What I Learned About Education from James K.A. Smith
I recently interviewed Calvin College professor of Philosophy and author, James K.A. Smith. Dr. Smith has written books such as Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, the forthcoming Embodying the Kingdom, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, and more.
We primarily discussed his book, Desiring the Kingdom, and he made some points that I thought were worth revisiting.
First, when it comes to education, we are going to educate primarily based on our answer to the question, “What is man?” If we imagine humans to be consumers, our education will look similar to public education. If we imagine humans to be primarily thinkers, we will educate another way. But, if we imagine humans to be primarily worshipers, then our education will look another way.
This latter view begs for education that maintains a tension between informative learning and formative learning. Formative learning depends on well-developed liturgical, or habitual, practices. We have to agree with Augustine, Dr. Smith would say, that humans are homo liturgicus, they can’t not worship; the question is not whether they will worship but what they will worship.
This is not to say that ideas do not have consequences, however. Humans do often live out what they believe, but there is also room for cognitive dissonance. Dr. Smith says, “Ideas have consequences, but not only ideas have consequences.” In other words, the habits and liturgies that form us also have consequences.
From there, one can’t help but look at the rhythms of our lives to see what liturgies are forming us. The Church calendar has historically been what defined the annual rhythms of a Christian’s life. He moved from one season, one feast, to the next, and his life matched that. He went from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter to Pentecost and so forth. And his eating habits (fasts, etc.), prayer habits, songs, readings, and colors all changed with him and the calendar.
At some point, however, we decided to scrap the Church calendar because it represented the empty ritualism of medieval Christianity, some might say Roman Christianity. In doing so, however, we created a void that had to be filled. Lo and behold, the State and capitalist marketing stepped in to fill that void. Ironically, he points out, it became a sick parody of the Church’s calendar, minus the fasting–especially the fasting. The calendar imitated the Church’s insofar as it could become a means to direct and control our consumer practices, and at that it has largely succeeded. Nationalism and a jingoistic patriotism abound as well because of the State’s calendar. Unfortunately, we see no need to scrap these secular calendars for their empty ritualism, maybe because empty ritualism is okay in the secular world. What we fail to see, however, is the formative power of this “empty ritualism” in the secular calendar.
What is needed is a formative education, the liturgical habits and practices, the rhythms of life that will accompany the informative education we already receive in order to develop the moral imagination that will not only allow us to have desires and loves aimed at the Kingdom, but that will allow us to make sense of the world God has created for us. The imagination and the memory are powerful things, as I’ve written elsewhere, and we ignore them at our own peril. They need, they desire, to be fed by liturgy, symbolism, ritual, tradition, and gravitas.
It is a common myth, Dr. Smith concurred, that the younger generation wants a church that will entertain. The younger generation is already entertained (enter Facebook, MTV, and more), what they want is the above, and the Church is largely failing to provide it. But provide it we must, for not only do Christians want it, but Christians need it.
* Matt Bianco is a ruling elder in a PCA Church. He is a homeschooling father of three, the result of marrying his altogether lovely high school sweetheart, Patty.