Wednesday, 25 April 2012

James K.A. Smith at Lee University

Yesterday, I attended a lecture by James K.A. Smith at nearby Lee University. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI spoke on "Educating the Imagination: From Information to Formation."

I couldn't believe how big Lee University is--the chair of the history department told me that there are some 4,500 students there. That number has doubled in the past ten years or so, apparently because of the vision and strategy of the college's president, who has kept tuition rates very low (by comparison to other CCCU schools).

Smith is a good lecturer, and I found his talk to be very stimulating, although his thesis did not seem new to me. He restated the argument that he wrote in Desiring the Kingdom: that people are inadvertently influenced by the "liturgies" around them. The mall, for instance, influences are thoughts without saying anything. Smith says that the message there is: you need to buy our goods in order to be happy. Similar messages abound on the radio and television. The solution, says Smith, is to reorient ourselves by practicing repetitive godly liturgy through worship. By worship, he does not mean simply music, but basically any practice that reforms our "sentimental" selves to be in-tune with God. Smith is adamant that we are not influenced by rational arguments, but by the "affections," that appeal to our deepest desires on a subconscious level.

What I found interesting, and a point that I raised in the question and answer time, is that Smith's argument about our influences is almost exactly what Jonathan Edwards stated in Freedom of the Will (1754). Edwards said that our affections (it is also interesting that Smith used Edwards's term) our moved by our strongest desires. Although we would like to think that we are "free" to choose among several choices, we are assuredly going to make decisions on the basis of what appeals to us the most. We may know what we should do, but we will only act on decisions that stem from our strongest desires. Edwards's point is that we are not really free, in the sense of being able to make impartial choices. Though technically able to make a number of choices, we will ultimately choose to do what we want to do.

As I understand Edwards's argument, the solution seems to me to surround oneself with godly influences, whether that means reading more scripture, prayer, church, etc. If we are immersed in godly influences, it would seem plausible that we will be more apt to want to do what is good.
The key, however, is to want to surround oneself with godly influences. Such a desire for purity cannot be faked or forced--if such a desire is going to last it must be a genuine decision to want to change our daily routine. If Edwards is right about our motives--and I have become convinced lately that he is--then  it is only through grace that we will want to change our habits. Wanting to change for the better typically comes after a person realizes that he or she is a sinner and does not have the ability to do good over any sustained period of time. The sinner becomes sick of the sin and wants to change. But who can help the person who can't help himself or herself? The answer can only be the grace of God. Through grace God sees our predicament and offers help. This help comes in the form of a desire to change. God gives us the Spirit, who directs us to what parts of our routines we must alter in order to foster holiness.

I think that most of what I have said is consistent with what Edwards wrote in Freedom of the Will. Where disagreements will emerge has to do with whether we can actually change the influences around us, or whether it is in fact God who has orchestrated the situation in order to influence us. In other words, do we have the ability to manage our surroundings (the Arminian perspective), or is it God who has arranged all of the causes and secondary effects to lead us to the point of repentance. As a Calvinist, Edwards said that God has arranged the circumstances so that we are led to make certain choices. Although we may think that we have freedom in our choices, God has made the situation so that we simply act on the basis of what he has set in motion.

Now, back to Smith. Again, I think that Smith has simply restated Edwards's argument about how we our influenced and make choices. Where I tend to disagree with Smith is on the solution to the problem. I believe that Smith is correct that we should seek out godly "liturgies" of worship to reorient our affections. But it seems to me that there is a simpler answer than what he has proposed. As I read scripture, taking into account Edwards's argument, I am struck by how much of the Bible affirms what Edwards has said. Romans 8:5, for instance, states: "Those who live according to the sinful nature, have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit, have their minds set on what the Spirit desires." The solution to the problem of overcoming our sinful desires (aka ungodly influences) is to be filled with the Spirit. Galatians 5:16 says: "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature."Thus, the way that we can change our affections is to live by the Spirit, which includes the liturgies that Smith recommends. But at its core, the solution is a life that is full of the Spirit. If we seek out "what the Spirit desires," godly affections will follow. The major question that I wrestle with is: can we change our surroundings, or is it entirely the work of God, who has orchestrated so that we are simply doing what he has already determined?

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