Cultural Liturgies

Let’s get this out of the way: James K.A. Smith reviewed Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option book in a way that struck Dreher and (assuming Dreher was truthful about Smith’s efforts to woo him to Smith’s publisher) me as low-down and deceitful. Since March 10, I don’t think Dreher has mentioned him nor, I believe, have I.

But I, too, have been accused of betrayal — unjustly, in my opinion, but this isn’t about me.  My devastatingly effective boycott of Smith must now come to an end. Smith is saying too many important things to ignore him.

For Smith, we are not primarily “thinking things” we are “loving things,” and people pursue what they love. Smith writes: “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our hearts, the epicenter of the human person.” This prompts an obvious question: what if you don’t love the right things? Going further, Smith observes that “you might not love what you think.” For fallen people, that will always be true to greater and lesser degrees. The remedy to disoriented loves is to be immersed in a liturgy that reforms your loves, pointing you in the right direction, to use Smith’s metaphor of the compass. The majority of the book then provides ways to work that liturgy down into your bones, so that you begin to long for the right things.

When hearts are pulled to negative things that work against flourishing, that life starts to be characterized by vice. Smith observes that humans “can’t not be headed somewhere,” and those liturgies, those stories, that capture our hearts move us to action for good or for ill. Unfortunately, many Americans are listening to a story that praises consumption over production and pulls people toward the path of least resistance, or sloth …

Smith is using this model to aid churches and communities in forming citizens of the Kingdom of God—pilgrims on the way to the New Jerusalem, paying attention to the liturgy of God’s people and letting it form and remold their affections. [Sen. Ben] Sasse wants to use the model to form citizens dedicated to republican virtues: commitment to neighbor, affection for their inherited Western tradition, engagement in Puritan-style industriousness, and appreciation for the diverse regions and cultures of the United States. Sasse proposes a liturgy to create mature, honorable citizens—and rulers—of the Republic. Indeed, he believes that this is not just an ideal that Americans could pursue it; it is a mandatory component of the American project. If families do not raise children who exhibit these traits, we might as well call it quits, warning that “if the idea of America is not reborn in our children’s hearts, we will all suffer a shared orphanhood.“

Sasse’s American liturgy is certainly not a know-nothing patriotism committed to “blood and soil.” Instead, it is one that is committed to the republican ideals of the Founding, which spoke of the American government as securing rights and privileges guaranteed by God. Indeed, the patriots made an “appeal to heaven” in their cause, believing they were engaged in a godly, and righteous movement. Sasse sees this American liturgy as a positive, and one that he, a Christian, can heartily embrace. Yet, Smith has emphatically warned Christians about the dangers of the American liturgy. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith highlights that we are being formed when we are standing for the national anthem, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and praising members of the military for making the “ultimate sacrifice,” and for Smith, this forming tends to push Christians away from the Kingdom of God; instead of being compatible with the Christian liturgy, it, subtly, erodes allegiance to Christ and his kingdom by communicating that the defining characteristic of a person is his or her citizenship in an earthly kingdom. Though he allows that it can ‘make room for additional loyalties,” he believes “it is not willing to entertain trumping loyalties.”

If that is true, then patriotism seems to be antithetical to a religion that claims Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Sasse and Smith, ultimately have a disagreement over the nature of the American liturgy ….

(Ben Sasse, James K. A. Smith, and Smuggling in Virtue, emphasis added) This article, by the way, summarized Sasse’s book in a way that sort of moots my prior mild dismissal:

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a book about raising children to be adults, and strangely for a book written by a sitting politician, it contains no concrete policy proposals. It’s a truism, especially on the political right, that politics is downstream of culture. From this perspective, politics and politicians are limited. The problems plaguing our society are rooted in communities and families; and the solutions must be formed by communities and families. Instead of passing the buck impotent politicians, Americans must take a long, honest look in the mirror. Sasse acknowledges this and writes from the point of view of a husband, father, historian, Augustinian, and American.

The aim of his book then is to help parents recalibrate their family culture in order to produce someone who is habituated toward doing virtuous deeds. Sasse wants to help parents in “nudging affections” toward a shared conception of the good ….

* * * * *

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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