Why Theology Isn’t Enough by Joel Miller

“Our desires can be misdirected by the traditions we submit ourselves to. ‘[W]e unconsciously learn to love rival kingdoms because we don’t realize we’re participating in rival liturgies.’

The reality is that deformation has already happened to all of us to one degree or another. By immersing ourselves in the tradition of the church, especially worship, we can recalibrate our desires.”

You are what you love: Why theology isn’t enough

How do we learn what we know? Most of us assume our brains are banks where we deposit data, the available balance representing what we know. But the metaphor falls short—especially when applied to Christian formation. Thankfully, James K. A. Smith’s new book, You Are What You Love, provides a better answer.

Smith’s big idea? Ideas matter less than we think. It only sounds counterintuitive. We all recognize that knowing the rules and physics of tennis differs from playing the game. Maxims guide art. But, as Michael Polanyi said, they cannot replace it. And that’s true for faith as much as tennis.

Learning to play the game

Polanyi divided knowledge under two headings: explicit and tacit. We tend to favor the first—clearly articulated propositions and arguments. But most of what we know is tacit, not explicit.

It’s like the tennis game. Stop the players mid action and ask them to describe how they hit the ball, how they anticipate its location, and so on. Most couldn’t fully articulate it. Articulating isn’t playing. And playing isn’t articulating. But which is more satisfying: listening to the play-by-play or watching Serena Williams work her magic?

The funny thing about faith is that we tend to prefer the play-by-play. And it’s more than preference; it comes with a bias. The play-by-play is somehow superior to Serena. Explicit trumps tacit. As a result, Christian formation usually looks like acquiring more information, reading books, defining doctrine, refining arguments, and so on. This is where Smith comes in, turning the whole program on its head.

Instead of asking what do you think? he asks, what do you want? Why? Because our loves matter more than our notions. Desire speaks louder than doctrine. That doesn’t mean the latter is unimportant, only that it’s insufficient. The explicit does not trump the tacit. You can master the rules of the game, but if you don’t learn to play, what’s the point?

The role of tradition

In the Christian context, that means submitting ourselves to tradition. Tradition is the locus of learning, the setting where truth is passed one person to the next. “[O]ur most fundamental orientation to the world—the longings and desires that orient us toward some version of the good life—is shaped and configured by imitation and practice,” says Smith. “[O]ur hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end.”

That calibration of our desires produces what we know. And it’s sneaky because it happens wherever we find ourselves, whether we know it or not. One virtue of Smith’s book is to show us the negative way this process works on us—how it deforms us. Our desires can be misdirected by the traditions we submit ourselves to. “[W]e unconsciously learn to love rival kingdoms because we don’t realize we’re participating in rival liturgies.”

The reality is that deformation has already happened to all of us to one degree or another. By immersing ourselves in the tradition of the church, especially worship, we can recalibrate our desires.

Practice and companions

“The practices of Christian worship train our love. . . . We can’t counter the power of cultural liturgies with didactic information poured into our intellects,” says Smith. “The orientation of our hearts happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.” It’s both explicit and tacit.

This recalibration is a communal endeavor. We’re not pioneers. We’re apprentices. And that means teachers, students, and journeymen—a whole community who maintain and pass on the practices of Christian formation. This communal aspect of learning is also something Polanyi stressed about gaining knowledge, and I think his work makes an interesting parallel track to follow.

You Are What You Love is an important book. It upends an unhelpful bias in Christian discipleship and provides a better way forward.

Source: http://joeljmiller.com/theology-isnt-enough/