Faculty Review: Jens Zimmermann

On the Road with Saint Augustine

James K. A. Smith (Brazos Press)

On the Road with Saint Augustine is not only engaging, well-written, and theologically faithful to the best of the Christian tradition, it is also a really important book to appear in our culture at this point in time. Augustine, Smith reminds us, is Christianity’s primary teacher on the quest for self-identity. Not just his confessions, but his entire work is really an answer to the questions “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” and “Where do I belong?” As Augustine knew well, this quest for identity and a home is perennial because we are made for communion. Our current culture wrestles with worldview changes brought about by imbibing a heady cocktail of scientism, technology, and individualism that has subtly reconfigured our self-understanding and left us with an unprecedented uncertainty about human identity. As a result, this century may be one of the most difficult in which to obtain the sound, formative influences we all need to become realistic, healthy members of society.

I have deliberately avoided the term “Christian” in the last sentence, because Smith follows Augustine in realizing that this quest for human identity is not solely a Christian matter but a universal human desire. Christianity, in other words, is a humanism because it offers not a private religion of inner piety but addresses concretely the most fundamental aspects of our shared human condition. In this book, Smith also helps us understand the culture of (post)modernity with its two formative influences: materialist secularism based on Descartes’s separation of consciousness from being, and the philosophical reactions to Cartesian rationalism put forward by Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. Smith points out that we have inherited these existentialist thinkers’ hunger for an authenticity tethered to this world along with their failure to recover for us the personal transcendence of God, which is necessary to ground human sociality and solidarity. Let’s not quibble with Smith’s reference to these thinkers as existentialist—Heidegger and Camus rejected this label—rather, let’s appreciate his nuanced and judicious use of their insights. As we shall see, Camus and Heidegger in particular play a significant role in explicating Augustine for Smith, not least because Augustine was an important influence on both intellectuals. The early Heidegger delved into Augustine during a lecture course on The Phenomenology of the Religious Life and came to appropriate a number of Augustine’s themes, for example, inauthentic existence, conscience, and being towards death, for his own fundamental ontology in Being and Time. Camus wrote his dissertation on Neoplatonism and Augustine and, according to Smith, arrives at a clearsighted rejection of Christianity, which explains Camus’s embracing Augustine’s realism about the human condition while rejecting divine grace. Smith rightly claims that these Augustinians “sans grace” are nonetheless gateways to a Christian view of life (33).  

While Smith draws on the work of many secular thinkers on this existential road trip, the focal point of his book is Augustine’s Confessions—the work in which the church father describes his journey from inauthentic existence to finding his true home in communion with the Triune God. Augustine, as Smith learned from Hannah Arendt, is “a cartographer of the human heart” (30), whose universal human map is reflected in Smith’s chapter headings: freedom, ambition, sex, mothers, fathers, friendship, enlightenment, story, justice, and death. As Smith points out, the reason Augustine feels so amazingly contemporary is that he faced his anxieties in these existential areas with unflinching honesty. With the Confessions as his main vehicle, the basic structure of this existential road trip is thoroughly Augustinian: for every area of the human soul he traverses, Smith uses Augustine’s introspective phenomenology of desire as a guide.  

When we face death, what are we afraid of and what do we hope for? When we are ambitious, why do we want to be noticed? When we seek the embrace and recognition of a father, why do we want to be embraced? In each case, Smith, with fitting and often moving examples from popular culture or through recourse to philosophy, showcases Augustine as the most penetrating psychologist of the human condition. Being on the road of life with Augustine thus offers “the wager that an ancient African might make Christianity plausible for you, mired in the anxieties and disappointments of the twenty-first century” (xii). The wager comes off successfully because Smith brilliantly shows how contemporary movies, mini-series, and books still reflect the same concerns about human identity that Augustine addressed in a different age. 

For example, the human heart desires freedom, but “what do I want when I want to be liberated?” What if it turns out that when I chase freedom as the total absence of constraints on my autonomy, I am actually pursuing “a chain in disguise” leading to addiction (64)? The liberty to choose what we want without knowing what goals are worthy of attaining and without realizing how deeply we depend on others in achieving our humanity will become a destructive habit. For even the best things become addictive and thus ultimately detrimental to freedom unless they are pursued in light of God. As Smith explains,  

Insofar as I keep choosing to try to find that satisfaction in finite, created things—whether it’s sex or adoration or beauty or power—I am going to be caught in a cycle where I am more and more disappointed in these things and more and more dependent on those things. I keep choosing things with diminishing returns and when that becomes habitual, eventually necessary, then I forfeit my ability to choose. The thing has me now. (66) 

Addiction, Smith concludes, traps us in the death spiral of “Desire. Use. Repeat.” This spiral leads to an ever-narrowing repertoire of choices and eventually to utter despair (66). The only way out of this addictive cycle is to realize that true freedom actually requires constraints and my self’s relation to another. True freedom is freedom for responsibility in communion with others. Freedom, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it summarily, “is a relation and nothing else.”  

I have spent a full paragraph on this particular example because Smith’s Augustinian analysis is a much needed guide for modern souls trapped by the continued demand for autonomous self-realization, aided, often, by technology, without any clue that true liberty is found only in communion with and responsibility for others. Christians will recognize that only by the power of God’s liberating grace do we break free from the death spiral of volitional freedom. In fact, one could add here Athanasius’s view of original sin to that of Augustine: for rather than speaking of a corrupt nature, Athanasius holds to our habitual entrapment to idolatry of self-realization apart from God, a death-cycle disrupted only by the incarnation. In Christ the true image of God is once again shown to us, and through our union with Christ by grace we participate in the new humanity based on genuine freedom in relation to God and one another. Smith thus demonstrates his proximity to the patristic tradition when he emphasizes the importance of the Eucharist in shaping our true freedom. Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist allows us to participate, by tangible means of bread and cup, in the new creation. Here we immerse our hearts in the power of grace for their transformative reformation. Smith makes a common mistake in reciting the Eucharistic exchange. The ancient liturgical response to the priest’s “sursum corda” (“Lift up your hearts”) is not “We lift them up to the Lord,” but “habemus ad Dominum,” that is, we have them with the Lord. We are indeed already by God’s grace in the very presence of God.  

Just as freedom only becomes real in light of communion with God, so every human love only becomes life giving when pursued in light of God. Only when God becomes our first desire do all other things find their proper use in this context. This uti-frui  distinction is Augustine’s key to authentic human existence through loving rightly. According to Augustine, we are to use (uti) and relish things in light of our enjoyment (frui) of God, so that we do not become overly attached to earthly things, allowing them to become idols that replace God. The point of Christianity, as Smith makes clear, is not to invalidate human desires but to recognize their true telos even in their distortions. With keen eye and eloquent pen, Smith applies the uti-frui distinction to the remaining territories of the soul. His main point is that “creaturely goods are gifts when they are enjoyed in the right way” (100), that is, when we don’t seek in them the satisfaction and peace only God’s presence can provide. Let’s run quickly through Smith’s map of the human soul’s geography.  

Human ambition: “What do I want when I want to be noticed?” (77). First of all, Smith notes, we should recognize the positive value of ambition in opposing laziness and desiring achievement. In striving for success, we manifest a good creaturely trait. However, like the figure of Faust in Goethe’s play, we turn this spiritual craving into the idolatries of economic or social success: into the “twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention” (81). Once again we desire created things for themselves instead of enjoying them in light of their Creator, and it destroys our humanity. Social media compound the impact of this idolatry. For example, instead of looking for the true recognition by another only love can give, we become absorbed in “likes” on Facebook or Instagram (82). As Smith recognizes, like Augustine, we are “sucker[s] for praise and adoration,” in order to feed our dominion over others. Again, the solution is not to extinguish ambition but to reorder it through communion with God, which “fuels [ambition] with a different fire,” so that our striving becomes “caught up in God’s mission to the world” (91).  

Like ambition, the desire for sex, designed for intimacy, turns into a destructive idolatry when misapplied. “What do I want when I want to have sex”? Smith asks (95) and answers that this physical hunger for embodied intimacy is another good gift to be enjoyed in light of God, rather than as idolatrous substitute. The problem, Smith writes, “isn’t sex, it’s what I expect from sex” (98). Sex becomes exploitive and destructive when we trade “the cosmic for the orgasmic” (96). Smith lauds Augustine for helping him see this underlying dimension of sexuality, but he also recognizes the church father’s unfortunate failure “to imagine a sexual hunger that runs with the grain of good creation,” prompting Augustine to identify sexuality with sin and thus to “demonize the creaturely” in this particular, vital aspect of our humanity (101).  

With Augustine’s help, Smith also recovers a deeper sense of rationality. Long misconstrued by the Cartesian sensibilities of modernity as the faculty of neutral observation, reason, for Augustine, “is an indicator of the sort of love that motivates my learning” (144). Does reason operate in the service of wisdom “to know who and how to love,” or do we seek knowledge to feed idle curiosity, perhaps even in order to dominate others and show off our intellectual superiority? Do we regard knowledge as power or as subservient to wisdom? Along the way to a deeper understanding of reason as handmaiden to wisdom, Smith reminds us of Augustine’s hermeneutical view—a lesson learned in his encounter with the Manicheans—that all human knowing is rooted in belief: “‘Credulity, Augustine points out, is not a defect; it is inherent to being human. . . . Understanding doesn’t transcend belief; it relies on belief” (149). In other words, Augustine’s maxim of “faith seeking understanding” describes the fundamental hermeneutical structure of all human knowledge because we consistently interpret experience or data in light of a plausibility framework we trust intuitively. Augustine also knew that, given our intrinsically relational human condition, the ultimate question is not “whether you’re going to believe but whom; it’s not merely about what to believe, but whom to entrust yourself to,” and here the fiduciary nature of knowledge merges with the question of authority: to whom do I entrust myself on account of that person’s credibility and trustworthiness? For Augustine, of course, this authority was the God who came down to us, who became human and suffered on our behalf, thus earning our trust. Thankfully, Smith adds at this point that his belief in the incarnation allowed Augustine clearly to recognize the limitations of Platonism with its gnostic tendencies (155). In Christ, God comes down to earth in affirmation of his creation. By contrast, writers like Camus, who could not follow Augustine’s faith in the incarnation, will have to choose between God and the world, a fated choice dogging some forms of atheism to this day.  

Camus’s atheism leads Smith to tackle another key existential question that bars many from embracing Christianity, namely, the injustice of evil and suffering. The good kind of atheism represented by Camus, Smith argues, arises from a just protest against suffering. Rationalist responses to evil, including the ones still peddled by Christian apologetics, make the mistake of dealing with evil in a logical, abstract manner, by trying to find an explanation for evil. Smith turns to The Stranger to illustrate this point, a somewhat surprising choice because Camus’s later work The Plague furnishes a much more articulate protest against the absurd irrationality of suffering. It includes the characters of a priest who tries and fails to make theological sense of suffering and an existential hero who fights against the suffering despite any metaphysical grounding for his compassion. Camus’s position on evil is voiced even more poignantly by the character of Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, a character conceived by the author to present the most impressive argument against Christianity he could think of. Like Camus, Ivan does not reject God per se but rather a world in which God allows suffering. In his protest against evil, just like Camus, Ivan focusses on the suffering of children, and concludes exactly like Camus that if there is no just retribution for suffering on this earth, and, worse, if suffering is somehow part of a greater divine harmony, then he cannot believe in Christianity: “It is not that I don’t accept God,” Ivan tells his brother Alyosha in the story; “I just respectfully return my ticket [to this world].” The remainder of the novel demonstrates what Ivan’s “return of my ticket,” implies, namely, a rationalist, abstract, all-or-nothing approach to evil that requires either retributive justice or forgiveness, a view that inevitably leads to self-contradiction, insanity, and even bloodshed, because in an universe without God, “all is permitted.”  

Smith finds that Augustine too at times is prone to abstraction, giving evil “almost a place” in the order of things. As a result, Augustine is better at lamenting the inward evil that troubles his soul than at shouting out against systemic evil and injustice in the world. It is in his sermons, however, when dealing with practical life circumstances, that Augustine manages to move beyond any “greater-good” schemes for evil. Here, instead of seeking an explanation for evil, Augustine focusses on the God who “takes on evil” in Christ, who enters into human suffering to overcome it. Here, Smith concludes, Augustine’s “appeal is not to the greater good or free choice of the will or constitutive nothingness of creation that corrodes the good. Augustine the pastor and preacher avoids such abstractions and instead appeals to the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: a humble God who endured evil in order to overcome” (186). With this Christus Victor motif, evil comes into proper focus, for “evil is not a puzzle to be solved but an incursion to be beaten back” (191).  

Some of the most moving chapters are dedicated to the relational context for human desire. What do we seek when we interact with mothers, fathers, and friends? In exploring the role of Monica, Augustine’s mother, Smith warns that mothers can be overbearing helicopter nurses who do not let their children go; yet this too is only a distortion of the powerful salutary influence of mothers whose universal importance Smith ascribes to their sacramental role. The mother is “an icon of the incarnation” because, like this incarnate God, she enters into suffering and brokenness, displaying strength in weakness. This weakness is much more powerful than the “testosterone-laden bravado” our culture often mistakes for strength. According to Smith, Augustine reminds us of “the uniquely maternal power of God, echoed in the sacrifices that mothers make to us every day—the ‘weakness of God’ that is stronger than men (1 Cor. 1:25)” (118). Smith summarizes the importance of caring mothers with these inspired words: “Such mothers are like sacramental echoes of the unfailing love of God, the Shepherd who goes looking for lost sheep, the Father who welcomes prodigals at the end of the lane because he’s already been there looking for them. Such mothers are preambles to grace, a grace before grace, a primal, natal grace” (117). 

Smith’s hymn to motherhood is accompanied by an equally penetrating chapter on fathers, who symbolize our “universal father hunger,” that is, our existential need for approval and acceptance (199). “Every child looking for an absent, distant father,” writes Smith, secretly hopes that “the arrow of hunger would be reversed and the father would return,” bringing acknowledgment and affirmation. Smith knows this hunger from personal experience: he was abandoned by his father at eleven and by a stepfather who disappeared from his life when he was thirty-three (200). Christianity responds to this profound human desire by proclaiming “a gracious Father who runs to the end of the road to gather up his prodigals” (201). Fathers, or surrogate fathers, should be icons through whom children may see the unconditional love for us by the Father of all fathers.  

Finally, our desire for friendship, too, speaks of a need for recognition and belonging that individualism cannot provide. The problem with the lone-wolf mentality encouraged by the modern ideal of autonomy is that the lone wolf is indeed alone. Yet if it is only in communion with others, as Paul Ricoeur famously put it, that we are ourselves, if the sociality of friendship is constitutive of who we are, then dogmatic individualism is a dead end. Smith rightly criticizes Heidegger’s view of the self in this context. While Heidegger insisted against Descartes (and Sartre’s absolute freedom) that our very existence simultaneously, or “primordially,” includes others, he also immediately qualifies this being-with others, our constitutive sociality, as mostly an inauthentic, fallen form of existence and thus a hinderance to authentic selfhood (122–23). Smith notes that Disney has turned this quest for authenticity into a profitable industry (127). Smith points out that Heidegger likely cribbed this negative view of sociality from Augustine, who was well acquainted with “self-sucking others” and the negative potential of group-think. Yet Heidegger appropriates only half of Augustine’s insight about sociality. Augustine also strongly affirms our need for community and human solidarity, and confesses his reliance on friends while maintaining a realistic view of friendship, which may be marred by our selfishness.  

Smith’s road-trip with Augustine ends, appropriately, on death. “What do I want when I want to live?” forms the final question. Smith reminds us that our current culture tries to avoid the reality of death, even to the point of seeking immortality through technology in trans- or posthuman futures. In contrast to this “modern allergy to death,” Christianity exhibits a “raw, sometimes creepy honesty about it.” Smith relates his visit to the crypt of St. Ambrose, where he viewed the saint’s skeleton, upright and adorned in robes, a “ghoulish” memento mori. Smith argues that for Christians, however, this reminder of departure, loss, and being left behind by the dead is understood in the wider context of the resurrection. For Augustine, at least, awareness of our mortality actually encourages us to live with greater attentiveness to this life. Conversely, our natural desire to be culminates in eternal life. As Smith puts it, Augustine teaches us that “the hope of eternal life does not efface the desire to live—it is the fulfilment of the desire to live, to live in a way that we can never lose what we love” (211).  

The conclusion that “how to die is really a question of how to live” signals once more the central paradox of Augustine’s uti-frui distinction: only in light of God’s reality do the things of this life gain their full weight and proper relation for us. If we focus on created things by themselves, they become idols for our misdirected desires. This core truth in Augustine’s anthropology prompts Smith to designate the Christian’s proper attitude to life as “refugee spirituality.” We should recognize, he contends, ourselves in the “longings of the refugee—to escape hunger, violence, and the quotidian experience of being bereft in order to find security, flourishing, and freedom” (43). We would not tell a refugee, “Never mind your goal of finding a home, the journey is the goal.” Analogous modern existential platitudes about “the path being the destination” are equally fatuous. For Augustine, the realization that we are “cosmic emigrés” becomes “a hermeneutic key to the human condition” (47). We are made for another world but immersed in this one. What we long for, as Smith puts it, “is an escape not from creaturehood but from the fraught, harrowing experience of being human in a broken world. What we’re hoping for is a place where a sovereign Lord can assure us, ‘You’re safe here’” (49).  

Adopting Smith’s Augustinian spirituality surely provides an important antidote to the xenophobia currently cultivated by right wing populists in Europe and the United States. It should also help Christians live in this world in a balanced way. Conversion to Christianity then becomes “the acquisition of a compass,” pointing to the home we seek. In realizing our supernatural end in a new creation with God, we come to understand why treating natural things as ends in themselves becomes destructive for pilgrims on their way to a new home that is not seen but foreshadowed in the risen Christ: a transformed materiality that is the very promise of Christmas. Augustine himself puts his stamp of approval on Smith’s portrayal of the Christian life:  

Love God, if what you heard and praise has had an effect on you. Make use of the world, do not be taken in by the world. You entered the world, you are making a journey, you came intending to leave, not to stay; you are a wayfarer; this life is a wayside inn. Use money [and all created things] in the way a traveler at a wayside inn uses the table, the cups, the pitcher, the bed—intending to leave, not to stay. . . . Trials abound in the world, but the one who created the world is great; trials abound, but he does not fail who places his hope in that one in whom there is no failing. (Homilies on the Gospel of John, homily 40).  

Smith’s book is an intelligent, sensitive, and creative appropriation of Augustine’s vision of the human life as pilgrimage. I hope to have convinced you by now that this book ought to make a splendid gift for every teenager or adult wrestling with the fundamental question of what it means to be human. It is hard to imagine a better road map or travel companion! Smith not only provides much needed wisdom, but he also makes an ancient Christian writer wholly accessible to a broad audience. Let the journey begin! 


This review was originally featured in Regent's Spring 2020 Crux Journal (CRUX 26, no. 1 2020) You can learn more about Regent's quarterly CRUX journal, including how to subscribe here. We offer our thanks to Senior Editor, Julie Lane Gay for permission to share this review.

On the Road with Saint Augustine is available for purchase through our direct-fulfillment website, Aerio. You may also be interested in this lecture by author James K. A. Smith from our launch of the book at Regent last fall. The weekend series is available for purchase here.