My home church has been searching for an effective way to disciple those in the community. Like most things, modes of discipleship are dependent on underlying presuppositions about people, and how they operate. More often than not, the underlying presuppositions have not been arrived at by thinking critically. The philosophical implications and historical roots of the positions have not been thoroughly examined.
James K. A. Smith, in the first few chapters of his book, Desiring the Kingdom, lays out his understanding of the shape of Christian Education. Although he is not directly addressing the subject of discipleship in the church, I think that it offers an appropriate analysis of the way that the Church has primarily approached discipleship. Smith begins with the premise that our assumed anthropology has directed the way in which we view education or formation. The church has assumed an anthropology that regards people as primarily thinking beings. This is what Smith calls a “brains on a stick” model. The belief that human beings are primarily thinking things has produced the idea in the church that the way to discipleship best occurs through the learning of ideas, claims, and propositions. The “thinking things” model reduces a person’s identity to what is located in the head. A person is what he thinks about, and what he knows. One the problems with this model of persons is that it is much more Cartesian than it is Christian. This worldview tends to cause a dualistic distinction between our souls and our bodies, which will no doubt ignore what it means to be embodied persons. In Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, he states, “Dualistic models of Christian education fail to form us for the kingdom precisely because they are inattentive to the centrality of embodied, material, liturgical practice for such formation.”
In the thinking thing model habits are formed by the learning of information. This assumes that our actions are the outcome of thinking through the possibilities and options that we have. This is the furthest from the truth. In reality, most of our action is the product of pre-conscience operations. We are compelled to act on what we desire and what we love. Our action is the result of our moving towards what we understand the “good life” to be. Smith states, “Every human being is defined by their love, longing, and desire for some vision of the kingdom.” Here Smith is using “Kingdom” as the picture of what one thinks the “good life” looks like. This raises the question of how a person’s idea of the “good life” is formed. The main point of Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, is that the direction of our desire and love is result of ritual formation, by means of being immersed in cultural practice. This means that it is not simply how we think or what we think about that matters, but what we do with our bodies is absolutely key in the discipleship process. I want to make it clear that how we think about things and what we think about it is extremely important. I am simply stating that people are not “primarily” thinking things, therefore we are not defined or directed “primarily” by ideas, principles, or propositional truth claims. Because we are fundamentally people who desire, we are in need of liturgical practices that put our bodies through repeated ritual practices that will attune our hearts toward the kingdom of God.