Liturgies of Autonomy/Liturgies of Dependency (Liturgies of “the Street”)

Posted: 14 July 2010 in Faith and Life
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Warning: Christian Theological Stuff Ahead…

James K.A. Smith has written a helpful book.  This is not a book review but rather a reflection on his reflection.  In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), Smith argues that we are not, fundamentally, thinking people (thanks, but no thanks Descartes).  Further, we are not, fundamentally believing people (thanks, but no thanks Dooyeweerd).  Rather we are “loving” people–desiring people–people whose actions tell us what we are “aiming at”, what our conception of the good life is; people whose practices define our fundamental identity.  Smith goes on to argue that our practices–practices that form us into who we are–are our “liturgies”–the pedagogies that teach us and form us to be certain kinds of people

For Smith, liturgies are rituals of ultimate concern and, they are very definitely not confined to what we do in worship spaces (though we can engage in them there).  And because we are “lovers” we can’t not desire certain things and the things that we desire are the things we “aim at” in our liturgies–our formative practices.  He provides examples of what he refers to as “secular liturgies” and it strikes me that the examples (and some others I can think of) are essentially liturgies of autonomy–liturgies that define our identities as, essentially, independent of God, reliant on ourselves and our own ability or the ability of our technique to see us through.  Smith talks about the secular liturgies of the “mall”, the “military-entertainment complex”, and the “university”.

Though Smith doesn’t put it this way (exactly), I would say that the liturgies of the mall form us to find our deepest needs met in the things we possess–the stuff of consumption.  The liturgies of of the military-industrial complex form us to find our security, our protection, our risk management strategies in the overwhelmingly destructive power of state-sanctioned violence.  And the liturgies of the university form us to find the answers to the ultimate questions of meaning and the solutions to our most pressing human challenges in the acquisition of knowledge.  These are powerful liturgies–ones I have practiced for years and ones that provide no space (or need) for an identity bound up in a creator/creature relationship.  They are liturgies of autonomy.

While Smith does spend a great deal of time dealing with “sacred” liturgies that form us–that teach us, that help us rehearse–for God’s kingdom, he focuses mainly on the liturgies that take place in places of worship.  They are, clearly, liturgies of dependency but I wish Smith had spent some time talking about liturgies of dependency that we engage in “in the street.”  I have been thinking about what these formative practices might be in relation to some work we are trying to do with homeless and marginalized individuals in my home town.  I don’t have any great ideas yet but bubbling in my mind are some alternative “liturgies of dependency”–liturgies that situate our “practices” squarely in the context of our need for God but that take place out where we live our day to day lives; liturgies of the street.

I am thinking about the liturgies of service–rituals that live out Jesus’ admonition to his followers that the “greatest” is the one who is the servant of all the others.  I am reflecting on liturgies of growing food and eating (perhaps a subset of serving)–rituals that bring us together in a common field where our labor turns to fruit that we share around a common table with no distinctions based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status or the other things that divide us.  I am considering liturgies of healing and “making whole”–rituals in which we lay hands on each other and pray for healing (of heart, mind and body) and in which we sit with the suffering (with ourselves) to contemplate the new bodies, made possible by Christ’s resurrection, that will liberate us from the infirmities we bear.  I am wondering about liturgies of “being with”–rituals that bring us together, just to be together–to hear stories of our lives, to listen deeply, to sing, do art, read poems or whatever the things are that remind us that we are humans created in God’s image.  These are liturgies of dependency–dependency on God and on one another.  Alternatives to the liturgies of autonomy.  I am looking for more…

  1. Brian Gumm says:

    Robb, I want to say right off the bat that I’ve only read the first sentence of this post and immediately come down here to post a comment. If something more comes after actually reading it (which I will do directly) and it feels post-worthy, I’ll comment again.

    But here’s what I want to say: You are the third person in the past three days to mention James K.A. Smith, whom I hadn’t heard of prior. Not only that but each contribution that the first two people made w/r/t Smith made me more and more excited to dig into some of his work. And here you come talking about him!! As a result of my first two conversations, I’ve started following two blogs he’s associated with. His own ( and a neat collaborative blog about the church and postmodernity ( The titles of a few of his books are reason enough for me to read them: “The Devil Reads Derrida” and “Thinking in Tongues.” Such great titles!

    Thanks in advance, Robb! (Also, totally bummed we didn’t cross paths when you were in the Valley!)

  2. Brian Gumm says:

    Okay, here’s one really quick/rough idea for your liturgy of growing food and eating: the Lord’s Supper. I’m not trying to be sarcastic, either! 🙂 The Lord’s Supper as it is commonly practiced inside church edifices is a short transactional experience, but this needn’t be so! Weave in all the rich agricultural/growing metaphors/lessons all over Scripture with the reenactment of Jesus’ last meal with his friends, and you could have a ritual practice that covered an entire growing season, culminating in the celebration meal itself. Heck, you could even throw in some feetwashing before the meal, a la John’s gospel!

    This reimagination of what it means to worship and what it means to be liturgical is important, dangerous stuff for the church…and very very necessary. My sense is that there are rich untapped resources for liturgical integration already printed across the pages of the Bible, but we’ve been reading them in ways that blind us to these kinds of possibilities (or we haven’t been reading at all). Thanks for posting this, Robb!

  3. robbdavis says:

    Thanks for the feedback Brian. I agree re Lord’s Supper. It is not only a remembrance of an “event” (the last supper) it points to a way of being in community. John Howard Yoder pushed way beyond the “transactional” in “Body Politics” and I know some folks think he went too far but what I like about Yoder’s writing on the Lord’s Supper is what it says about what it suggests as a reconciling, community act that models the hope of the completed kingdom. I appreciate your idea and the affirmation of something that I have been thinking about a great deal but had not named, viz. “ritual practices that cover the entire growing season, culminating in the celebration meal itself (celebration meals here in Northern CA since our growing season never really ends…

    Thanks Brian. You will like Smith I think.

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