St. Augustine in his Confessionssays, you (God) have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.God is who we’re made for. Until our hearts rest in Him we are restless. It is not primarily our minds that needs to rest in God, although they do too. Instead, Augustine says, it’s our hearts. This distinction between humans as minds, knowers and intellectuals versus what the heart loves and desires is key to understanding what it means to be human, understanding our culture and how the Church makes disciples. For, whatever (or, whomever), our heart loves, argues Philosopher Jamie Smith, that is what you are, what you think, and what you do.We are not less than ‘thinking things,’ but we are more. What particularly determines who we are, think and do is what our heart loves and desires.
Unfortunately, today’s definition of ‘heart’ is often sidelined by Hallmark card messages and Opra Winfrey who teaches us that the heart is merely the source of sentimental feelings. I want to debunk this notion and retrieve the ancient and medieval notion of the heart that sees it instead, as the seat and core of what we love and desire. With that in mind, I want to follow Smith’s proposal in his book, You Are What You Love, that we are not ‘brains on a stick’ that simply needs to be fed information, but instead, we are desiring creatures or, simply, lovers. That is why in the Gospel of John, the first question Jesus poses to those who would follow him is not, ‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’ (John 1.38). This is why Jesus says to Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21.16).
As creatures who are shaped by what they love and desire, human beings are intentional creatures. The Latin word for ‘intentional’ means ‘to aim’. In other words, we are always on our way or oriented towards loving and desiring something or someone. It’s not a question of ‘Whether you love something/one?’, but ‘What or who you love?’ So, to figure out what makes you tick as a human being, the question you must ask is ‘What do you want, long for, desire, or love?’
Smith uses the metaphors love, desire and longing synonymously. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught – especially in Protestant circles – that love and desire are two different things. We tend to give negative connotations to the word, desire. The Greek word for desire, erossounds too erotic so it must be bad. Fortunately, Augustine clarifies what he really means by eroswhen he says, agape is rightly ordered eros. Desire itself is not a problem. It’s what we desire that can be a problem.
Since our hearts are always oriented towards and thus desiring something ultimate in life – a vision of human flourishing, or the good life – the question for Christians is ‘how do we make the heart desire God, so we are no longer restless?’ The answer comes in unpacking the ancient Tradition of the virtues. It teaches us, along with Scripture, that virtues, such as love, is a habit. That is what Paul is referring to in Colossians 3.12-17 where he says, to clothe yourselves with love. What is a habit? It’s the internal disposition towards an end that can be either good or bad. You can be habituated to always lie or to always tell the truth. Habits (vices work the same way), are dispositions woven into your character, so you do them without thinking. So, yes love is something we choose to do, but it is also something that bubbles up in you because that is who you are as formed by habits.
What are the effects of the Fall, sin and thus, this broken world on this virtue of love? It does not turn our yearning to love and desire off as a tap does with water. You can’t just stop loving or desiring some version of the good life. We are still lovers, but now our love is misdirected. But, now thanks to the power of sin, you can love the wrong things and in the wrong way. That is why idolatry is not simply an intellectual problem, but rather, an erotic problem. We see this particularly, in the OT where, periodically, God’s people’s love is misdirected towards desiring the gods of their culture. We do the same thing whether it be money, beauty, status or power. Whenever we desire these false gods, we engage in their practices and therefore, engage in their habits, or vices, e.g., selfishness, greed, sloth etc., instead of virtues, e.g. love, charity, or kindness.
But, how does my love, and thus my desire get properly aimed? Can’t we just simply choose what to love and desire? In a way, you don’t choose what you love because love are habits and habits are not acquired just by thinking. They are unconsciously trained into you as you are immersed in practices of the culture you live in. These practices come, draw you in and shape you in whatever social/communal space you occupy whether it be a shopping mall, workplace, or hockey rink. We are shaped by whatever cultural spaces we’re in and occupy. And it does this often, not by communicating information, but by luring and conscripting our love and desire towards some end. Smith calls these social/communal practices that shapes us liturgies. He calls these practices liturgies to wake us up to the religiousness of non-Church, cultural and secular practices.
These cultural practices that we readily participate in, and often, unknowingly, direct our loves and desires to their gods, have three features. First, they form what we love or desire by showing us their version of the good life. Next time you watch a commercial on TV, notice how little is said about the product (car, investment firm etc.), but instead, tells you what kind of life you deserve and desire. Second, they get at something visceral, passionate and ultimate in us that directs us to a particular vision of the good life. Again, when you are watching commercials on TV, notice how different commercials address certain cross-sections or age groups in society. They do this by tapping into what that particular group most desires in their lives. For instance, ‘reverse-mortgage’ financial groups tap into seniors’ desire to do what they want to do in their retirement and/or how they can help their children. Lastly, they are jealous of and thus, trump other ritual formations. They are jealous practices because they want to make you into a particular kind of person. There are always competing liturgies whose practices in our society jealously want us to worship their particular god. A prime example of this are the liturgical practices of the Democrats and Republicans in the US. One group will try to tap into your heart’s desire for a socially equitable society. The other taps into your heart’s desire for the rights of the individual and self-determination.
Furthermore, you might not love what you think you love. As I’ve suggested, you can’t simply think into what you love. If I ask a Christian what you want, he may say to follow God and live a righteous life. But that might not be what you really want. How come? Psychology, Cognitive Science, even Neuro-Psychology offers us very important insights that also confirms early Christian wisdom. For instance, Psychologist, Timothy Wilson, suggests human consciousness is like an iceberg. Only the tip of our consciousness – 3-5% – is rationally and deliberately processing information. Therefore, a vast amount of who you are and what you do operates under the radar of consciousness and rational reflection. Our being in the world is most often governed by dispositions, habits that we’re exposed to through our immersion into the practices of whatever social, cultural, political, ecclesial context we live in. Therefore, you can acquire habits unintentionally that shapes your desires thanks to the practices of the particular social/communal contexts we’re exposed to.
If our being in the world is governed by the dispositions, habits that we’re exposed to in whatever social, political and cultural situation we’re in, then we are liturgical animals. And as liturgical animals we need to recognize that rival liturgies in our culture vie for our hearts with their practices trying to habituate us to worship their gods. Therefore, it needs to be the business of St. John’s (or, any other Church), to re-habituate and re-inscribe habits so that our loves and desires are directed towards God in Jesus Christ. The only way to do is, is in and through worship. Let me conclude by explaining how worship re-forms us and turns us into disciples of Jesus Christ.
To understand how worship form us it’s important to re-iterate that we can’t simply be liberated from the formation of false gods in the world by new information. New information is important. But, the way God delivers us from the habit-forming power of tactile rival liturgies is by inviting us into a different liturgy whose practices bends the needle of our love towards Christ. That is why worship is the key to Christian formation.
Fortunately, as Anglicans who take liturgy and worship seriously, already have the resources for forming people into Christians. Thomas Cramner, the father of Anglican liturgy, understood how fundamental worship is to Christian formation. It was his evangelical conviction about the centrality of the Bible to the Christian life that propelled his creation of the Book of Common Prayer. This included a regiment of the public reading of Scripture that can take parishioners through the whole bible in one year and through the Psalms once a month. In addition, the rhythm of readings, prayers, drenched in biblical language enables Anglican Christians to absorb its biblical sensitivity on a subconscious level. Cramner’s prose – insofar as it is really a deployment of the language of the bible – the rites and rituals in the Prayer Book shapes the imaginations of those who pray them. In this way, Anglican liturgies, like the liturgies of the mall, coffee shop or hockey arena, target both the intellect, but also the body, thus conscripting our desires through the senses. Anglican worship doesn’t just teach us how to think; it also teaches us how to love, and it does that by inviting us into the biblical story and implanting that story in our bones.
What’s important to remember is that every liturgy – secularly or churchly – has a telos. For instance, if we are unreflectively immersed in the liturgies of consumerism, we can, over time, ‘learn’ that the end goal of human life is acquisition and consumption. Anglican worship’s telos is, what Smith calls a ‘sanctified humanism’ – a vision of how to be human which realizes that we are created in the image of God and sent into this world to be His image bearers to and for the world. It does this by capturing – not only our minds – but also, our imaginations. It does this ‘aesthetically’ through the metaphors of the biblical story, poetics of the Psalms, the meters of hymns and choruses, the tangible elements of bread and wine, the visions painted in stained glass windows, all of which works on our imaginations, teaching us to desire God. Anglican worship reshapes and restores our loves on whom we were made to desire through our imaginations, the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit.
The implication of what Smith, I think rightly, teaches us, is that we need to be careful in adopting what has been called by ‘Mega-Churches’ ‘seeker sensitive’ liturgies. In order to be hospitable to seekers – those who are not yet Christian – liturgies have been created so they are more welcoming and accessible. But, in order for the church to be that sort of place it needed to fell less churchy. What some churches have done to make this happen is to make it’s Sunday morning worship time feel more like the mall, coffee shop or even, local pub – because those are places that people like, and where they feel comfortable. Consequently, Traditional liturgies (most especially the BCP!) were seen as dated, dusty – and worse of all – boring (the most hated thing to be in today’s postmodern world!). The Lord’s Supper was thought to be just plain weird from the perspective of seekers. What churches need to do is de-emphasize certain aspects of Christian proclamation and worship and emphasize those aspects of the liturgy that feel more affirming: less wrath, more happiness; less judgment, more encouragement; less confession, more forgiveness; more exciting, less boring.
The problem – as you may have already realized – is that such seeker friendly liturgies do not shaping their habits and desires towards the true God whom they’ve been made for. They may grow attendance, but most often in such services there is as revolving door of people who find the service initially exciting, but eventually unimpressed with its lack of theological depth in its music, preaching and liturgy. Furthermore, it’s assumed that Jesus is not desirable, at least the Jesus of the bible. It assumes that we know better than Jesus when it comes to what people need, and thus desire; forgiveness, repentance and a new life in Him (elements that are often missing in ‘seeker friendly’ liturgies). Does this mean there can be no liturgical renewal. Not necessarily. But, we should be cautious when introducing changes to our liturgies. Our predecessors, such as Cramner, were, theologically, very thoughtful about the liturgies they created, always looking over their shoulders to learn from what they predecessors taught them about liturgy because they like Cramner knew liturgies can form Christians. I suggest we do the same.
Revd. Dr. Mike Michielin
Rector, St. Johns, Portsmouth. Kingston
Book I, Confessions.
The following comments come from James A.K. Smith’s book, You Are What You Love, Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, 2016.