In seminary, my patristics professor once told my class that if someone claims to have read all of Augustine, they’re probably not being truthful. In his latest book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, James K. A. Smith makes no such grandiose claim; in fact, his goals are refreshingly modest. On the Road isn’t a biography, or even a book about Augustine, really—it’s a journey into oneself with Augustine as guide (“a road trip with a prodigal who’s already been where you think you need to go”). Concurrently, it’s Smith’s testimony of his own such journey. Smith effectively captures the “uncanniness” of the Bishop of Hippo, a man “so ancient he is strange,” and yet whose experiences feel so contemporary. Smith’s hope is that this strangeness will help 21st-century readers glimpse “what an authentic Christianity feels like from the inside.”
Unsurprisingly, while he refers to other parts of Augustine’s corpus, Smith overwhelmingly draws on Confessions. This work, Smith points out, was not so much intended to be Augustine’s own story, but an example of the perennial human story of the prodigal son or daughter. In the opening “Orientation” chapters, Smith explores the youthful “road-hunger” that beckons moderns. We perpetually talk ourselves into believing that we “revel in the roaming,” that the road itself “is life.” Augustine, escaping provincial North Africa in search of professional distinction in Milan, knew something of this experience. Though Confessions details Augustine’s subsequent conversion, Augustine understood that conversion doesn’t fix everything instantly—as Smith puts it, it isn’t like “some kind of Floo powder to heaven […] it just changes how you travel.”
Smith contextualizes the modern spiritual journey by naming some of the “invisible philosophies in the cultural air we breathe.” For instance, it’s from Heidegger, and the postwar existentialism that developed from his thought, that we get our obsession with “authenticity.” Like Heidegger, Camus wrestled with the Augustinian legacy in his work on “exile, alienation, [and] strangerhood”—questions that were further picked up by philosophers like Derrida. Smith’s point is that our cultural fixations are not new. Not only have current generations’ questions been asked for the past century, but most of them can be traced back to Augustine himself. In other words, they’re really not new. The remainder of the book, “Detours on the Way to Myself,” offers a series of “way stations [for] a hungry soul.” Again, these aren’t meant to be exhaustive studies of topics in Augustine’s thought. They’re more like meditations on questions faced by most moderns, featuring episodes from Augustine’s own life, contemporary cultural illustrations, and moments from Smith’s own pilgrimage.
Smith is at his best when he diagnoses modern short-sightedness, or rather shows how Augustine anticipated our struggles some 1500 years ago. For example, in the chapter on “Freedom,” Smith points out that nowadays, the primary freedom we recognize is “freedom as self-determination”—which is so often a trap: “After the thrill of independence and experiments in self-actualization […] the exhaustion starts to set in and then eventually morphs into a kind of self-disgust…” After his flight from his birthplace of Thagaste to Carthage and thence to Rome, Augustine learned that “If freedom is going to be more than mere freedom from […] then [one has to] trade autonomy for a different kind of dependence.” This “coming to the end of your self-sufficiency” is the beginning of grace, what Smith calls a “spiritual realism” that opens us to a very different conception of freedom than what moderns have typically called by that name.
One of the book’s strengths is that Smith models how to ask “Augustinian” questions, not just to mine Augustine’s writings for answers. In the chapter on ambition, he suggests that we ask ourselves, “What do I love when I long for achievement?” since the telos of ambition, not the goodness of ambition itself, is what’s really at stake. Smith illustrates this by showing how, upon meeting Ambrose and other Christians in Milan, the young rhetorician’s ambitions were recalibrated, reoriented toward friendship with God rather than the praise of the world.
Likewise in the chapter on sex. Despite Smith’s admitted frustrations with Augustine on this subject (he argues that by privileging celibacy, Augustine fails to imagine “a sexual hunger that runs with the grain of a good creation”), he suggests that Augustine’s perspective might be just “peculiar” enough to get us asking better questions on this most fraught subject. When we ask what we’re really seeking when we crave sexual intimacy, we might find that, like the youthful Augustine, we’re “overexpecting from creation,” asking for ultimate fulfillment from sex that it wasn’t designed to give us.
Not all chapters are equally successful. As wonderful a figure as Monica is, I thought that framing “Mothers” with Augustine’s ambivalence toward his mother—her ambitions for her son and his early resistance to her “rustic” piety—was a slight stretch for a chapter that asks, “What do I want when I want to leave?”. Other chapters feel a bit unwieldy, as though several complex points are being reluctantly condensed. “Friendship” argues that our loneliness stems from our tendency to view others as threats to all-important personal authenticity. Smith suggests that the true friend points and pushes us toward the good and accompanies us on the way—an example being Augustine’s friend Alypius, who, in Book 8 of Confessions, might be viewed as an icon of the church—specifically, a model of the church as those “who are called to come and […] be present with [the world] in its tragedy.” The connections between these lines of thought weren’t always clear to me.
Yet Smith’s prose is compelling—never laborious, it regularly packs rich insight into few words. In “Enlightenment: How to Believe,” Smith considers how a “disordered love of learning makes you a mere technician of information,” certainly a modern application if there ever was one. The craving to belong to the intelligentsia marked Augustine’s attraction to the Manichaeans, the “rationalists” of his day. As Smith observes, subscribing to the “enlightened” views of our day “comes with an allure […] of sophistication, with the added benefit of throwing off the naivete of our parents’ simplistic faith,” “a shortcut to respectability.” In “Identity,” Smith shows how, in Scripture, Augustine found a story that had already been written about him, in turn giving narrative shape to Augustine’s rhetoric, as the Bible offers not just an illuminating story, but a map home. Other chapters include Justice (a look at sin, evil, and lament), Fathers (with some moving reflections on the longing to be embraced), and Death (how should we love and hope in this life?).
I do wonder if a more culturally-attuned reader might gain more from the book—I couldn’t always evaluate the aptness of Smith’s frequent references to modern film, art, or music, simply because I wasn’t familiar with many of them. And would those (and references to Heidegger, et al.) do much to attract skeptics who aren’t already disposed to give Augustine a hearing? Regardless of these caveats, I think Smith is at his best in the warmly invitational mode with which he closes the book. At some point, he says, Augustine confronts us with a choice—will you surrender your life to the One who gave his life for you? If you do, “the next step isn’t arrival […] It is the first step of belonging to a pilgrim people who will walk alongside you, listen, and share their stories of the God who doesn’t just send a raft but climbs onto the cross that brings us back.”
Sarah White (MA, St. Louis University) is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and basset hound, Basil.