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The Table Video

James K.A. Smith

Imagination: Is Ritual for the Body or the Mind?

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
March 27, 2014

Philosopher James K.A. Smith (Calvin College) explains why he thinks ritual is so deeply related to bodily experience.


Well okay, I guess I was focusing on human creatures, who are I take it essentially embodied. Then I think that the reason why ritual habituates us, is actually because it kind of operates on an aspect of consciousness between intellect and instinct. So there is a kind of mode of our orientation to the world that is learned and habituated and yet is carried in a kind of, visceral bodily know how.

Know I don’t think that denies for example that there are intellectual virtues, virtues are habits, so the way you acquire habits, virtues are the same way. Interestingly though I mean what would be the habits, for fostering mental development, that don’t involve bodily conditions? If they’re just, Even if they’re contemplative I’m guessing it still involves some sort of physical conditions, as the condition of possibility for making it happened, is that? Yeah.

There’s a longer argument behind the model that I’m suggesting tonight which sort of bubbles up from a more robust account of what I think is sort of the nature of human being in the world, I’m drawing on a French philosopher named Merleau-Ponty. And I think he makes the case that this is where I would want to talk more about the imagination.

So I think we sort of imagine the world before we think about it. I don’t think those are intention or in opposition but imagination is a more primal orientation to the world and I think that’s something that burbles up from our embodiment more. I think there are just this vast walls of our conscious orientation to the world that are of mind, what your calling mind that are sort of pre deliberative of which we are not aware.

And I think it’s precisely because deformative rituals, get hold of us at that level. That we least need to be aware of how much, how that works. One takeaway I would hope for is that people just come now with new eyes to look at their own cultural immersion, and to see things that might have formally been, they thought were just neutral or benign or things that we do are actually doing things to me. Not because they are trying to inform my intellect but because they’re trying to recruit my desires in a sense. So when my kids to ask to go to the mall, they say, they think it’s a joke but they say Dad will you take us to the temple? [laughter]

And they’re mocking me but I’m okay with it because it comes out of a conversation we had where I said look the mall is not a neutral space, it’s a liturgical space. It’s training you to love certain things in certain ways and to envision a certain mode of the good life, and it’s working on you without anybody appealing to your intellect.

So it’s just waking up to that kind of reality and then seeing that really the gospel and the spirit of god gives us sort of fire to fight fire in the practices of the church that also work on the unconscious mind. That doesn’t mean reflection isn’t important. In fact everything we’ve done tonight is thinking about these things. And so hopefully what has happened is you’ve been led to think newly, about your unconsciousness participation. And then maybe that change is how we are there. Yeah.