On the Road with Saint Augustine (James K. A. Smith) -- Review

ON THE ROAD WITH SAINT AUGUSTINE: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. By James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019. Xiv + 240 pages.

Augustine is one of those historical figures who can be both enlightening and infuriating. He is one of the most influential figures in Christian history, especially for the church in the West, whether Catholic or Protestant. We cannot do theology without reckoning with his influence, especially when it comes to questions of the nature of God, sin, sexuality, and the nature of the church. His battles with Pelagius have set out the foundations for Christian debates on sin and salvation, while his battles with the Donatists laid out the foundations of ecclesiology. As for whether Christians can engage in warfare, writings laid the foundation for what came to be known as the Just War Theory. We can accept or reject his views, but we can’t ignore him. Even if one doesn’t we don't buy into his theology, completely, he can be an important voice of wisdom for the journey of faith.

In his book On the Road with Saint Augustine James K. A. Smith, invites us to go on the road, ala Jack Kerouac, with Augustine. This book is as much about modern human life as it is about Augustine, but Augustine provides the central conversation partner in Smith’s examination of human life. Thus, this isn't really a biography of Augustine nor even a theological exposition. We learn about Augustine’s life and we do theological exploration, but it’s more than that. As is becoming clearer in recent years, all theology is autobiographical. There is no pure objective theology. We all bring our own lives into the conversation, even if we don’t recognize it. In this book, Smith invites us into his own journey, not only with Augustine but other conversation partners including Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. In other words, this is going to be as much a philosophical discussion and a theological one. But, as Smith notes in this book, he encountered Augustine in his Ph.D. program that was intended to focus on Heidegger.

Before we get to Augustine and Kerouac, we first need to meet the author. Smith is a prolific author and professor of philosophy at Calvin University. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Villanova University. Smith is very aware of the way culture and religion interplay with each other. We see it in earlier books and in this one as well. While he is fully at home in the academic/scholarly milieu, this book is written for the non-specialist, while demonstrating his full grasp of the scholarship.

While Smith brings modern thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida into the conversation, it is Augustine who sets the tone. The Augustine who accompanies us on the road is the one revealed in The Confessions. Smith notes that what Augustine offers us is a “spirituality for realists.” He writes that “one of the reasons I’ve found Augustine a comforting companion on the way is that he is honest about how hard the road is even once you know where home is” (p. 15). Perhaps that is why I find Augustine so intriguing even when I find him frustrating and problematic.

 So, we take up the journey, with restless hearts. We know the destination but getting there will take time and will be filled with twists and turns. As noted earlier Smith draws on Jack Kerouac's 1950s book On the Road. He uses this imagery to take us on a journey of discovery, covering topics such as freedom, ambition, sex, mothers, friendship, enlightenment, ending with death. Each of the chapters invites us into a conversation about these and other topics with Augustine as a partner. He begins the story by sharing how he got from an interest in Heidegger and Deridda, which had led him to do a Ph.D. with John Caputo at Villanova, to Augustine. There he discovered a different Augustine. He had been taught, he notes, “to read Augustine to get doctrines, dogmas, and propositional claims about sin and God and salvation. Only later did I realize what a travesty this framing was—not only the way it domesticated a protoexistentialist but also the way it dehumanized a fellow traveler” (p. 31). Interestingly it was reading Hannah Arendt’s take on Augustine that provided him with a new vantage point. She helped him see Augustine’s psychological insight. This is, he suggests, a “refugee spirituality,” a recognition that we live between things. For example, he was born in North Africa to a Roman father and Berber mother. He found it difficult to fit into one place. He lived in two cultures. He knew love and experienced his sexuality. He knew sin and grace. He struggled with great areas of human life and reflected on them in his theological works, but most especially in his Confessions. We need not agree with his conclusions to recognize in him a companion for modern life.

While I might not be in the same place as either Augustine or Smith at every point, I found the book to be spiritually enlivening. His Confessions speak to our life concerns, offering an opportunity to see our own lives through the lens of his journey toward God.  Smith does an excellent job of bringing Augustine’s insights into conversation with our own experiences. It is difficult to fully express how the book engages you. Not everyone will have the same experience either with Augustine or Smith, but I found this to be a truly worthwhile read. I found myself moved by Smith’s engagement with Augustine. What Smith does here is to humanize Augustine. That makes Augustine worth attending to, even if he infuriates us at times. As we read on the back cover of the book, Augustine is proclaimed “the patron saint of restless hearts.” Since most of us have restless hearts, engaging with him is a worthwhile project. For that, we can thank Jamie Smith.


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