James K. A. Smith, On The Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Published in 2019 by Brazos Press.
“This is not a biography,” writes James K. A. Smith in the opening line of this book, and it’s sort of true. It doesn’t cover all of the events you’d expect to find in a typical biography of Augustine of Hippo. But I learned more about Augustine in this book than I would have from reading a biography about him. And along the way, I learned a few things about myself.
On the Road weaves together Augustine’s journey from paganism to Christian faith (with a brief pit stop in Manichaeism in between) with Smith’s own journey studying Augustine’s life and thought, particularly in relation to the continental philosophers of the early 20th century. Think of it as a Kerouacian road trip (top down, of course) with Augustine riding shotgun, Heidegger and Camus in the back seat, all three in animated conversation – with Smith a capable driver and navigator.
But what amazed me the most about this book was how many times it seemed to know exactly how to slip under my defenses and land a well-timed blow to my psyche – or to soothe an ache I didn’t realize I had. Augustine is the diagnostician of the soul par excellence, and Smith masterfully lets the great man do his work without getting in the way. Suddenly, and without warning, I found myself sitting in the back seat, part of the discussion, with a desire to read Augustine’s Confessions again.
Conversion is not an arrival at our final destination; it’s the acquisition of a compass.p. 50.
We are not just pilgrims on a sacred march to a religious site; we are migrants, strangers, resident aliens en route to a patria, a homeland we’ve never been to. God is the country we’re looking for, “that place where true consolation of our migration is found.”p. 51.
It is a terrible and terrifying thing to know what you want to be and then realize you’re the only one standing in your way – to want with every fiber of your soul to be someone different, to escape the “you” you’ve made of yourself, only to fall back into the self you hate, over and over and over again.p. 64.
There is a scandal here for our autonomous sense of entitlement: this new will, this graced freedom, is sheer gift. It can’t be earned or accomplished, which is an affront to our meritocratic sensibilities. “The human will does not attain grace through its freedom, but rather attains its freedom through grace.” If Augustine spent half his life battling the heresy of Pelagianism – the pretension that the human will was sufficient to choose its good – it’s because he saw it at the great lie that left people enchained to their dissolute wills. And no one is more Pelagian than we moderns.p. 71.
Resting in the love of God doesn’t squelch ambition; it fuels it with a different fire. I don’t have to strive to get God to love me; rather, because God loves me unconditionally, I’m free to take risks and launch out into the deep. I’m released to to aspire to use my gifts in gratitude, caught up in God’s mission for the sake of the world. When you’ve been found, you’re free to fail.p. 91.
The Bottom Line
This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last 10 years – do your soul a favor and get your hands on a copy.