On Liturgies





Like many people, I have been reflecting on what to “do.” Whether confronting the challenges of COVID-19, racism, homelessness, or our punitive justice system, I am always concerned that I will be content to merely articulate positions and never dig into the necessary actions to support change.

What comes first–right-thinking (and speaking), what we might call orthodoxy, or right acting, what might we call orthopraxy?

Clearly, it is not one or the other, but which leads to the most profound change and which one matters most?

Ibram Kendi, in his book Stamped from the Beginning, makes a bold assertion: people don’t start with racist ideas (beliefs) and then engage in behavior driven by those beliefs. Instead, people begin with racist acts and then find beliefs and ideas that justify or match those acts.

Christian theologian James K.A. Smith develops an entire book–Desiring the Kingdom–around a similar notion. For Smith, humans do not begin with a “worldview”–a set of guiding principles that they use to structure their lives. Instead, people engage in acts that form them to be certain kinds of people.

Smith’s is a broad philosophical review of what makes us human. He concludes that we are not primarily “thinking” beings but beings who “love”–who desire. Our love and desire point to what we believe human thriving requires, but we do not start with the idea of what thriving is. Instead, we live into that understanding. Our actions form us to be certain kinds of people–they form us to love and desire. We do not “think” our way into our values; we “act” our way into them.

This argument is at odds with how we typically conceive ourselves in our rationalistic western traditions, but Smith makes a compelling case that we do not start with thoughts but with acts.

He discusses our identities as formed by rituals, many of which have lost meaning, but some of which are critical to understanding who we are. The latter, a subset of cultural rituals or practices he refers to as “liturgies.” A liturgy is a “formative practice”–a repeated act that forms us into certain kinds of people. While liturgy is a religious term, Smith describes secular liturgies that shape us in specific ways:

  • The liturgy of the mall (or, if he were writing today “Amazon), forms us to love instant gratification of our every desire–a kind of healing for our yearning for meaning;
  • The liturgy of the military-entertainment complex forms us to a deep allegiance to the nation as protector and savior; and
  • The liturgy of the university forms us to be productive consumers who will lead society to be faithful consumers.

What all this has to do with the challenges of our day may not be clear, but what Smith and Kendi suggest to me is that I should look to how I spend my life–what I do.

What are my practices, and what are the forming me to love?

As I work with students about intercultural learning, to use just one example, I want them to develop the practice of self-reflection. I want them to adopt a liturgy of praxis–acting, reflecting, and stepping back from experience to analyze it. Why? Because I want them to desire wisdom. I want them to love more than knowledge. I want their acts of reflection to form them to be people who are patient, observant, self-critical, and open to difference.

I want to analyze my liturgies–the liturgy of running, and biking, and meditating, and listening, and conspiring with others–to learn what kind of person they are forming me to be–the loves and desires to which they are pointing me. I do this so I can learn what I desire.

Always holding out hope that I will jettison certain formative practices that orient me to desires I do not want to have, and embrace new liturgies that will form me to be a person who desires rightly.

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