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. Continue reading