Tuesday 29 May 2012

Imagining the Kingdom: On Christian Action

Professor James K.A. Smith
The New College Lectures are over for another year. This year Professor James K.A. Smith spoke on the theme ‘Imagining the Kingdom: On Christian Action’. Professor Smith was invited to Sydney to deliver two lectures, as well as a plenary address to the ‘Education as Formation’ conference. The latter was planned and run by New College under the umbrella of CASE, in association with the Anglican Education Commission (AEC) and, the Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation (SASC). You can read my report on the 'Education as Formation' conference in a separate post (HERE). Professor Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, USA). He is the author of many publications including the well-known book ‘Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation’.

Erotic Comprehension: The Bodily Basis of Meaning - Lecture 1 (24th May 2012)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Professor Smith's first lecture drew on the Augustinian idea that we are what we love, which he extended with the insight that ‘we do what we love’. He argued that our identity and our action flow from our most fundamental desires, longings and loves. In his first lecture he suggested that we are too dependent on intellectualist models of personhood and that we need to balance or correct this with a new anthropology. Such an anthropology should be the basis for Christian formation, both in worship and education. He drew on the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as a type of 'conceptual toolbox'. Using this work, he suggested that:

“love is a kind of erotic comprehension of the world—a way that we make sense of our world on a bodily register… a kind of understanding we carry in our bodies, an ‘incarnate significance’ that seeps into our bones, shaping how we perceive the world—and hence how we act within the world.” 

He closed his talk by suggesting that Christian faith is more than just a set of beliefs and doctrines; rather, it is a mode of “erotic comprehension by which we imagine the world differently”.

Sanctified Perception: How Worship Works - Lecture 2 (25th May, 2012)

He began his second talk by suggesting that contemporary psychology and cognitive science have begun to appreciate what Christian spirituality has known for ages, that action flows out of our habits. Action is not the deductive outcome of individual decisions based on specific beliefs; our action and behavior reflect dispositions and habits that have become “second nature”. It is these actions that incline us to respond in almost automatic ways. Such good habits have been seen historically as virtues. These he suggested are no less than Christian and secular liturgies, that are embodied, enacted performances and that “…inscribe in us a faith that gets under our skin”.

However, these virtues he argued are bound up with perception; we are inclined to respond to situations because we have already perceived the situation in a specific way. So, when our perception is shaped, it inevitably generates action. The perception that drives such action is more reflective of the imagination than the intellect, in his words “more like a ‘feel for the game’ than an objective analysis”. Professor Smith drew on the work of social theorist Pierre Bourdieu to help us appreciate how our perception is shaped by communal practices that inscribe in us a “habitus,” which as Bourdieu describes it, is a pre-intellectual way of relating to and perceiving our world. This then, encourages specific action. As a result we need to be attentive to the way that cultural practices might be mis-shaping our perception.

In light of the above, Professor Smith suggested that the goal of Christian worship and Christian education should be to “sanctify” perception in order to shape us as Christians, and mould our habitual dispositions. We far too easily become habituated to ways of life that run counter to what God envisions for our flourishing. There is unconscious liturgical formation constantly at work:

"as we are unwittingly conscripted into stories that are rival tellings of what’s in store for the world. These narratives and their metaphorical power seep into our bones in such a way that they come to dominate our ‘background’ and thus begin to shape our very perception of the world. This in turn orients our habitual action.” We are pulled toward a different ‘telos’ rivaling the coming Kingdom of God. Through a complex repertoire of secular liturgies “…we are assimilated to the earthly city or disordered loves, governed by self-love”.

So if Christian formation is going to foster Christian action for the kingdom, such formation needs to be nothing short of a sanctification of our perception. We need to be moved ‘imaginatively’, not just convinced. Sanctification requires not just the conviction of intellect, but also the capturing of our imaginations and the conversion of our habits. This has great significance for our thinking about worship and education, each of which is used by God to form and shape us as image-bearers of Christ 'indexed to the Kingdom of God'.

You can listen to both talks by downloading 
MP3 files of each lecture HERE.

Friday 25 May 2012

Sanctified Perception

James K.A. Smith has just completed the annual New College Lectures. He spoke on the broad theme of 'Imagining the Kingdom'. Last night he presented his second address titled 'Sanctified Perception: How Worship Works'. I will post on the series properly over the weekend but here's a snippet:

'What would it mean to think of Christian formation as also an “unconscious” education—something inscribed on our bodies as much as it is deposited in our minds? My goal this evening is to suggest that this is, in fact, how worship works. That is, liturgies—both Christian and secular—are embodied, enacted performances that inscribe in us a faith that gets under our skin. To try to unpack this, I want to draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu as a bit of a conceptual toolbox to get at the issues.'

It was an excellent lecture. More to come on the blog and the CASE site.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Can Christians Agree on Climate Change?

I've just been appointed to New College. One of my roles is to manage the CASE blog on behalf of the Director of CASE Prof Trevor Cairney. I have spent the last few weeks familiarising myself with the organisation's publication CASE Magazine, and the rich online resources we offer via our website all of which are available to Associates of CASE, while selected articles are free. One of the issues that I thought was worth revisiting is Case #11 on the theme 'Testing the Weather' which deals with a Christian response to climate change. 

In particular, I found  Dr Jenny Beer's article  (entitled "Can all Christians  Agree on Climate Change?") very enlightening in detailing the different approaches Christians have towards this headline issue. She writes:

.....the subject of climate change has moved from the Greenie fringe to the centre of political and social debate. Christians have begun to talk seriously about the issues surrounding our care for creation, the tasks of Christian living and the connection between creation, redemption and the "world to come"..............
Beer's article outlines the different schools of thought, and challenges the reader to consider the evidence and the various issues that are currently being debated very carefully. One of the points I took away from them Dr Beer's article was not only to consider what is the evidence being presented, but to take into account who is actually presenting the evidence. Many differences of opinion have arisen in Christian circles as some follow evidence presented by political scientists and others listen to the evidence presented by environmental scientists. The article addresses how can we evaluate and compare evidence provided from our politicians and  scientists in the field. Long-time CASE Associates might enjoy digging up their old copy of this CASE edition, newer members can read it free online and might want to contact CASE and arrange a copy of this issue if they think they might enjoy the other articles too!

Edwina Hine (New College and CASE,  EA to the Master)