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Knowing and Doing

James K.A. Smith's You Can’t Think Your Way to God
Knowing and Doing

The C.S. Lewis Institute of Washington, DC used to provide a program each summer at beautiful Osprey Point called “Knowing and Doing.” The program was founded on the fact that a full understanding of the Christian faith incorporates some combination of the classic philosophical aspects of being and doing. The students would read and reflect, argue and persuade, but they would also work alongside one another and place the “knowledge” they were learning from lectures, discussions and books squarely in the context of everyday—perhaps I should write “every moment”—life.

Jamie Smith’s work reflects this same commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the body not being split into separate components. This article—actually an extended interview—puts that commitment to practice in relation to knowledge of God and the building of the human person.

Smith is a prolific author and professor of philosophy at Calvin College, holding a chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. Perhaps the most important word in his August title is “Applied” because Smith refuses to let his philosophical ruminations, as technical and sophisticated as they are, remain in the realm of the abstract. He has a passion for the spiritual formation of people.

In the interview, conducted by David Neff, former editor of Christianity Today, Smith reflects on how human beings are defined. Beginning from the Augustinian notion that we are what we love, he describes what he calls a “liturgical anthropology” by which he means “we are ritual, liturgical creatures whose loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in.” This leads the discussion to a critique with which most of us are familiar, i.e. the modern and post-modern influences of the mall, sports, media of all sorts, etc. These “secular liturgies” entice us to “worship and love some other kingdom” than the Kingdom of God. Salvation by novelty—the idea that the newest thing is the best thing—is just one of those kingdoms.

Importantly, Smith does not dwell on a negative critique of Christian/secular liturgical formation. He goes on to spend the substance of the interview on what he believes Christians need to be practicing in order to live and prosper in our world, and yet be thoroughly Christian in doing so.

Smith’s view of sanctification begins with a recognition of the importance of practices for actually giving us non-cognitive knowledge of God, knowledge that cannot come from thinking or reasoning about truths. This leads him to delineate carefully the limitations of “worldview,” something he calls a gateway, but clearly states is not the final word in spiritual formation. The practice of spiritual disciplines provides the key to the “way you put on Christ.” In response to the criticism that rituals are lifeless “good works,” he counters that people who think that are not really grasping the “God-initiated” substance of rituals. As he puts it, “The rituals and the disciplines are invitations to live into God’s power, not ways for us to spiritually show off.”

This interview engages many other questions surrounding the whole enterprise of spiritual formation and its relation to, for example, truth, worship, and the practice of justice. It also forms a superb introduction to the two extensive books of Smith’s planned trilogy “Cultural Liturgies”:Desiring the Kingdom (Baker, 2009) and Imagining the Kingdom (Baker, 2013). The books published so far do an extraordinary job of working out his ideas in great detail. Though they can be rough sledding for the philosophically uninitiated, they are written in accessible language and the time spent mining them will reap a great treasure. I highly recommend using this interview for a discussion and then perhaps taking a year to study and discuss the books.


The interview can be found HERE.

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