James K.A. Smith on taking Christian schools to the “next level”

Theologian, philosopher and educator, James K.A. Smith is a prolific writer whose published work in recent times explores how Christians – and Christian teachers – should approach the task of engaging with the secular reality we live in.

It’s this thoughtful engagement with Christian formation and education that has Smith travelling across a vast ocean to a series of speaking engagements in Queensland, the Associated Christian Schools Leaders’ Retreat on the Gold Coast from July 20-22, the Christian Heritage College Symposium “Learning and Loves”, and the Millis Institute Dinner on Monday July 18 in Brisbane.

Smith’s latest work is You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and Eternity’s Nathan Campbell interviewed him to find out how it will shape his visit to Queensland.

What are you hoping people take home if they hear you while you’re here in Australia?

The core message I’m bringing is two-fold, I think. On the one hand, I want to help people to appreciate that we are more than we think or know or believe. In other words, we are more than just brains on a stick. What moves us and motivates us and drives our action isn’t just ideas or beliefs but rather what we love, what we long for, what we desire. This is why the New Testament constantly describes the centre of the human person as the heart: the center of gravity of who we are is “lower” than the head, you might say.

Now why does this matter? Because if your action and behaviour is motivated and driven by what you love, what you desire, then we need to think differently about discipleship. We treat discipleship as if people were brains on a stick, as if the goal was to deposit the right ideas and beliefs into their intellectual receptacles. But we all know that you can think one thing and actually want something else. Jesus doesn’t want to just change your minds; he wants to change our wants. That is more radical than just giving us new information. Discipleship is about re-formation of our loves.

Intentional, historic Christian worship is how we learn to love aright – it is the arena in which the Spirit not only informs our intellect but reforms our heart. Learning to love takes practice.

This leads to my second emphasis: we need to recognise that our loves are habits that are formed by the practices we are immersed in. We learn to love – and develop sort of “default” settings of desire – because of the rituals and “liturgies” that we are immersed in. And we need to recognise that there are all sorts of cultural practices that are actually love-shaping – love de-forming – rituals that, at an unconscious level, are teaching us to love rival gods. That’s why we might not love what we think.

Finally, and related to this point, I want to reframe what’s at stake in Christian worship. Intentional, historic Christian worship is how we learn to love aright – it is the arena in which the Spirit not only informs our intellect but reforms our heart. Learning to love takes practice. That’s why we need to recognise the spiritual power of habit.

I’ve heard it said that Australia is more “secular” or post-Christian than the United States; does this ring true for you?

Yes, that’s been my experience. I think Australia’s heritage means that some amplified dynamics of secularisation already at work in nineteenth-century England were exported to Australia without the traditional scaffolding of the established church. So in a way, Australia seems to have had a headstart on secularisation.

…the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.

However, it’s also clear that there is a vibrant and thoughtful Christian presence in Australia, including the networks of Christian schools. I constantly receive invitations from a wide array of organisations to come to Australia. It’s just that I can only handle that long flight every few years.

In How (Not) To Be Secular you engage with Charles Taylor’s view that the modern secular world is disenchanted and we run around as “buffered” selves, what does he mean by this and how can our churches and educational institutions help re-enchant us?

Taylor means that in the “modern” world in which we find ourselves – a world that is a contingent, historical product of various cultural forces, it’s important to point out – we have learned to inhabit the world as if it were “disenchanted”. That is, the default setting of industrialised countries (or elites within other countries) is a kind of presumed naturalism.

We inhabit the world as an “immanent frame” – a self-contained, self-sufficient “nature” that we presume is undisturbed by transcendence or eternity. [And Taylor points out that this is the water in which even believers swim – we don’t realise how disenchanted our belief has become.] The “buffered” self then is kind of a mirror of this: in an enchanted world, the self was “porous” – open to spirits and the Spirit, to demons and God. In a disenchanted world, the self is (allegedly) secured from such incursions.

[It should be noted that the global explosion of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity in Africa is an important piece of counter-evidence on this point.]

But Taylor points out that while we tell ourselves this sort of disenchantment story, it’s interesting to notice the persistence of people’s hunger for the sacred, for meaning, for what he calls “fullness”. Granted, that takes all kinds of forms, but for Taylor, it’s interesting that people are not happy to be mere naturalists. It’s like our secular age is still haunted.

In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.

One of your answers to this new reality is for the church to rediscover its own story in the context of corporate worship, especially via the sacraments, but it seems if we’re being schooled by secular liturgies at every turn we might need 24/7 liturgies to help shape us as Christians. What are some small ways, apart from worship on a Sunday, that people can rehabituate themselves to live as makers/transformers who reflect the kingdom of God now?

In the new economy, nobody is going to have one job in their lifetime. The new economy demands a kind of creativity, imagination and flexibility that can flourish in an array of contexts.

I think the arts are a big piece of this – both visual arts and literature. The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique,
suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.

Christian education seems to play a big role in the formation of Christians in the United States, and seems to be less defensively geared, so it’s not about keeping Christians in a bubble, but making Christians a force for change in the world, how important will developing a robust approach to education/formation be for Christians in Australia?

There is an incredibly broad range of Christian schools in the United States, and some are very much church basement bunkers trying to hide from the world. But yes, there’s also a rich network of Christian schooling that is motivated by a constructive, positive desire to form students to be contributors to culture rather than a merely negative project of fortress-building. The work of the Cardus Education Survey here in North America – which has also influenced Australian schools – has been an important way to track this.

There is more and more conversation between these Christian schooling communities in Australia and North America. For a while now the ACS has brought teachers and headmasters on study tours of schools in the States. And my colleagues regularly visit and speak to Australian audiences. I think those of us who are Canadian are perhaps uniquely positioned to appreciate the challenges for Christian schools in Australia. Despite all the reports you might hear, there is still an incredible amount of freedom for religious schooling in the United States, and there are also a lot of resources – including financial – to make it possible to have robust, influential Christian schools. This tracks back to tax policy in the States, which provides much more room, even incentive, for charitable giving and charitable organisations to flourish. Civil society beyond the state is just incredibly robust in the States, unlike anything anywhere else in the world, I think. Whereas in countries like Canada and Australia, taxation is such that there is just less disposable income – and less “reward” for charitable giving – to underwrite these sorts of institutions.

But there is clearly a desire to take Christian schools in Australia “to the next level”, it seems to me. Part of what I’m looking forward to at the conference is getting a better sense of the situation “on the ground” in Australia.

In Australia, education tends to be geared towards vocation: it’s very much “training” to do a job with very little if anything like a classic “liberal arts” education; how does a model, which focuses on our loves, desires, imagination and habits, speak into a country where so much of what we learn is geared around pragmatic questions?

This sort of pragmatic instrumentalisation of education is becoming more and more common around the world. We certainly feel the pressure in the States as well. It’s true that my vision sort of assumes the good of the liberal arts. That might explain why some of the most enthusiastic reception for my work has been among the growing movement of “classical” Christian schools that are very intentionally recovering the ancient and medieval traditions of the liberal arts.

I think the trick is to make an argument that points out how unbelievably shortsighted this pragmatic career-centrism is. In the new economy, nobody is going to have one job in their lifetime. The new economy demands a kind of creativity, imagination and flexibility that can flourish in an array of contexts, industries, etc. So you can sort of meet the pragmatists where they are and make a pragmatic argument for the liberal arts: this sort of education shapes and forms students to be creative innovators, to be independent thinkers, to be leaders with integrity. Again, I think the Cardus Education Survey provides data to support these claims.

James K.A. Smith is speaking at several events across Queensland in July. Go to chc.edu.au for more information.