Scattered Thoughts on Cultural Formation and Ecclesial Colleges

Glass Windows on the Chapel of Duke University
Glass Windows on the Chapel of Duke University

Recently I read James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom about Christian education, worship, and cultural formation. Dr. Smith is a professor of philosophy in Calvin College. In this book, Dr. Smith argued that to make disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to recognize that humans are not thinkers who think to understand, or believers who believe to understand, but lovers who desire or love to understand. And “our loves and desires are aimed and directed by habits that dispose us to be the kind of people aimed at certain visions of the good life.” This “love to understand” understanding is contrary to the “know to understand” understanding.

Dr. Smith first argued that humans are lover that aim at certain visions of good life (chapter 1). Then to cultivate the desires and the worldview of people, he described the importance of liturgies (chapter 2). He then pointed out a lot of secular cultural practices are in fact liturgies although we might not recognize, and practiced “cultural exegesis” to read into the visions behind the cultural practices (chapter 3). Then Dr. Smith switched back to Christian worship, and argued that Christian worship is fundamental to shaping the worldview of the disciples (chapter 4). He then went by each step in a formal Christian worship, and described how they shaped our desires and worldview (chapter 5). Finally, with everything built up, Dr. Smith explained “new monasticism,” and outlined his vision of what an ideal Christian college, or an ecclesial college, is like (chapter 6).

At this point, I have some scattered thoughts on what Dr. Smith has been discussed:

  • Dr. Smith stressed on the existential perspective of how the worldviews form in human beings. By saying human as lover, not thinker, he denied the importance of the normative perspective of the formation. I agree with Dr. Smith that liturgies, or habit building, are effective and important in forming one’s desire, but I argue that it is not the only way. We can see it from our own experience as recipients of education, we understand not only through hands-on work (existential), but also through lectures and informative classes (normative). The Jews also teach their kids about the Law of God, and discuss about them lest they forget. And through our church history, doctrines were established a few centuries after Christ (after Christians’ suffering experience), but then people can attain the theistic worldview not only through liturgies but also the teaching of doctrine (situational). The body of knowledge has three perspectives as a whole, and they are the same thing, as in Frame’s triperspectivalistic framework.
  • The existential perspective of worldview formation is important but not sufficient, as a lot of sects, cults, and other religions have certain liturgies that get people away from it. A non-Christian worldview can have practices similar to Christianity, but conveyed a different teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses and LDS very often carried a lot of similar cultural values with Reformed Churches, but the differences are too fundamental. Formative education is necessary, through discussion, lectures, or creeds, to enforce the understanding fundamental doctrines so that we believe in the real God.
  • Dr. Smith’s vision of an ideal ecclesial college (he refused to use the term “Christian college” to avoid readers’ confusion with the existing Christian colleges which function like other Ivy Leagues simply with an additional Christian perspectives) is a form of monasticism. He also claimed that and called it “new monasticism.” This kind of schools existed only in the Middle Ages, when most of the populations are Christians, and the societies can accept the notion of school as a place of spiritual formation instead of the transfer of knowledge and skills. However, such schools cannot be even financially sustainable as very few donors would have the same or similar visions about education; and no parents and students would want to go to such schools as they still need to make a living after receiving education. They need the skills for their future vocations.
  • I agree with Dr. Smith’s observation that current schools focus too much on information but not formation. Ultimately, it is the spiritual formation that is essential for one to live according to the law of God. School is an important venue for spiritual formation.
  • While the practices he described about his vision of ecclesial school are important as Dr. Smith stated, I believe they are more effectively carried out at families. The Book of Deuteronomy and Proverbs speaks a lot about family education, with numerous proof-texts, but with little school education.

P.S.: This is an intermediate thought on a review of James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom based on John Frame’s multiperspectivalism.

Duke University
Duke University

  • James K. A. Smith, Calvin College.
  • J. K. A. Smith, “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation”, Baker Academic (2009). [Amazon]
  • J. M. Frame, “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship”, P & R Publishing (1987). [Amazon]
  • J. M. Frame, “A Primer of Perspectivalism” (2012). [Link]
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