Augustine stands as one of those towering figures of Western Christian history who is often mentioned, but rarely read. Many church-goers might be able to tell you who he was, but they don’t really know what he taught or any of the significant details of his life. Even fewer can tell you why he might be relevant to their own lives. In his latest book, philosopher James K.A. Smith seeks to help readers learn from Augustine. In particular, he helps readers to see that they can learn from Augustine because they are a lot more like the ancient church father than they realize.
“This is not a biography,” says Smith in the introduction. While On The Road with Saint Augustine is obviously about the church father, it’s not a biographical exploration of the man and his thought. It is instead, Smith contends, an introduction to oneself through the lens of Augustine’s life. The value in a work like this is that its subject is both distinct enough to offer fresh insights and yet familiar enough to be relatable. Smith says:
Augustine is uncanny for us: he is so ancient he is strange, and yet his experiences are so common they feel contemporary. My hope is that this uncanniness might give you a sense of what an authentic Christianity feels like from inside. (xii)
Augustine’s spiritual life is messy, complicated, and real. It offers to us both a connection point and a challenge. Here is a “travelogue of the heart” (xi), a chance to understand yourself better through the life of another.
The book is broken down into two parts. Part one Smith calls the “Orientation.” The three chapters in this section help readers to understand their context and their companion. Smith helps readers to see their own restless hearts and why the idea of being “on the road” has so much appeal to us. The journey seems more appealing than the destination, but only because we don’t have a clear vision of the destination and because we haven’t taken time to actually evaluate the road. Our campion on this road trip knows these dynamics, he has walked this road and has much insight to offer us about ourselves, our desires, and our potential destination. He is the perfect companion for navigating this terrain.
Part two turns our attention towards specific subjects, which Augustine illuminates. Here Smith develops Augustine’s relevance to topics like: freedom, ambition, sex, parenthood, friendship, and more. These chapters detail from Augustine’s own life and writings the human relationship to various topics, each chapter giving greater clarity about the self and about God. These chapters are some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. I found myself deeply moved by Smith’s prose, illustrations, and his use of Augustine’s own words. The content in these chapter is not necessarily earth-shattering new insight, and Smith doesn’t pretend it is. Yet, the way each topic is discussed is so fresh and thought-provoking that it often feels new. For example, the way he discusses freedom and bondage and the devastation of “getting what you want,” is so insightful that despite being an old concept it felt so fresh when I first read it.
Smith has always been one of my favorite writers. He has an impeccable style, wit, and a deft ability to synthesize material. On the Road with Saint Augustine is a captivating read. Some chapters are a bit more heady and philosophical, as Smith deals with the thought of Heidegger or Camus, but overall the chapters are accessible and relatively short. This is a book anyone can read, and it is, I believe, a book anyone will benefit from. I highly recommend On the Road with Saint Augustine, it is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.