The folks at Faith & Leadership recently posted an interview with James K. A. Smith about his most recent book, On the Road with Saint Augustine. On Twitter, Smith was quick to point out that the interview was done before Our Current Moment. The interview is a nice distillation of both his current book and his other recent work about desire and formation. In fact, based on the title of the article, “What Do Our Institutions Teach Us to Love?” might lead us to think it’s more about his pre-On the Road work.
While the whole piece is encouraging and challenging, there are a few parts that stick out in my thinking. First:
I’m trying to ask why Christians aren’t more peculiar. Why aren’t we weirder than we are?
The way to account for our assimilation to the default of the majority culture was not on the basis of what we believed or didn’t believe. It was much more explainable in terms of our having practiced our way into preformed ways of life and love. At the end of the day, what the culture has hoodwinked us into was not so much about what we thought or believed but what we had come to love . . .
We haven’t been fooled by bad information; we have been captivated by distorted formation. We needed a new attention to the dynamics of formation of the habits of the heart, which then turns into a renewed articulation and intentionality about Christian worship as one of those engines for counterformation.
The language of formation and transformation have become key in my own thinking about faith and practice and education, partly because of Smith’s influence. So when he talks about implementation of thoughtful reflection, there’s a real resonance for me.
I think people who have leadership responsibilities should first of all shift their self-understanding so that leadership doesn’t just mean that they are the articulators-in-chief. They’re not just the ones responsible for the message, so to speak.
In some ways, leadership is really about being an architect of the ethos of a community, which means that some of the most significant influence that leaders exercise is their ability to shape the rhythms, rituals, routines and practices of a community or an institution.
It is here that the idea of a kind of “habit” audit comes up. That’s something we’ve done as a reflective piece at the beginning of the last few years at school. It’s a great idea, though it can be difficult to do when things are in motion. Which makes Smith’s next comment interesting:
Ideally, what has to happen is you have to find a way to hit the pause button, try to gain some distance on an institution and its rhythms and practices, and then look at the things you do and ask, “What are they doing to us?”
That mostly looks like trying to take the things that are familiar and taken for granted in your institution and then asking, “What are these practices teaching us to love on an affective level, even if our message might be saying something else on an intellectual level?”
On Twitter, someone asked Smith if Our Current Moment could be seen as a kind of “pause button.” Smith responded that it might be possible but highly unlikely since lots of people in organizations are exhausted from trying to survive the moment. I do hope that a lull will come at some point where we can all step back and ask what’s becoming of us. Digital and online technology has been a great help to many over the last two months. Without it, much of learning and life would have stopped. But it’s also doing things to us, things that should be thought about and acted on.