‘A Christian University Is For Lovers’, runs the provocative title of the final chapter of this book, James K.A. Smith’s first sally in his three-part ‘Cultural Liturgies’ project. Lovers of what? – you might ask. Of knowledge? Of the life of the mind? Of theology?

Smith’s answer is: lovers of something, whether we know it or not. We’ve reviewed one of Smith’s books here on FiSch before. He’s the Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, and a prolific author whose work turns around this theme of love – love, or perhaps more accurately desire, as the essential driving force of the human person. His most recent, popularly targeted book states it simply: ‘You Are What You Love‘.

The Cultural Liturgies trilogy aims to explicate that claim in the context of what it means for education, and particularly Christian education in the values and practices of the Kingdom of God – hence ‘desiring the Kingdom’, Smith argues, is what we are shaped into doing by the liturgies of Christian worship and community.

‘Liturgical animals’

This first book (which I should acknowledge that I received as a free copy from the publishers at a recent workshop with Smith – no relation!) is largely introductory to the project’s big themes: of human beings as primarily lovers rather than thinkers, of culture and its repeated practices (‘liturgies’) as radically formative of the person’s desires and nature, and of the necessity of counter-shaping those desires through the practices of the Christian community, itself a radical counterculture. Only in the aforementioned final chapter does Smith start to really nail his colours to the mast as to what this distinctive anthropology, and ecclesiology, mean for the task of education.

When he gets there, though, it’s exhilarating, and has definitely drawn me in for the next two books! Specifically ‘Christian’ educational institutions, universities in particular, are something I’ve always felt decidedly ambiguous about (although the FiSch blog has explored the topic more than once). Yet Smith’s analysis of desire’s primacy over cognition, and the problems it presents for ‘worldview’ models of education, is convincingly made. His conclusions as to the role of culture and counterculture for a truly Christian vision of academic life are pointed and pressing in a university context which feels like an increasingly difficult place to practise any kind of virtue, let alone Christlike ones. So when he dives in to his vision of an ‘ecclesial university’ – his preferred term, emphasising situated communal practice over doctrinal or worldview-based definitions – the speculative proposals are wide-ranging, contentious, and exciting.

The university as education of desire

Smith’s focus here is primarily on the university as a teaching institution, so he pays somewhat less attention to research and faculty contexts than I’d like. Nonetheless, the picture of an institution centered around rhythms of prayer; dedicated to service; rooted in intentional community-building, linking students, faculty, and the wider locality; holistic and embodied in its teaching and learning practices – all this is powerfully attractive.

I’m left with some questions, of course. On the theoretical side of Smith’s argument, some will find that his downplaying of the intellectual in favour of the affective goes too far, especially when applied to the research elements of the university. Questions of truth, and our ability to apprehend it, are thorny and complex in light of Smith’s heart-centered anthropology.

On the practical side, I’m drawn to the integrity of the learning context Smith envisions, but remain wary of calls for removal from the secular academic sphere. Surely there’s still a place, and indeed a need, for the Christian academic to stay among her non-Christian colleagues, despite the challenges?

Such questions are a response to an ambitious argument, of course – and I encourage you to engage with Smith’s ideas. For those with a stake in higher education, whether as students, teachers, researchers, or a combination of all three, ‘Desiring the Kingdom’ is a good place to start thinking about what Christian higher education might look like. It’s a clear and readable introduction to his model of the human, and a provocation to think differently – ultimately, counterculturally – about what education could be and do in society.

Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.