The Table Video

James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber & Todd Pickett

How Your Body Leads Your Spirit

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
Director, Center for Spiritual Renewal and Associate Professor of Spirituality and Psychology, Biola University
Dean of Spiritual Development, Biola University
March 28, 2014

In certain Christian traditions, liturgy is structured for bodily practices (lifting hands, kneeling, recited prayers) to guide our formation. A little like “belonging before believing,” this is “acting before feeling.” You can practice your way into a spiritual posture. James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett in a CCT Conversation on Embodied Spirituality: Exploring Christian Spiritual Formation.


So I am interested in attachment theory myself.

James: Yeah.

And, of course, attachment theories emphasize the fact that our early formation in relationship with our caregiver, our parent, really does make such an imprint that it affects all future relationships. Including our relationship with God, our relationship with God, initially, is a kind of echo of whatever our experience of relationships were early on.

Which means that we can sometimes have a distorted view of God if we had an inadequate caregiving, and I wanna ask a little bit about that, because I do have a theorist, a friend of mine, attachment theorist in psychology who says that, basically, we have to be loved into loving. We love because God first loves us. And so I wanna a little bit about, since you’re such a strong advocate of repeated practices, sometimes I hear that, well, God’s kind of in the deep background of a practice, we’re doing the practice of prayer, or the practice of confession.


And he’s working on us unaware, we have good days and bad days, days we feel close to him, he doesn’t feel so close, but where for you is the existential, relational, Psalmist-like interaction with God amid the practices, which practices help us really attach to God relationally.

Not just merely as a habit of practice, and where is this place for this kind of deep interaction with the person of God, in immediacy, in relationship, amid these repeated practices.

That’s a great question, I mean, I wanna say almost any of those practices, will at different moments be thin places, in which the Father is met, in the Son, in ways that will take me by surprise. So yeah, I don’t want us to paint a picture of liturgical practices, Christian worship practices, where we’re just going through the motions and God is elsewhere.

It’s funny, to give an example, so in my tradition, worship always ends with a Benediction. Where we are sent from worship, now to take up our image bearing task in culture, and it’s a charge but it’s also a blessing, and the pastor will raise his or her hands and bless us, and I’m interested in the attachment theory because I come from actually, a really messed up family, and I’ve never known the love of a father, and what I do is, whenever the benediction is offered, I hold up my hands to receive it, because that’s the only Father who has ever said, “I blessed you.” And for me, I think some people might look at that as this formal, liturgical thing. For me, that is a thin place, that’s an experience of intimacy.

And is there a conversation that even takes place, in that moment, sometimes with you.

James: Oh, oh

You hold out your hand and it’s kind of like

Lord, I need you, I mean what is the–

Yeah, I mean, I suppose it makes a difference, I almost enter these liturgical practices differently, probably because my affections were also cultivated by charismatic experience, right, and it just that it breeds a sense of intimacy, and I bet that’s not true of everyone.

Maybe if somebody was a cradled Lutheran, and all they’ve ever done is gone through these rhythms, they might not experience the intimacy in the same way that I’m looking for it there, because those other past experiences, it’s funny, I mean, also it might be really weird, but for me, the regular ritual of confession and assurance of pardon, is for me, a deeply intimate meeting of a Father who I have to be honest with, and who says I forgive you every single time.

Todd: God is right there, he’s right there.

James: Yeah. So I think, one of the things that, this is a really great question and I don’t have all the answers to it, but I think it’s worth thinking about more, because I think culturally, we’ve absorbed certain standard tropes of intimacy, or certain repertoires of intimacy.

And therefore we foster certain kinds of worship experiences that we think breed intimacy, and I think we might not realize that intimacy will look different for different people, if that makes sense.

Yeah, and you know a couple times, your conversation use the example of laying the hands out, and I just want you to take a moment to talk about, how is confessing like this, or the benediction was the example, how is the benediction different for you, and why from just holding my hands down, and putting my hands out, so now we’re using the body, why is that important, and why does that make sense that there’s a bodily practice, that ought to be in some cases connective to this relational, or liturgical practice.

I think it’s again, it’s a Psalmist intuition here, right? That we are ensouled bodies and embodied souls, and we are, there’s something spiritually that happens in the posture of my body. Because I am my body, do you know what I mean? I’m not just a soul trucking around in this vehicle, I am also my body.

You’re not a ghost in the machine.

No, exactly, and so for me, this is a tangible, holistic expression of a posture that I am also trying to cultivate spiritually, but I’ll also be honest, you know what, there’s lots of Sundays I don’t feel like doing this. It’s not expressive, it’s not, I’m doing this to show that I’m open to the Father, sometimes I’m doing to try to make myself open.

So this is one of your practices?

Yeah, and the body leads the spirit in a way in this regard, it’s a little bit like belonging before believing, it’s acting before I’m there spiritually sometimes.

So it’s acting as if, and yet, I’m listening to you and I’m thinking, and yet this is the Holy Spirit’s life in him

James: Sure.

This is the Trinity,

James: I hope so.

Has come and made his home in you, and therefore it makes a difference in what you do.

The same reason why, you know what, some days I don’t feel like raising my hands in praise, but the Bible commands it, and I get it, it’s almost like your body can be ahead of the curve of where your spirit needs to be, and so you practice your way into that posture.

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