What’s Love Got To Do With It?

‘We don’t become better people because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves,’ David Brooks suggests in The Road to Character (2015). ‘Education,’ he declares further, ‘is the process of love formation.’ [1] A New York Times columnist, Brooks represents an emerging contingent of voices charting an alternative understanding of what it is to be human—an anthropology premised on the conviction that our fundamental being-in-the-world is shaped by heart (what we love) before head (what we believe), by imagination before rational intellect, and by practices before propositions.

Amongst contemporary Christian theologians, James K. A. Smith leads the vanguard in exploring how Christian education, discipleship, and worship might be transformed to engage better the heart as well as head, imagination as well as intellect, and practices as well as propositions—to help human beings, in the words of David Brooks, ‘to acquire better loves.’

This article outlines Smith’s argument as presented in his seminal and foundational work, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (2009). Although Smith’s argument would benefit from a richer treatment regarding the significance of relationship in transforming ultimate love—Jesus, after all, directs us not to what we must love but who we must love in following him—he nevertheless breaks important ground by reclaiming love’s orienting compass and recognizing the power of repeated practices in guiding imagination.

Throughout Desiring the Kingdom (2009), Imagining the Kingdom (2013), and You Are What You Love (2016), Smith’s key insight can be summed up by the tagline of the latter book: ‘You are what you love. But you may not love what you think.’ [2] Deliberately ambiguous, unravelling this proposition reveals two threads in his line of reasoning. First, our “ultimate loves”—a term Smith defines as ‘what we love “above all,” that to which we pledge our allegiance, that to which we are devoted in a way that overrules other concerns and interests’ —may not in practice be what we think we love. [3] Few people, he argues, are conscious of the compelling, quasi-religious liturgies shaping our social imaginary in a practice as mundane as shopping at a mall.

The iconography of idyllic models pictured in shop windows imagines a specific vision of “the good life.” The monetary sacrifice implies a transactional kind of economy. Even the purchasing act implicitly pledges a kind of conversion—and even perhaps, salvific—event. [4] So compatible and holistic is the mall’s invitation to our embodied, affective natures that some of the things we profess to love (e.g., ethical practices of production) might in practice be overruled unconsciously by a more fundamental, heart or gut desire to belong within a particular image or narrative (e.g., the professional businesswoman). So often liturgies—what Smith describes as ‘rituals that are formative for identity, and inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in the way that means to trump other ritual formations’—operate on our hearts and imaginations without our conscious awareness or cognitive assent. [5] So, we may not love what we think we love.

Second, and more basically, Smith suggests there may well be a gap—or even dissonance—between what we cognitively believe and what we actually love or desire. In other words, we may not love what we think. Rationalist, cognitivist anthropologies posit that ‘a constellation of beliefs that, even if not reflected upon, govern and control our being and our doing.’ [6] In the Christian academy, this account of the human believer translates into a pedagogical mandate to form and inform a “correct” Christian worldview. In the church, it is translated into message-focused expressions of worship. [7] From right belief, it is assumed, flows right practice. The growing field of practical theology, however, testifies to the fact that orthopraxis does not inevitably flow from orthodoxy. Without desiring the kingdom—in Smith’s words—the best blueprints of the kingdom in the world mean little.

Drawing from Augustinian and Continental philosophical traditions, Smith draws together an anthropology positing desire as first, foremost, and ultimately how our living and being is constituted. [8] He writes, ‘we are oriented by and to a picture of what we think it looks like for us to live well, and that picture then governs, shapes, and motivates our decisions and actions.’ [9] Love, he argues, is ‘shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to various ends.’ [10]

In the academy, he advocates marrying head and heart, ideas and intentional practices, through more experiential-based courses. [11] In the church, he proposes a larger role for embodied liturgies and practice of the sacraments. Because we are embodied creatures, learning is more compelling if contextualized and embedded within meaningful, identity-forming practices (liturgies). [12]

Understanding human beings as loving or desiring agents offers much fruit for reconceptualising—and broadening—our understanding of education. If Smith is right and humans are first and foremost loving agents, then Christian discipleship becomes a process of learning to love as Jesus loved, of our hearts being transformed in sympathy with God’s heart. What is interesting about Jesus’ teaching on love is that he tells us not what we are to love, but who we are to love. He said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Smith defines education as ‘a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices.’ [13]

Might not a constellation of loved people inculcate a particular vision of the good life—one that might be a wellspring of motivation that could complement or oppose the vision presented in our material, embodied practices?

Nineteenth-century educationist Alexander John Scott wrote, ‘We forget to enter on the list of those who have educated us, alongside the fathers, preachers, professors, the fascinating companion, the stubborn rival, the honest friend, our equals in age.’ [14] In thinking about education as a process of love formation, I wonder if Smith’s account might not be rounded out with more attentiveness to the who as well as the what that transforms our love.

Why might it be significant that Jesus shows and tells us who to love? Perhaps the encounter of the living other—who has her own history, her own priorities, her own loves—is significant because it is not static. A living love requires constant back-and-forth, negotiation and renegotiation, invitation and response. Perhaps loving another often means coming to love what they love: noticing different things about the world around us, finding ourselves sympathetic to different ideals, celebrating their successes and weeping alongside them in their failures.

Perhaps our imagination is shaped by who we love—and so we need to take seriously the formative (and often unconscious) influence of living, personal relationship. Perhaps practices are embedded in—and given meaning—by relationships. In thinking about Christian education, then, we may need to think about how we form and sustain the relationships that are important to us. Certainly, that will include meaningful, identity-forming practices—but perhaps it is worth being reminded that loving another is always something more.

I would love to hear from you. What do you think?


[1] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), 211.
[2] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), back cover.
[3] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 87.
[4] Ibid., Introduction: “Beyond ‘Perspectives’: Faith and Learning Take Practice.”
[5] Ibid., 86.
[6] Ibid., 23-24.
[7] Ibid., 31-32.
[8] Ibid., 50.
[9] Ibid, 53
[10] Ibid., 40.
[11] Ibid., cf. Chapter 6: “A Christian University is for Lovers: The Education of Desire.”
[12] Ibid., cf. Chapter 5: “Practicing (for) the Kingdom: An Exegesis of the Social Imaginary Embedded in Christian Worship.”
[13] Ibid., 26.
[14] Alexander John Scott, Suggestions for Female Education (London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly, 1849), 4.


  • Margaret McKerron is a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews, where she studies two unconventional, nineteenth-century theological pedagogues: Thomas Erskine of Linlathen and Alexander John Scott. She is originally from Ontario, Canada but now calls the north-east of Scotland home.

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