Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

A few years ago my thinking was shaped about the process of spiritual formation by James K.A. Smith‘s book, “Desiring the Kingdom.” In it, he explains the role that “liturgies,” not only ecclesial, but personal and “secular” liturgies play in that formation.

For more on that book and its ideas, see: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why

In “Desiring the Kingdom“, and Smith’s related book You Are What You Love, it is clear that he has been highly influenced by Augustine, particularly Augustine’s “Confessions”. The idea of sin as “disordered loves” is particularly Augustinian, as is much of what Smith says about formation, namely that idolatry is more “caught” than “taught”, i.e. idolatry is less of a conscious decision as much as a learned disposition. not so much conscious decisions to believe falsehood, and more like learned dispositions, which is why people’s idolatries often reflect their environments. Since we “practice our way into idolatry,” we need to “practice our way into freedom,” through liberating practices which direct our loves.

I was surprised and excited a few months ago when I saw that Smith was featured in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, in which he clearly articulated the Christian hope of the gospel while talking about his new book: “On the Road with Saint Augustine“.

In this book, Smith not only details his travels to retrace some of the footsteps of Augustine, who was originally from North Africa, but came to Italy seeking success and influence in the civic realm, only to have the course of his life changed by meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. As a result, Augustine later returned to North Africa where he became a bishop and influential Christian thinker, whose writings played a large part in the Reformation.

Augustine: the Father of Existentialism

Smith’s main point, however, is not to write a biography of Augustine, or a memoir of his travels, but to explain that Augustine is actually the father of modern existentialist thinking.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus to Jack Kerouac, modern and post-modern existentialists who often describe life as “a journey” or “the road”, whether knowingly or unwittingly, got this idea from Augustine who articulated existentialist ideas and used the terminology of life as “a journey” and “the road” way back in the 4th Century.

The great difference, of course, which Smith is eager to point out, is that whereas the modern and post-modern existentialists (like Kerouac in his novel “On the Road”) like to describe “the road” as “home”, and assert that there is no ultimate destination to which the road is leading (i.e. it is only the journey itself which matters, not the destination) – this is not at all what Augustine taught or believed. Augustine asserted that life is a journey with a destination, and it is only in light of this destination that there can be joy and purpose in the journey. Augustine taught that there is indeed a true “home” which awaits us, the “home” that all of us long for and the search for which underlies all of our pursuits and endeavors; thus, “the road” itself is not “home”, and if we expect it to be, our lives will miss the purpose, meaning and significance they are meant to have.

Why you hated the ending of Lost

If you were one of the many people frustrated by the ending of the show Lost a few years back, here’s why it was so frustrating: the ending of Lost was the epitome of post-modern existentialist thinking, which says that it is the only thing that matters in the end is not getting all of your questions answered or understanding the meaning of things, but only the enjoyment of the journey.

The ending scene in which all of the characters come together in the future and hug each other, without answering the many unanswered questions that were posed on and with the island, is meant to communicate the idea that, with these characters, the viewers of the show had enjoyed 6 years of excitement, mystery, and community. These things, the ending insinuated, were the reward and the ultimate purpose, not having all the questions answered.

The ending of Lost was famously frustrating for dedicated viewers. Why? Because built into us (existentially!) is the understanding that there must be a destination, there must by a purpose, there must be a “home” – and that all of our seeking is not actually in vain, but our lives do have a purpose and what we long for does indeed exist.

This is the promise of the entire Bible – from Genesis all the way through Revelation. It is through Jesus Christ that God has provided the way “home” – and it is through Him that we will truly experience the meaning of our existence. This is what Augustine articulated so clearly and compellingly, and yet the modern and post-modern existentialists, while taking elements and motifs of his teachings, missed the ultimate point of both what Augustine taught and life itself.

Summary

In this book, Smith helpfully disseminates some core elements of Augustine’s teachings and connects them to the modern person’s hopes, fears, and dreams in a way that is helpful and hopeful, as he points us to Jesus as the answer to the great riddles.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope you will too!

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