Shaping What We Love

What if education were primarily about shaping our hopes and passions?

What if education were not first about what we know, but about what we love?

If you find those interesting questions and would like to reexamine the task of being a Christian schoolteacher, then Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is the book for you. Smith’s clear and lively writing style, with numerous examples drawn from popular culture, makes the substantial ideas and arguments accessible and engaging. When Smith, who teaches in the philosophy department at Calvin College, tells us he is writing out of a desire to communicate a vision of what authentic, integral Christian learning looks like and how learning is connected to worship, it is clear that he has been doing a lot of thinking about his teaching at a Christian college and has a critique to offer. And when he tells us that we should consider “a moratorium on the notion of ‘worldview,’” you know that this critique is going to be substantial. Although this is a critique, Smith acknowledges that he writes from the “inside” as a fellow teacher who believes in and is committed to the project of Christian education.

Smith’s introductory chapter provides a good understanding of what he wants to change. He presents the case for reshaping and refocusing Christian education, arguing that we need to rethink the relationship between worship and worldview by understanding more clearly the connection between liturgy, learning, and formation. “The core claim of this book is that liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our more fundamental desires and our most basic attunements to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people” (25). Smith uses the term “liturgy” to help us see that some of our practices and rituals are actually liturgies, and as such are of great importance in shaping our identities and our view of the good life. If rituals shape us and our students, then we need to see education more holistically: focusing not just on having students think in a certain way (i.e. understanding a Christian worldview), but on shaping our students’ hearts and desires through the liturgies of our teaching practices. We need to think not just about what we teach but how we teach. What is at stake, Smith says, “is discerning how material practices constitute pedagogies for the education of desire that shape our very identity” (39).

In chapter 1, Smith lays out an understanding about the nature of human persons (a philosophical anthropology). Starting with philosophy, but drawing on a number of other disciplines as well, Smith builds a strong case for shifting our understanding of who we are to a nonreductionistic (Augustinian) understanding of persons that honors the richness and complexity of who we are. The usual Reformed critique of rational thought does not go far enough for Smith. Our normal turn of rejecting the “person as thinker” model and replacing it with the “person as believer,” while helpful, is still reductionistic. We are not first of all thinking beings; we are fundamentally embodied creatures of desire, Smith argues. These desires are oriented to an ultimate vision of the good life, a particular image of human flourishing. It is the heart rather than the head that shapes who we are and how we act; the powerful liturgies around us, like the shopping mall and the sports arena, speak to our heart. Christian education focused on ideas is poorly positioned to counteract these powerful influences, which shape our hearts and our actions. Smith also brings into the discussion Charles Taylor’s notion of “the social imaginary” as an alternative to our worldview talk. Embracing the idea of “the social imaginary” helps us understand culture in a way that our fixation on ideas and theory does not allow; it helps us embrace the shift from the cognitive to the affective, from knowledge and beliefs to a noncognitive kind of understanding located in the heart.

In subsequent chapters, Smith builds on this understanding of persons as embodied creatures with clearly presented and tightly woven arguments bringing us to a point where the inadequacy of focusing only on worldview is readily apparent. Smith then helps us grapple with the idea of practices, thin and thick, that shape us unknowingly. And the “thickest practices,” Smith argues, can be thought of as liturgies that shape us powerfully. Our typical worldview thinking focused on ideas is completely inadequate for discerning these practices, these liturgies in our culture that shape our hearts and our imaginations. Smith points out how we have overestimated the power of right thinking and underestimated the power of the liturgies of modern life. In part 2 of the book, he details how the liturgy embodied in worship is where we can find the countervailing power to shape and aim our hearts and desires toward the kingdom of God.

I need to advise Christian educators to read this book with a hermeneutic of charity. Smith states his case too starkly at times: “Because Christian education is conceived primarily in terms of information … it should be no surprise that Christian faith doesn’t touch our pedagogical commitments.” This does not seem to be in touch with the discourse and reality of the Christian schooling movement that I know. Despite the wide range of literature that Smith draws from in this book, Smith does not root his arguments in the literature on Christian education. Some of the Christian education literature does reflect a more holistic view of students than Smith seems to allow, and I believe that it is widely understood by Christian teachers that there is link between how we see students (anthropology) and how we teach (pedagogy).

I should also point out that Smith does not tell us very much about the classroom. He says very little about what education should look like given this re-envisioning of Christian education, and the few examples that are provided address higher education. (If you are looking for some excellent resources and writings that are philosophically and theologically informed and focus directly on Christian pedagogy, let me direct you to the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning

This is one of those books where once you read it, you see implications everywhere. This book provides a new lens that has me viewing my teaching in elementary, high school, and college classrooms in new ways. Understanding the powerful material practices and liturgies that shape us gives new significance to so many of the decisions I make as a teacher. I will not be able to think about my teaching of the first year worldview courses at Calvin in the same way, knowing that helping students understand worldview and focusing on ideas is not sufficient.

I also think this book, more than many others that have come before it that focus on a Christian theology and philosophy of education, has a lot to say about teaching the early grades of elementary school and teaching in special education settings. By reemphasizing the importance of the practices (liturgies) that shape us, Smith has opened up new ways of thinking about all the practices that are part of our teaching and how they shape our students. If it isn’t all about worldview and thinking correctly, then how we structure our teaching and learning and our ways of being in the classroom with our six-year-old students as well as our sixteen-year-old students takes on new importance. What is in the background comes into the foreground. The implications of Smith’s argument could be quite radical for how we think about teaching and learning and the structure of schooling. He has me thinking about the role assessment and grades play in shaping (and misshaping) who my students are and what they love.

Desiring the Kingdom has the potential to spark some important and substantial conversations in the community of Christian schoolteachers. I believe these will be rich and deep conversations about how we see our work, and will help us answer more clearly and intentionally, “Yes, we do teach to shape our students’ hopes and passions and loves.”