In seeking an answer to how we achieve deep and lasting Christian formation, modern Protestants have often operated by Francis Bacon’s famous precept: “knowledge is power.” We seek to fill people’s minds to overflowing with precepts of right and wrong, definitions of virtue and vice, and pithy exhortations to wisdom and warnings against foolishness. If you’ve ever been to an evangelical Christian worldview conference or camp, it can be like trying to drink from a fire hydrant—the flowrate of information is overwhelming.
In recent years, James K. A. Smith has offered a substantial critique of and alternative to this approach, one quite well-received among American evangelicals in particular. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, is convicted that transformation does not happen by information transfer, or at least not by information transfer alone. Commending a more Augustianian approach to anthropology, Smith contends that human beings are not primarily “thinkers” (or “knowers”) but “lovers” (or “desirers”)—the loves we have cultivated steer our lives more than the knowledge we have acquired. Hence the titles of his 2009 book, Desiring the Kingdom, and its lay-level adaptation in 2016, You Are What You Love. You are what you love, as opposed to what you know.
Smith challenges us to rethink education—whether in primary or secondary schools, or college, or education at a Christian worldview camp or Sunday School, or around the dinner table in the family. In what sounds like a set of leading questions with which one opens a TEDTalk, Smith asks:
“What if education . . . is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? . . . What if education was primarily concerned with shaping hopes and passions—our visions of ‘the good life’—and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect… What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? That is actually the wager of this book: It is an invitation to reenvision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.”
There’s been a general consensus that his critique is correct—decades of worldview teaching in Christian schools, colleges, and conferences has not had much to show for it. For what it’s worth, I once asked theologian Douglas F. Kelly why the major investments by American evangelicalism in worldview training have failed to produce much fruit in the culture, and he answered, “Because God knows that American church is not humble enough to handle the power it’s wanting. In our pride, such power would destroy us. So he’s withholding it.” That’s an insightful answer. But supposing we became humble, and supposing still that transformation doesn’t come by information transfer alone, how would Smith have us form hearts and desires, shape hopes and passions, and transform the imagination?
Smith contends that our loves are shaped by habits, and habits are formed by “liturgies”—repeated, embodied practices which, over time, internalize into our own habits and loves. This certainly includes liturgical corporate worship, but also private devotional habits, family mealtime “liturgies”, and the like. Smith proposes that where information has failed, liturgy will succeed. Our hearts and desires will be reoriented as they are, in his words, “primed” by “a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely lined to our bodily senses.”
Many pastors have taken Smith to heart by instituting more Anglican style liturgies in their Presbyterian, Baptist, or even non-denominational churches, which is not entirely a bad thing. Smith’s emphasis on the Christian calendar has also received growing acceptance. Christian schools have furnished their chapel services with confessions of sin and creeds, and recitation of key passages from Scripture and from outstanding Christian literature. Families have crafted their own mealtime liturgies.
But will this emphasis on liturgies as “love-shaping habits” produce the moral transformation that information transfer has failed to produce?
Call me a skeptic.
In the course of my PhD research, I’ve noted with interest a similar move toward a “thicker” liturgy in the reforms of Swiss and Genevan churches circa 1700. Yet this liturgical turn was accompanied by a proliferation of lengthy, information-heavy manuals on Christian living by Reformed theologians across Europe, which grew as a genre to great heights around the end of the seventeenth century.
So, in 1673 we see Richard Baxter’s A Christian directory, with a subtitle that captures the aim: a Summ of practical theologie and cases of conscience directing Christians how to use their knowledge and faith, how to imjprove all helps and means, and to perform all duties, how to overcome temptations, and to escape or mortifie every sin: in four parts.
In 1700, Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brackel published his four-volume A Christian’s Reasonable Service, recently translated into English. From 1696 through 1710, the once famed Genevan theologian Bénédict Pictet produced his eight-volume On Christian Morals or the Art of Living Rightly, which makes numerous appearances in Herman Bavinck’s recently translated lectures on Reformed ethics.
And in 1700, the Swiss theologian in Neuchâtel, Jean-Frédéric Ostervald wrote A Treatise Concerning the Present Corruption of Christians, and the Remedies Thereof, which was translated into English in 1702, becoming very popular in England. Ostervald complained that the chief problem was that men did not know their Christian duties. He followed it up with a lengthy catechism that outlined quite exactly how one should live.
Each of these men pursued both the creation of manuals on Christian living and liturgical reform. For example, Ostervald admired the Anglican liturgy, with its shorter sermons (and sometimes no sermon at all) and its carefully-chosen sequence of Scripture readings and prayers through the course of the Christian year. He instituted it first in Neuchâtel and then, through collaboration with Benedict Pictet, in Geneva as well—the first liturgical reforms since Calvin.
These men shared the conviction that the Reformation had succeeded in transforming doctrine, liturgy, and the clergy, but it had not succeeded in transforming life in the pew. So they sought to extend the tenets of the Reformation unto a genuine “Reformation of life,” largely by publishing information-rich manuals and treatises.
In other words, these men, eager for the reformation of life, pursued information and habit-formation together. And yet it did nothing to arrest the slide of the laity into arms of the Enlightenment.
A modern example to the same effect: earlier this year I spoke with a recently-retired headmaster of a large Christian classical school, one that embraced Smith’s concepts and worked them deeply into their curriculum, school day, and culture. What did he tell me about their high school seniors? That the disconnect between what they know and have experienced on the one hand, and what they personally value and aspire to be on the other, remains massive, and deeply puzzling.
So it seems we’re still searching. Are there any answers to the cultivation of deep and lasting Christian formation?
It’s my contention that the recent dichotomy between habituation and information has significantly obscured the role of admiration in the Christian life.To put it in my own TEDTalk-style leading question: What if the key to moral transformation isn’t information, or habit-forming liturgies, but connections with people who embody what we wish to become?
A key thinker in this regard is Linda Zagzebski, the George Lynn Cross Research Professor and Kingfisher College chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics Department at the University of Oklahoma. Her key theory, laid out in Exemplarist Moral Theory (which is crying out for a popular adaptation entitled You Are Whom You Admire) is thatadmiration is an emotion toward someone who exhibits, upon reflection, a human power in a high degree of acquired excellence leading us to emulate them leading to the behavior of emulation, or imitation.
Admiration, as an emotion, may initially seem a weak foundation for moral theory. Yet the aforementioned Bénédict Pictet (drawing from Descartes) likewise prioritised admiration, placing it before even love in the order of human emotions. We first find something admirable, and then grow to love it.
Of course, admiration can go awry, just like habituation and information. We can jadedly refuse to admire anything less than perfection, or cynically play down the achievements of admirable people out of a fear that they threaten a modern idea of “equality”, or even content ourselves with mere admiration which never stretches to emulation. Admiration is therefore an emotion that must also be cultivated and protected—cultivated into a true emulation of the admirable qualities of the person admired; and protected from the corrosive effects of envy that would delight more in bringing someone down to our level, than in aspiring to attain to theirs.
Zagzebski proposes that our admired figures tend to fall into three categories: heroes, saints, and sages. Heroes exhibit strength and courage, in either physical or social acts. Saints exhibit self-denying love for God and others. Sages exhibit great wisdom and insight.
We can see this play out when certain admirable figures are admired from different angles. Eric Metaxas, in his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, presents Bonhoeffer as a hero—a pastor, prophet, martyr, spy, who takes a heroic stand against Nazism, and should inspire American evangelicals to stand up against their own tyrannical government. Charles Marsh, in his biography, presents Bonhoeffer instead as a sage, wrestling with the complex of ideas in Germany and America, and his own inner struggles. And any of us who know the story of Bonhoeffer’s various sacrifices can easily understand him as a saint.
Following Zagzebski then, we can begin to overcome the current dichotomy between information and habituation in Christian formation. Alongside well-crafted liturgies and carefully sifted manuals on Christian living, a high view of admiration will at the very least elevate the place of well-chosen biographies in our lives and in the communities we are seeking to shape.
Let me then propose three initial “takeaways” from considering admiration in this way.
First, as Christians, let me summon you to consider Jesus Christ himself as worthy of your admiration. With a deeper understanding of what admiration is (i.e. an emotion which precedes even love in the order of emotions), concerns of Jesus becoming a “mere” exemplar shouldn’t trouble us. We can even pair up Christ’s threefold office with Zagzebski’s categories of admiration: as prophet he is our great sage, as priest he is our great saint, and as king he is our great hero.
Second, our own pursuit of growth in Christlikeness should include the reading of biographies of men and women who were strong where we are, right now, weak. Are you, by nature, courageous but not as wise? Then read about sages. Are you wise but not courageous? Then read about heroes. Are you courageous but not compassionate? Read about saints.
Third, and finally, if biographies have such power to shape us, then wherever we find ourselves with influence in communities (whether churches, schools, seminaries, families, or elsewhere), we must consider what outstanding persons we want to elevate for admiration in that community.
To give admiration this role in Christian formation is to remain in step with church history. Athanasius defended the Trinity in both theology and liturgy, but also wrote The Life of Saint Anthony. Theodore Beza, who served in teaching and liturgical reform with John Calvin in Geneva, also wrote his predecessor’s biography. Jonathan Edwards compiled The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. J. C. Ryle, the author of Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots also wrote A Sketch of the Life and Labors of George Whitfield. These brilliant theological minds knew the power of biography and that, in the task of Christian formation, we indeed are whom we admire.
This article is an adaptation of part of a keynote address delivered at the 2021 Carolinas Regional Convivium at Davenant House on “The Power of Biography”. Edited by Rhys Laverty.
Rev. Matt Miller serves as the City Director for the C. S. Lewis Institute in Greenville. He has been the translator of French Reformed works into English. He taught practical theology for three years as Adjunct Professor of Divinity at Erskine Theological Seminary and is currently finishing his PhD at the University of Bristol in the U.K. He is ordained as a minister in the ARP and also licensed in the PCA. He served ARP and PCA congregations for over a decade.