Desires, Liturgies and the Kingdom: Part 1, Liturgy Isn't A Magic Bullet

Last fall I was honored to be a part of the Rochester College Streaming conference where James K. Smith was the main presenter. James presented his work on desire, love, liturgies and spiritual formation from his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love.

I wanted to post a few different thoughts about desires and liturgies reflecting upon Smith's work.

For this post, a quick recap if you aren't familiar with Smith's ideas and then a simple observation.

The first move Smith makes is anthropological. Humans are desiring, emotional animals. It's less about "I think, therefore I am" than "You are what you love."

Second move: Our desires are aimed at some vision of human flourishing, some vision of the Good Life. In theological language, some vision of the kingdom of God.

Third move: Habits and practices shape our affections. Since these habitual practices are shaping our loves and desires for a kingdom we can call them liturgies. So defined, liturgies are everywhere shaping our affections. Smith calls these "secular liturgies," mainly consumeristic and nationalistic liturgies, that shape and direct our affections toward some vision of the Good Life. 

Fourth move: Christian worship is a counter-liturgy, habits and practices that compete for and reshape our affections away from the rival liturgies of the culture. If the secular liturgies of nation and marketplace--the habits and practices of life that make us desire and love the American Dream--deform us then Christian liturgy reforms us.

Overall, I agree with every one of these moves. I really like Smith's work.

But my first response, one that many people at Streaming shared, was that liturgy doesn't seem able to bear the weight Smith puts on it.

For example, as I pointed out at Streaming, among Protestants the mainline traditions have the best liturgy, and we can also throw in Catholicism and the Orthodox, but overall I don't think these liturgical traditions are producing more saintly Christians at higher rates than other traditions.

Liturgy isn't a saint factory.

Relatedly, as another attendee pointed out, if liturgy is so powerful then why are many mainline churches losing members at faster rates than some other denominations?

To be clear, I love the liturgy in mainline churches. Jana and I went to an Episcopal cathedral for their Christmas eve service this year. I adored the service, but the attendance was sparse. Clearly, liturgy alone isn't a magic bullet.

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