Liturgy as a “pedagogy of desire”

We are all creatures of habit. Whether you take your coffee at a certain time each day, or run the treadmill three times each week, you practice habits. The reason we form habits is because we all have goals we seek to achieve. These goals range from the simple pleasure of a caffeine buzz derived from a cup of coffee or a lean, muscular physique, the reward for months of diligent exercise. Whatever the goal, habit moves us toward it.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith argues that this cause-and-effect process works the other way, just as powerfully, if not more so. Smith points out that our habits are not only formed by our desires, but play a significant role in shaping our desires. The more you practice something – make a habit of it – the stronger your desire grows for your end goal, your telos (a Greek word meaning “end” or “purpose”).We do what we love and this is what shapes us into the kinds of creatures we become.

Probably one of the strongest external forces working to shape our desires is culture. As creatures of habit, we find our way, our routines, by engaging with the forces of culture. Those forces form habits – good or bad – that we consistently practice. All this is done with a specific telos in mind. For example, we watch a television show and that show makes us laugh. Naturally, laughing is pleasurable, so we make it a habit to watch that particular show so we can reach our goal of laughing. In turn, the show we watch creates in us a new desire for more of a particular kind of telos. We are all consistently engaged in dozens (hundreds?) of habits that, in turn, are shaping our character and our desires.

Christians ought to consider this seriously – especially when it comes to formation in the faith. Smith coins the term “pedagogy of desire” to describe educational systems that shape our desires and habits. “Pedagogies of desire form our habits, affections, and imaginations, thus shaping and priming our very orientation to the world” (p. 13). He argues that it is not only through our intellect that we learn, but through practice. Smith’s concern is primarily with Christian education. He fears the insufficiency of a Christian pedagogy that merely hands down information, but fails at teaching formation. In his latest book, Imagining the Kingdom, Smith says, “Attention to intellect is insufficient precisely because there is an irreducible, unique understanding that is only carried in practices and only absorbed through our immersion (over time) in those practices – and it is this nonconscious understanding that drives our action” (p.13). In essence, who we are – our Christian character – will be shaped more by our practice than the information we receive and retain.

If we think about this idea in the context of liturgical worship, we gain an understanding of liturgy’s significance in the life of the believer. In some traditions, the Christian enters the worship space, sings a few upbeat songs with the congregation, then sits down and merely “receives” for the rest of the service. Information is transmitted through a lengthy sermon, prayers are spoken by the leader, and perhaps a song is performed by a layperson. While there may be some strengths to such a service (i.e. the blessing of a fellow believer’s God-given musical talent), the believer misses out on the opportunity to learn through participation. Liturgy, (“the work of the people”) however, educates the believer by way of participation and habit. Each service, believers carry out very similar actions. Praying the Psalms, bowing, genuflecting, censing the altar, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, all become a reality in which the believer is constantly being shaped by his or her habits. What happens over time is deep formation. The participation (coupled with teaching) helps the believer understand the significance of what they practice and the symbols and sacraments in which they participate. Not only is information conveyed, but formation is learned through habit. It is not always the case, but the outcome of this should be Christian character shaped by habit – the habit of participating in God’s Story. Just as a funny television program gives us the desire to laugh more, so should our liturgical practice give us more of a desire to recognize and embody God’s Kingdom on earth.

We in the Anglo-Catholic tradition are always in danger of our liturgical practice becoming a dead form. It is easy for us to enjoy the outward rituals we participate in – smells and bells are attractive to the human senses. But if we allow our character and our lives to be shaped through a liturgical “pedagogy of desire,” paying attention to what all of it means (hint, hint: God’s Kingdom is very near), we will be oriented toward the world in such a way that, with Christ’s help, we will carry out the “work of the people” we are commissioned to do.






About nashotahhouse

Located in Nashotah, Wisconsin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary is the oldest institute of higher education in the state of Wisconsin. Founded in 1842 by a Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Nashotah House belongs to the Anglican tradition of worship, theology and spirituality. That is, Nashotah House traces her roots to the Church of England and locates herself within the worldwide Anglican Communion. Comprehending the fundamental disciplines of Holy Scripture, Theology, Church History, Spirituality and Pastoral Ministry, the curriculum at Nashotah House not only roots our students in the ancient wisdom of the Church, it prepares and empowers them to communicate the Gospel to the world today.