Liturgical Lathes: Idolatry, Imagination, and James K. A. Smith’s ‘Homo Liturgicus’

jkasFew books have been more illuminating for me in 2016 than Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In fact, his anthropological observations have provided much background to the dangers of idolatry that we find in 1 Corinthians 10 (our church’s current sermon series).

In what follows, I will trace a few of his main points, to show how Christians who don’t want to worship idols yet create them through the rhythms of their lives. This post is the first in a brief series to interact with Desiring the Kingdom and the modern challenge of identifying idols and the liturgical lathes that create them.

Homo Liturgicus

In biology, the human species is called homo sapiens. Sapiens, or sapient, is a term for wisdom and intelligence (e.g., God is omni-sapient, all-wise). Compared to all other species, humans possess a higher degree of rationality and intelligence, hence we are called homo sapiens. 

Smith takes this idea and shows how philosophers and theologians have defined humanity in terms of rationality (“I think, therefore I am”) and belief (“I believe, therefore I am”) (40–46). In contrast, he argues we should understand humans as basically affective–“the human person as lover” (46ff). He critiques purely-cerebral anthropologies, and argues we must consider the human body and the heart: “If humans are conceived almost as beings without bodies, then they also are portrayed as creatures without histories, without any sense of unfolding and development over time” (47).

While his argument may, at first, sound as if he is denying the place of the intellect, it must be remembered that this philosopher (whose vocation trades on the intellect) is offering a corrective to disembodied anthropologies which forget how much our bodies impact our thinking, feeling, and believing. In fact, Smith’s taxonomy of thinking, believing, and loving anthropologies helps us recover an Augustinian view of humanity, with its attention to affections and desires. In our hyper-visual, über-sensual world, we desperately need this corrective. So, let’s dig in.

Love’s Aim, Goal, and Habits

Unpacking this concept of affection, Smith subdivides love into (1) an aim, (2) a target, and (3) a series of habits. In contrast to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), Smith observes, “I can never just ‘think’; I will necessarily be thinking of . . . something” (48). Hence, thinking is always aimed at something; and such thinking is always accompanied by affections, for it is impossible to hermetically seal thinking and feeling. This observation is vital for understanding why some people do not believe rightly; it is because even if they know the right thing, they don’t—and can’t bring themselves to—love it (see 2 Thessalonians 2:10). This observation is vital for understanding human nature, regeneration, and sanctification.

Next, Smith shows how ethics follows imagination. Whatever we see as “human flourisning” is what we will love and pursue. In truth, this vision may be in correct or misdirected, but structurally it is the same in every person: we will do what we most love and we will endure pain and difficulty if we believe it will bring us closer to our desired end.

Those visions of the good life that capture our heart have thereby captured our selves adn begin to draw us toward them, however implicitly or tacitly. The goods and aspects of human flourishing painted by these alluring pictures of the good life begin to seep into the fiber our our (everyday, noncognitive) being (i.e., our hearts) and thus govern and shape our decisions, actions, and habits. Thus we become certain kinds of people; we begin to emulate, mimic, and mirror the particular vision that we desire. (54)

This observation is massive and paradigm-(re)shaping. “We will resemble what we revere, either for restoration or ruination,” to borrow a phrase from G. K. Beale. Our imaginations are the key which turns our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. But what shapes our imagination? Is it our mind, our intellect, our volitional will? No, says Smith, countering the typical belief that mind dictates will and emotion. This is the error of hyper-rational anthropologies. What shapes our imaginations as much as anything, indeed more than anything, are our (1) habits and (2) practices. As “embodied creatures,” made to reflect what we worship, we need to see how the rhythms of life shape and reshape us. He argues, “Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses” (57).

This series of imagination-shaping habits is what makes us homo liturgicus. He explains, “The motions and rhythms of embodied routines train our minds and hearts so that we develop habits . . . that make us tend to act in certain ways toward certain ends” (59). In other words, we are not just rational creatures who do what our minds tell us; we are passionate lovers, who do what we most love. This observation is akin to John Piper’s Christian Hedonism and traces its roots through Augustine to the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:18, Paul grounds intellectual misunderstanding in “hardness of heart.” Unbelievers don’t believe because of misinformation, but because of “misaffection.” They love the darkness and will therefore flee from the light, as Jesus said (John 3:19–21).

In other words, Smith’s argument for person-as-lover is not a philosophical flight of fancy; it is a deeply biblical idea. Our hearts (kardia) are “love pumps” (52) whose rhythms are not purely created from the intellect within. Rather, as God made us to be embodied souls, exterior habits and practices shape and shift our hearts affections as images and ideas stir our imagination. This explains how we (unwillingly but willingly) create idols through engagement with people, things, and other activities. Without aiming at it, we become attracted and then ensnared to creation.

So what is the solution?

From (Pure) Intellect to Ethical Imagination

Ironically, the solution begins when our minds begin to see the way practices and habits impact our heart. For again, Smith is not anti-intellectual and mono-affectional. Rather, in grappling with the heart, he turns to the intellectual work of Charles Taylor.

Taylor, another contemporary philosopher, has provided a helpful addition to typical worldview thinking. While worldview thinking focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on  cognitive faculties, Taylor’s “social imaginaries” (65) bring into discussion the place of imagination and affection and the way that embodied souls “‘imagine’ their social surroundings.” These imaginings, Taylor argues, are “not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends” (65).

Perhaps the best place to see this kind of impact at work is in the rapid advance of the LGBT agenda. In less than a generation, homosexuality, same sex marriage, et cetera have become normalized and celebrated in Western culture. Why? Certainly, there has been a change in mindset, but that change has come not through rational, academic arguments. It has come through various images (e.g., the equals sign), personal narratives, and “heart-warming” entertainment (which informs and reforms thinking when minds have “checked out”).

Such an example shows how powerful practices and habits are. As Smith explains,

A social imaginary is not how we think about the world, but how we imagine the world before we ever think about it; hence the social imaginary is made up of the stuff that fund the imagination—stories, myths, pictures, narratives. (66)

Once these imaginaries are put in place, and individuals and cultures feed on them, they have powerful effects on personal ethics and public mores. Add to this, in our culture the bombardment of images, entertainment, and song which affect the ‘gut,’ it is not surprising that changes in ethics have moved so quickly. And this will continue until the church and its leaders begin to see how liturgical practices (don’t think high Anglican liturgy, but a rhythm of worship and discipleship) must be cultivated to fight our culture’s liturgy.

In other words, without abandoning propositional truth, we must recognize the impact of practices and habits. We must move from purely intellectual arguments to impacting (read: preaching to) imaginations for the sake of ethics. To say it differently, with the Word of God as our foundation and guide, we must expose they way culturally-acceptable patterns (can) turn our hearts away from God, and why patterns of Christian living must be amplified if we are going to maintain our Christian witness in a world full of heart-alluring, idol-offering temples.


Personally, I think the observations Smith makes in his book Desiring the Kingdomnow popularized in You Are What You Loveare absolutely critical for pastors and churches who want to be conformed into the image of Christ, and not the world. Tomorrow, we’ll pick this up and consider another chapter in Smith’s book, how the mall, the university, the stadium, and smart phone (my addition) impact us.

Until then, consider what patterns, practices, and prioritizes in your life are shaping you in ways that make it difficult to follow Christ? Better, what habits can you increase and add that will grow you in your likeness to Jesus? May God give us eyes to see and hearts and bodies that love his truth, his way, his life.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds



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  1. Pingback: Liturgical Lathes: Exposing Modern Temples with Their Faux-Gospels | Via Emmaus

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