Immanent Liturgies

Immanent Liturgies by Jacob Vangeest

Jacob Vangeest

Contributor at Christianity Now
Jacob Vangeest is currently studying social and political thought through the New Centre for Research and Practice. His research interests include the study of power in information, technology, and religion. He enjoys reading, hiking, and drinking tea.

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We kneel in silence as the priest prepares the meal. Organ music winds down into silence. A voice utters, “The Lord be with you.” We respond, “And also with you.” Each Sunday, the communion opens with a sung call and response. It’s the beginning of a weekly ritual. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that humans are fundamentally desiring beings. For Smith, liturgical rituals constitute ‘identity forming practices’ which shape our desires.[i] This is an admittedly broad understanding of liturgy, and extends beyond our common use of the term. In the introduction to his book, Smith portrays the shopping mall as a place of worship. As one traverses the shops, one is affected by the sensations of the mall. The smell of perfume, the sound of music, the sight of colors, and the touch of fabric work to create desires in the shopper. If Smith is correct in suggesting humans are fundamentally what they desire, then the desire forming experiences of the mall are at work in shaping the one who experiences them.

What is occurring in the process of desire formation? Affect

Deleuze and Guattari expand on the concept of affect in A Thousand Plateaus. Affect, for Deleuze and Guattari, takes place on an unconscious level. They describe affect: “[A]ffect is not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel.”[iii] Affect is below emotion and ideology, taking place in the physical interaction between things such as humans, tables, books, animals, music, smells, ideas, etc. When these things interact, they infect one another and shift in the process. Affect is the process of this infection, where things are no long solid, separate, autonomous objects in space, but fundamentally constitute all things around them. This infection and blurring of borders creates the unity of any given thing, but such a unity is not stagnant. It’s created, moment by moment, by the effectuations of affect, by the affections of emergent properties created by this aforementioned blurring. These interactions shift the desire or will of the things involved. Desire is typically thought of as dependent upon lack: One desires something that one does not have. In contrast, desire for Deleuze and Guattari is positive, rather than negative. It is the investment of the body, a vital force driving the actions of the body. Desire pushes the body to produce or do something.

The mall lets us look at affect in action. The various sensory stimuli infect the shoppers on an unconscious level, creating desire for whatever is being sold. In a mall, one might smell a pretzel from a pretzel stand, which leads to desire for the pretzel. A week later the memory of the pretzel may lead to a desire for more pretzels and a return to the mall. One might believe this to be a free action, but the desire was shaped through the various intensities physically acting upon oneself, producing these actions. The smell has affected them in a physical, unconscious way, producing desire for a pretzel.

Liturgy, as traditionally recognized, functions in the same way. It affects its participants on an unconscious, immanent, physical level. Actions are repeated each week which produce habits and desire in the congregation. We kneel together, we sing together, we pray together, we partake in bread and wine together, we recite the Creeds together. These actions work at an unconscious level to create desires in those who participate. A critical aspect of this is that these actions are done together, as a community. We kneel together, we sing together…. While the ritual at the mall is focused on the individual, Christian liturgy is focused on the community of Christ. By performing actions together, the community becomes a cohesive people. The bodies in action affect one another and draw people together as one body.

As bodies work together, they begin to function as one. Like a sports team which consistently practices together learning the rhythm of each player in order to function as a cohesive unit, the congregation learns how to work together as a community of faith. Continually affected by the habits shaped in liturgy, the community and the individuals comprising it come to desire the very actions they partake in. Anyone who has ever run knows starting is difficult. Your body hates every second of the aches and pains it is going through. Over time, however, one reaches a point where the run itself becomes desirable, where you wake up and need to run. Liturgy can follow a similar trajectory. Initially, one might have to force oneself to participate, but over time one might come to desire participating with it becoming something they long for.

Community is like a pot of water on a stove.[iv] It might start cold or lukewarm, but as the heat intensifies, the water heats up. Liturgy is to practitioners what heat is to the water. However, the goal of community is change. Like water that suddenly comes to a boil and becomes steam, the goal of liturgy is the production of a critical point where the participant becomes a radical disciple. When this point is reached, one’s conscious belief makes way for an unconscious desire. Rather than simply professing the love of God, one’s being is fully endowed with a desire to follow the message of scripture: love your neighbour as yourself; leave your father and mother to follow Christ; sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Discipleship is actualized because of the physical aspects of liturgy. Participation can lead to a desire to follow Christ.

The unconscious nature of affect adds an element of beauty to this process. One may sit in church each week and believe they are simply going through the motions. Yet, the physical processes continue to affect one, even if one isn’t conscious of it. There is an old myth which states that while a frog thrown into boiling water will jump out and save itself, a frog placed in a tub of lukewarm water that is heated to a boil will die because it doesn’t sense the water is slowly coming to a boil. A person who is thrown into discipleship might draw back because it seems too intense, but one who comes in while things aren’t intense can become radically invested without realizing things are changing. Unlike the frog in the boiling water, though, this change brings life.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Slavoj Žižek reads Christ’s death on the cross as a hopeful one for Christians. For Žižek, Christ signals to the believers his death is good news because “It means you are alone, left to your freedom. Be in the Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, which is just the community of believers.”[v] Bracketing the atheistic element of Žižek’s vision of Christianity, one can relate the liturgical community to Žižek’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. When we pray together, or sing and worship together, the Holy Spirit is the community, bringing about the Kingdom of God. Scripture is then actualized through the physical movements of disciples. Liturgy affects the being of disciples on an unconscious level, bringing us together to do the work of the Holy Spirit by producing the Kingdom on earth.


[i]James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, unknown edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2009), 35.

[iii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 240.

[iv] This example is borrowed from: Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

[v] Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Documentary (P Guide Productions; Zeitgeist Films, 2012).