to ‘walk in the spirit’ or follow the leading of God. Historically pietism was in some respects a response to the overly academic and scholastic tendencies of the Reformers. You need to feel Jesus in your heart, to experience the true freedom of God in your soul, to hear the call of God on your life, to respond in faith to that call and wholeheartedly devote yourself to sensing the Spirit’s guiding and direction.
Now that kind of attentive listening to the Spirit can lead to some strange behaviors. I remember guys sometimes telling the Christian girls in high school “God told me we are supposed to be together” and of course its kind of hard for a young girl to argue with that– what evidence could she provide in opposition to this guys voice of God? And people sometimes get a little carried away, claiming that they were given a parking spot close to the building by God, or claiming other such events were divinely orchestrated. No doubt God can help practical details work out well– but to use such happy circumstances as a basis for faith may be overreaching. But while this listening to God can be and has been misused, that does not give us license to reject it in all circumstances.
But I digress: Smith’s point in this book of his is to help Christians think more of their life practices as the means by which they can be affectively educated. How we live, what we pursue, what we give ourselves to, what we habituate our hearts towards– these are all means of educating our heart towards the good– or the bad.
Vices and virtues are learned, and not only learned to be done, but learned to be loved. When I first begin to go back to spin class (where we do intense stationary bike riding) I intellectually know that this is good for me. But my body also knows in a different way– its gotten used to the patterns of getting back in shape and it knows good things are coming. Our spiritual lives are like this as well– we develop habits of prayer and devotional reading which train our hearts towards God. This is the whole point of what Pietists so often direct us through– spiritual practices which help us to get in the good healthy spiritual habits helping us to know God and to love God– not merely intellectually– but with our hearts and feelings.
Is this self-manipulation? No more than forcing yourself to jog or gaining a taste for healthy vegetables and curbing your desires for Cheetos is self-manipulating. Like training a vine to go where it will be healthiest, or training a child to not develop habits which will be self-destructive, we likewise can train ourselves– our hearts– towards the right and good ways of being in the world– the right loves. One important difference between Humans and rabbits or squirrels is that we have reason– which allows us to be more free. We can make choices as a result of consideration and reflection. Generally rabbits and squirrels go on instinct (good instincts often, but not reasoned considerations). The fact that we can think and reason is really the foundation of much of our freedom– we have real options because we can consider those options and then make decisions accordingly. So our head and our heart can work together. And as I make right choices to direct my will, my willing the right thing can over time become more ingrained and in some ways easier. Its much easier to go out for a 5 mile run if you’ve been training for 3 months than if you just get off the couch after being lazy for years.
So we should take seriously the ways that our bodily practices develop affectual habits of the heart, as well as the ways our intellect can shape those habits. We should seek not only to know intellectually about our God and our faith, but make sure also to seek after right feelings, right loves, right devotions for God. We are good at training ourselves to love the mall (or menards or home depot in my case)…we are habitually directed ritualistically (maybe addictively) towards Starbucks coffee– how are we at training our loves toward our God?
May God have mercy on us all.