The Sacrament of Mission

Wired to worship. Photo by Peta via Flickr.

“I think, therefore I am.” This short dictum from René Descartes may be the best shorthand summary of the entire Enlightenment project. It is a statement about human nature – our “am-ness” – namely that we are primarily rational animals. So successful has this view of human nature become – entrenched as it is in our thought and practice patterns of cultural, political, economic, and (yes) religious institutions in the West – it’s nearly impossible to detect, much less argue with.

But Christian philosopher, James K.A. Smith, has a bone to pick with that view of human nature. In his recent book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Smith has set about to change our minds about this mind-centric view of human beings. Drawing on contemporary philosophy and other disciplines, Smith wants us to shift the understanding of our being from that of homo sapiens to “homo liturgicus,” that is the human being as worshipper and lover. So the dictum here would go, “I worship (and love), therefore I am.”

Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Smith says this homo liturgicus view of the human person looks closer to how people actually behave. Rather than just running around thinking all the time, we’re also doing things with our entire bodies, individually but especially collectively. What are we doing? Smith says that we’re predisposed by our various storied communities (family, school, church, nation, economy, etc.) to behave in certain ways which prime and point us toward a vision of “the good life,” or “the kingdom.” The trick is, though, given the multiple communities that lay claim on our bodies at any given point, which kingdom?

Smith rightly fears that Christians in late modern Western society have been duped by the rationalist view in both the church and the Christian university. Both our worship and educational practices have been severely inhibited, thereby damaging our capacity for faithfulness in discipleship. We happily believe in Jesus with our heads, while powers such as consumerism have successfully claimed the rest of our bodies.

Smith’s constructive project in Desiring the Kingdom is to help recapture the full-bodied and political implications of distinctly Christian practices, namely worship and education. Drawing on both his charismatic and Reformed backgrounds, Smith also argues for a sacramental, enchanted view of all creation, with the weight of sacramentality falling heavily upon the church and its practices, in participation with God’s Spirit and in competition with “the powers.” Being caught up in the church’s story and practices with our whole bodies enacts the counter-formation necessary to resist idolatrous kingdoms and their practices.

So what does this mean for the church’s mission? In The Open Secret, Lesslie Newbigin says that:

Mission…is faith in action. It is the acting out by proclamation and by endurance, through all the events of history, of the faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is the action out of the central prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use: “Father, hallowed be they name, they kingdom come; they will be done on earth as in heaven.” (p. 39)

There is an embodied genius at work in Newbigin’s understanding of mission that comports well with what Jamie Smith is trying to do with respect to Christian worship and education. It also suggest the inextricable link between worship and mission. Smith suggests that being human entails being image-bearers of God and that this image-bearing is not a characteristic, but is rather “a task, a mission,” that when followed in the way of Jesus must always be cruciform (p. 163).

While there is no explicit reference to the Anabaptist tradition (though there are plenty of references to Hauerwas), those reared in that tradition will find much that resonates in Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. And while mission work per se is not a topic of conversation, a missional impulse is certainly deeply embedded in the logic of Smith’s arguments. Indeed, the trajectory of Smith’s theology is toward, as the title suggests, God’s in-breaking kingdom. By the habituation and formation in Christian practices, Smith argues, our bodies taken up within the body of Christ have nowhere to go but ever toward that vision of life abundant. May it be so for the church today…

Brian R. Gumm

About Brian R. Gumm

Brian is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren. He is currently in his last year of graduate studies at Eastern Mennonite University, completing an Mdiv from the Seminary and an MA in Conflict Transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Brian blogs regularly at Restorative Theology.
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  1. Pingback: In place of (non-)sacraments: Re-enchanting the Brethren | Brethren Life and Thought

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