Search TAP



Advent, 2015: Dr. James K.A. Smith

(Photo: Sue Careless)

Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith was the keynote speaker at the Desiring the Kingdom conference held in Toronto Oct. 22-24. Sue Careless interviewed Dr. Smith there.  

TAP: As a brainy philosopher it takes some guts to admit humans are heavily influenced, sometimes unconsciously, by our senses and our imagination.

JKAS: Yes, I’m a philosopher pointing out the limits of thinking.  

TAP: You call us liturgical, narrative, imaginative animals. What do you mean by liturgical animals?

JKAS: Human beings are creatures whose habits and loves and orientations are shaped by the rituals they are immersed in, not just the things we’re thinking. This resonates with contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience, which emphasizes how much our being in the world is shaped by unconscious factors.

TAP: But you’re distancing yourself from Freud?

JKAS: Yes. He thought everybody had the same base structures of the unconscious. I don’t think the unconscious is hard-wired as Freud emphasized so that we’re all playing out the same script. We all absorb different scripts that we play out in our lives and those are absorbed at an unconscious level. Everybody has an unconscious, but it is trained and learned and formed in different ways. We are shaped by communal practices – introspection is important to dig down into our own unconscious but also it’s important that it be a communal endeavour. The things which are closer to me are hardest to see so others can help me know myself. God gives us insight into ourselves because God is the Ultimate Other. This explains how counselling and therapy work: the good counsellor is a wise guide who helps you dig down into the stories you’ve buried in the basement. And it’s a lifelong endeavour.

TAP: The healing of addictions requires more than head knowledge and will power. A community of support and accountability helps.

JKAS: It’s the accountability, the support, the going. The way recovery groups work is not that you go to one meeting to get some piece of information. Addictions and virtues are formed as habits. Love is a habit, a virtue…our vices are formed in the same way. My vices are not just bad decisions. They are mis-orientations I live into. Recovery programs are inviting you to unlearn old habits and learn new ones. And being aware of the environments you’re putting yourself into.

TAP: If you’re dieting, don’t walk past the donut shop.


TAP: Someone has said that the Church is at its best when it is like an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Why?   

Because also in AA there is confession and opening ourselves up to the transcendent, realizing I’m not self-sufficient.

TAP: How would your philosophy apply to pastoral care and counselling?

JKAS: In two ways. Pastors need to be ethnographers. They need to read the practices and rituals that their parishioners are immersed in, know the unique secular liturgies of their communities. Secondly, we need to reframe pastoral counseling as a conduit back into the worshipping community – for in worship there is the reformation of our habits.

TAP: But surely you want more than the penance of ten Hail Marys.

JKAS: Yes. To immerse yourself in the rhythms of Christian worship is to let a different story sink into your bones. That is not going to happen all at once. Realize when you give yourself to the practices of Christian worship you are hungering to let the gospel sink into your unconscious so you live towards a different vision of the good life. It’s re-habituating. It’s not penance; it’s not performance. It’s a submission to a different story. I’m not a pastor but I would suggest counselling is not just giving knowledge but also inviting them into new rhythms that will recalibrate their hearts.

TAP: You talk about ‘the good life’ but today we tend to equate the term with a consumerist lifestyle.

JKAS: I’m trying to redeem that term since for Socrates, Plato and Aristotle ‘the good life’ was a vision of the examined life of virtue. Every human longs for the good life, but we have competing visions of what that is. We don’t all want to drive Jaguars.   

TAP: You teach at Calvin College, a university in the Reformed tradition that stresses a Christian worldview. Yet you argue it is not enough to have a Christian worldview; we need a Christian imagination as well. What is the difference? 

JKAS: It’s the difference between reducing Christianity to a grid of doctrines, ideas and beliefs and having a feel for the world as an embodied way of life. It’s cultivating a Christian   sensibility; it’s not just how you see or think about the world, but how you inhabit the world. It’s like the difference between knowing a city on a map versus the way you know your hometown like the back of your hand.

TAP: You’re not saying think less but feel and imagine more.

Yes. It’s not less than thinking; it’s more than thinking. And thinking about these things can be a catalyst to help us realize, “Oh, my imagination had been captured by other stories.”

TAP: You’ve said it’s not enough to be convinced, we have to be moved as well.

Which is how the rival secular liturgies get hold of us as well.  

TAP: Is there a danger in the power-point sermon that employs huge amounts of text? Surely it causes information overload? You can’t take it all in. The oratory of a more traditional sermon with its cadence and rhythm is more likely to move us. 

JKAS: Yes. The paradigm for the preacher is the poet not the professor. This is recovering the pre-Reformation sense of how important the aesthetic and the visual are. Not just to be pretty. There are people who make the aesthetics of worship an end in itself. [We need to consider] what constitutes the environment in which we meet God. The visual can resonate with those who are less comfortable in discursive modes. Otherwise you end up privileging those who have certain intellectual gifts and predilections – whereas with pre-Reformation worship not everyone was literate so you had to take the visual seriously. We’re all visual, we’re all aesthetic in that sense. 

TAP: And sometimes Protestants and evangelicals fall into the temptation of turning the sermon into a Bible study.

JKAS: And a lecture. There is certainly a place for Bible study but the way a sermon functions within the narrative arc of worship is not primarily didactic. There is a dialogical element that is well expressed in Anglican worship. On the one hand God is the initiator and is talking to us and we are hearing from God and he is shaping us. But there are also spaces where we are voicing our confession, our praises, our petitions. It does stage a conversation. In some protestant modes the worshippers fall into a passivity. Any tradition in which the Lord’s Supper is practiced every week – which is not happening in most Protestant congregations – especially if that means coming to the rail, that is a bodily practice that is very important. In revival meetings (I come from Pentecostal stock too), they would say at the end of a service, “The altar is open. Come.” 

TAP: Too often in apologetics we’ve used reason as the only gateway to faith. We try to make people think their way into faith. And looking for truth is more difficult today in our relativistic culture. What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me. Are many people today even looking for truth? Do we need to open some other door?  

JKAS: I deal with this in my book on Charles Taylor, How Not to be Secular. Taylor diagnoses this well. He says the mode of apologetics should be less argumentative debating but more a mode of persuasion that appeals to the imagination as well. You’re inviting people to try on a different story about who we are and what we are here for. Try on a different story as a way of making sense of the world.

All of us make our way in the world oriented by some big story that arranges things for us. So Alasdair MacIntyre, the noted Notre Dame philosopher, says, “I can’t answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ unless I can first answer ‘Of what story am I a part?’”

I’m not going to prove my story but simply invite someone to listen to it. This is the big story Scripture tells of who we are and what we’re for. Try it on. Does it help make more sense of aspects of our experience that your story doesn’t? My wager is my story is more comprehensive, does more justice to the messiness of our experience in the world; I think your story tries to solve too many things too quickly. My story is more open-ended. and does better justice to how we experience evil.    

TAP: In Mere Apologetics Alister McGrath suggests addressing people’s longings: Where do these longings for justice or beauty or goodness come from? 

Yes, start from those longings.   TAP

The second half of this interview will be published in our Christmas issue. 

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Member Account Required
You must have a member account on this website in order to post comments. Log in to your account to enable posting.