Desire: A Missing Link In Our Theology
What happens when right beliefs don’t lead to right behavior? Using New Testament language, we might simply call this “hypocrisy.”
In my previous essay, I addressed the problems with separating theology (doctrine) from ethics (practice). Because these two belong together biblically, effectively divorcing them renders Christianity incoherent. They flow in and out of one another.
Once we accept this, it is only reasonable to ask, “Why is it so easy to separate the two?” Consider the following experience of many Christians: On the one hand, we profess that God is good, loving, and strong. He provides abundantly for people’s needs—“Be anxious for nothing” (Mt. 6:25). Yet simultaneously, anxieties consume us. Our prescription drug histories say as much, as well as our skyrocketing blood pressure. Even our language is filled with synonyms for “busyness.” This illustrates an inconsistency in our theology and practice. We have the grounds and source for patience, but it is difficult to acquire.
What is the culprit for this spiritual deficiency? We have the right doctrine of God, after all. We know the Holy Spirit can produce fruit in our lives—including patience. We can even quote many verses that call us to cast our cares upon Jesus. Yet we confess our deficit of this fading virtue. Why have we so little to show for all of our head-knowledge and sound theology?
Who Am I, Really?
The unexpected answer to this question can be found by asking a more fundamental question: “What is a person?” In order to answer this question, we’ll look to James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation .
Often we think that beliefs are primary, while behaviors are secondary (which explains why we’re often prone to tolerate inconsistent behavior as opposed to bad doctrine). Yet this assumes that people are primarily thinkers—“knowing” or “believing creatures.” Instead, Smith argues that we are primarily lovers—beings defined by desires. If you really want to know someone, don’t ask what they know or believe. Ask them what they want.
In his book, Smith is writing about Christian education. He asserts that one reason why so much teaching fails is because it assumes an incorrect view of human persons. Because people are primarily lovers, education is primarily a formative enterprise rather than an informative one. While he doesn’t reject the importance of ideas or beliefs, neither primarily define nor move people. Smith argues that people are primarily shaped and directed by their desires .
The heart is the center of man, biblically-speaking. Often in Scripture persons’ true depth or character is associated with their desires, and not merely beliefs. Yet if this is true, where does this leave the significance of beliefs? How can seeing humans primarily as lovers help bring theology and practice together?
Smith argues that desires constitute a crucial link between beliefs and behavior. As Amy Plantinga Pouw says, thinking of these three collectively helps us attend to the gaps between beliefs and practices . We may know what is right, but desires are pivotal to ethics. Rightly-ordered desires can help our actions to be consistent with our beliefs. But if this is true, how are our desires ordered in the first place?
Culture: Liturgies of Desire
As demonstrated in an earlier essay, “Clarifying the ‘Culture’ Debate,” ‘culture’ is a difficult concept to nail down. Smith offers this simple definition: Culture is “the work that we do that unpacks the potential of the world.” We should see culture as the stuff humans make . But this is only the first piece of the puzzle.
The second piece is that as we create culture, it in turn shapes us. Cultural artifacts function as “liturgies of desire.” These are formative practices that orient us to the world and direct our passions. While “liturgy” connotes religious overtones, it pertains to all of life . Our experience with all aspects of culture implicitly educates us. These may be our social habits, the places we frequent, or the tools we use. Practices, institutions, and artifacts all comprise ‘culture.’ These elements of culture influence us, mold us, and direct our desires. They influence what we want. Our practices create habits, and those habits lead to desires.
Consider a shopping mall. Visiting one can be exhilarating for some people. An elegant banner hanging from the ceiling, an attractive figure in a storefront window, or an aroma of the food court: Each of these envelope us subtly. The mall then becomes a “religious,” “liturgical,” and even “pedagogical institution,” since it teaches us what we should want . The mall’s images, sounds, and aromas portray a vision of “the good life.” This cultural experience orients us to desiring a certain pattern of life.
This leads to the final component to Smith’s argument that brings us back to the original question: How can beliefs and behaviors be consistent in our daily experience? Understanding the primacy of desire or love, and how our practices shape them is crucial. But a final question is also important—namely, what should we want and how does it make a difference?
Which Kingdom Do We Desire?
Even if some are skeptical about the proposition that we are primarily lovers, we all acknowledge that what we love is an enormous component of who we are. Furthermore, our passions and desires are strong, driving many of our actions. However, if there are countless institutions and practices at work in our lives that are forming our habits of desire, it is crucial to consider which direction they are being pointed.
As implied in Smith’s title, he argues that everyone desires a kingdom. The kingdom is whatever constitutes human flourishing. Whatever I imagine to be “the good life” is my conception of the kingdom. And because all human beings love or desire something, whatever they love or desire most is their kingdom. It is their ultimate, highest aspiration. It is what their heart is set upon. It is also what they believe to be real .
Admittedly, Smith’s anthropology is complex . But his emphasis on the primacy of love and the importance of its direction is the key to uniting theology and ethics. If what we love is tied to what we believe in the depth of our being, it will inevitably result in a certain kind of behavior or ethics.
It is then our charge to be more attentive to the formative liturgies of life—our practices, habits, and cultural influences. As Smith cautions, “these practices [cultural influences] are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people—to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms” .
Attention to Practices
Let’s return to the example above concerning our unsuccessful pursuit of patience. If our practices lead to habits, and our habits direct our loves and desires, what does this mean for the one lacking patience?
The twenty-first century rat race is a familiar image. If our idea of what the good life looks like (the “kingdom”) is activity, mobility, and productivity, then being in the SUV most hours of the week will be a defining habit. This will in turn be cultivated by particular practices. If the image of mom in an SUV on the road most hours of the week connotes productivity and mobility, then this will only be reinforced by continuing to engage in that way of life.
It is through the rhythms of constant practices that our understanding and desires are formed and directed toward a biblical vision of kingdom life. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass further illustrate this principle in speaking about the significance of the Sabbath. They argue:
Christians who keep holy a weekly day of rest and worship acquire… an embodied knowledge that the world does not depend on our capacity for ceaseless work and that its life is not under our control. Observing sabbath on the Lord’s Day, Christian practitioners come to know in their bones that creation is God’s gift, that God does not intend that anyone should work without respite, and that God has conquered death in the resurrection of Christ .
Beliefs and behavior go hand-in-hand. Yet desire is often the missing link in theological reflection. Thus, the rituals which form and aim our loves are just as important as beliefs . When we take this proposal seriously, we begin to appreciate the complexity of the Christian life, which in turns better prepares us to embody sound doctrine .
 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009). I will also draw upon a lecture Smith gave for the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on May 22, 2011, entitled “Culture as Liturgy.”
 It is important to note at this point that Smith is quite clear that he is not offering a totally original proposal. Instead, he is taking most of his seminal reflections from St. Augustine of Hippo (4th cen. A.D.) and constructing an approach to worship, worldview, and cultural formation upon that Augustinian foundation.
From the outset, I would also add that Smith’s account, while compelling and a helpful corrective to many of the overly idealist approaches to anthropology, goes a bit too far at points in his argument. Nevertheless, his proposal is a very useful one.
 Amy Plantinga Pouw, “Attending to the Gaps Between Beliefs and Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, eds. Miroslav Volf, Dorothy Bass (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008). Crouch adopts a similar take on culture.
 Smith, 25.
 Smith, 23.
 Inevitably, beliefs arise from this framework. Our desires, regardless of what practice has formed them, are directed toward some kingdom that we believe it to be real. We have a particular mental picture of what the good life is, even if we cannot immediately put it into words. Sometimes it is more instinctual, but it is present.
 I would also add that Smith’s anthropology is overstated at junctures of his argument. Nevertheless, the rest of my positive affirmations stand.
 Smith, 90-91.
 Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology, 25.
 It is important to distinguish between “final practices” and “formative practices.” According to Smith’s proposal, it is a series of practices that habituate our loves which ultimately lead to a change in direction. But in some sense, it may sound as if we’re saying “practices lead to more practices.” In a way, this is true. Yet it is a constellation of these smaller practices that lead up to a “final practice.” I would describe it this way: Beliefs = Practices. This model is too simplistic because it neglects our desires. So then a more accurate model would be: Beliefs = Practices (Desires).
Yet Smith’s proposal shows that those desires are formed and shaped by other practices. So in this way, it is a symbiotic, cyclical sort of relationship at work. Under this construal, beliefs are very important, desires are very important, and practices are very important. It is really a task of keeping them in balance in seeking to understand how the social forces of life figure into this anthropology.
 Miroslav Volf’s chapter, “Theology for a Way of Life,” in Practicing Theology is very stimulating in this vein. He argues, “at the heart of every good theology lies not simply a plausible intellectual vision but more importantly a compelling account of a way of life, and that theology is therefore best done from within the pursuit of this way of life” (247). He further illustrates with an interesting case study:
As attested by the accounts of those who have experienced conversion through reading the Bible without having had previous contact with Christians, one can accept Christian beliefs without previously engaging in Christian practices or even observing Christian practices. A person can start engaging in Christian practices because he or she has found Christian beliefs intellectually compelling. In such cases, Christian beliefs come first and Christian practices follow.
As a rule, however, this is not how things happen. People come to believe either because they find themselves already engaged in Christian practices (say, by being raised in a Christian home) or because they are attracted to them. In most cases, Christian practices come first and Christian beliefs follow—or rather, beliefs are already entailed in practices, so that their explicit espousing becomes a matter of bringing to consciousness what is implicit in the engagement in practices themselves (256).