A Bundle of Hopes and Hungers

On The Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts | James K. A. Smith | Brazos Press

I first read Augustine’s Confessions as a college freshman. The book was gifted to my entire cohort upon admission and I felt a certain compulsion to “get ahead on the reading.” So I read the book in the manner you might expect from an incoming freshman, with a mix of pride and ignorance and interest. We spent about a third of the semester working through the text with a renowned Augustinian scholar, but I’ll confess that during that semester I was more fascinated by Neoplatonists like Plotinus than I was by Augustine.

Midway through junior year, I reread Confessions at a point of epistemic crisis in my life. And as I floundered trying to work out what to believe (or if justified belief were even possible), I encountered the Augustine I hadn’t known before, the Augustine who knew intimately the pain I was experiencing. In Book 6 of Confessions, Augustine is very near entering the Church, but then he remembers all the things he used fervently to believe and starts to panic. His words gave shape to my own feelings: “The anxiety as to what I should hold as sure gnawed at my heart all the more keenly, as my shame increased at having been so long tricked and deceived by the promise of certainty, and at having with a rashness of error worthy of a child gone on spouting forth so many uncertainties as confidently as if I had known them for sure.” Augustine recounts how he “held back my heart from accepting anything, fearing that I might fall once more.” Augustine the bishop, recalling that season of inner turmoil many years later, notes that “[I] could not be healed save by believing, and refused to be healed that way for fear of believing falsehood.” And then Augustine poses this question: “Is it true that nothing can be grasped with certainty for the directing of life?” His answer brought me to tears: “No: we must search the more closely and not despair.”

James K. A. Smith has been searching the more closely with St. Augustine for many years. As a young Ph.D. student at Villanova University, Smith was interested in Heidegger and the other continental philosophers, but it is not surprising that at an Augustinian school he finally fell in love most deeply with Augustine. Smith’s latest book, On The Road with Saint Augustine (out October 1 from Brazos Press), is a letter of gratitude to Augustine, but more importantly, it is an invitation for us to encounter Augustine as one who can aid us on our journey home. While Smith draws on a wide range of Augustine’s writings, the animating principle of Smith’s book is soul-searching reflection on Augustine’s Confessions, which Smith describes as “a book that breathes, a book with a beating heart.” Smith helps us to see that Augustine is a cartographer whose pastoral aim is to map “the geography of desire” that is also a “geography of grace.” Augustine is deeply introspective, sometimes painfully so, but neither his nor Smith’s books are about losing ourselves in the conflicting depths of our own interiority. Instead, their books are about the gospel, about “the outward, upward turn” where our desire steers us toward the Father even as the Father runs to meet us, his prodigal sons and daughters.

One of the more fascinating threads Smith develops is the interconnection of ambition and education, a theme he highlights in his book’s central narrative. Close your eyes and imagine Augustine, age twenty-something, transplanted from rural North Africa to Milan and then later to Rome—the cultural and political centers of the world’s greatest empire. Augustine, the smart kid from the flyover states, the boy-genius who finally escaped the stifling small-town. Here’s how Smith frames this season in Augustine’s life: “Working in the precincts of the imperial palace, unleashing his creative energy and expertise, mingling with the great and the good, he would be seen for who he was: Augustine, the precocious provincial, the African from the edge of the empire who’d made it to the center.” Augustine, the staffer on Capitol Hill, the newest consultant at McKinsey, the hot pick for a clerkship at the Court. He’s a twenty-something in the most important city in the world, and there’s so much money to be made, and plenty of right swipes on Tinder, but more importantly, he’s part of the vanguard: connected, influential, and sophisticated. And yet, with the world at his fingertips, Augustine is utterly miserable?

If you like this review, which will be featured in the autumn 2019 issue of FORMA, subscribe today! It’s just $39 for one year of insightful contemplation about the intersection of classical thought and contemporary culture!

It is here that Smith asks a rather Augustinian question: what does he actually want? Ambition can be good, and in fact, a lack of drive is often a sign of acedia (the slothful spirit the Church Fathers call the “noonday devil”). But the question Smith wants us to wrestle with is, “what do I love when I long for achievement?” Smith observes that “there is a bundle of hopes and hungers bound up with our ambitions, but so often they boil down to the twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention--to win the crown and be seen doing it.” Notably, these disordered desires do not disappear when Augustine is baptized, and indeed Augustine continuously doubts the purity of his own motives in even writing Confessions. But Smith paints love as both the mitigating force to check unbridled ambition and to steer it to appropriate ends. In Smith’s telling, it is Augustine’s newfound love for his mother, Monica, that ultimately allows his identity to become one of acceptance and gratitude for his roots rather than disdain. Later, as bishop, it is love for his flock that motivates him to publish Confessions, trusting that grace can be mediated through it to the reader even if his own motives remained mixed. And finally, as a Christian, it is love that propels him into the very dialogue with God through which he discovers the authenticity he craves. At the end of the day, it is not prestige or power or wealth or women that Augustine wants so much as it is to love and be loved authentically.

Throughout the book, Smith shows how deeply indebted Heidegger is to Augustine for his ideas of authenticity and self-actualization, but more importantly, Smith shows why Augustine offers a corrective to the radical individualism at the heart of the existentialist project. As Smith argues, “to refuse the existentialist script for authenticity is not to embrace inauthenticity; it is to imagine why friends are gifts, how grace is communal, and how I find myself in communion.”

Inasmuch as education (read: personal formation) shapes the contours of our rationality, the nature of our reasoning is also communal. Remember Augustine, the twenty-something on top of the world? His parents pushed him toward a liberal arts education because they were ambitious for him, and as they expected, that liberal arts education paid a dividend of social capital. Smith points out that “it was Manichean connections that landed Augustine his appointments in both Rome and Milan.” This means that the experience of education and the epistemological context for Augustine’s whole worldview were directly shaped by the ambition (“the bundle of hopes and hungers”) that helped lead him into the Manichean network in the first place. As Smith explains, “the attractiveness of the Manicheans was an intertwined set of benefits that spoke directly to an aspiring provincial, running from his mother’s backwater faith, newly interested in being ‘in the know,’ and still clambering for positions of power and influence.”

Young Augustine was ambitious for himself, and that means his education was in service to that aim. Smith remarks that “it’s remarkable how philosophy—the alleged love of wisdom—can be domesticated by those other lingering habits of the heart, such that philosophy actually becomes just one more lust, one more game of domination and conquest.” Smith notes that the Augustinian term for this disposition toward learning is curiositas, which often manifests as “knowing for the sake of being known as someone who knows.” Smith explains that this “disordered love of learning makes you a mere technician of information for some end other than wisdom.” And he further writes that “when learning is reduced to curiositas, actual truth and wisdom are disdained as an affront to my interests, my authority, my autonomy.” This internal state is remarkably similar to the sense of alienation that Augustine experienced in Milan and Rome. As Smith notes, curiositas “generates its own frenetic anxiety” and produces the “burden of having to always be clever.” This is the kind of burden that one sees vividly illustrated in Tolkien’s Gollum, one of the most curious (and therefore anxious) characters ever depicted.

As a recent college graduate, I am still searching—sometimes frantically—for what Wendell Berry calls “the shape of a life.” Questions regarding marriage, career, or geographic place are fully existential for me: “who can I entrust myself to?” and “what kind of work should I pursue?” and “where should I put down roots?” And the bundle of hopes and hungers that Smith identifies in Augustine is very much the same bundle in my own heart. This is precisely Smith’s point: The reason Augustine is such a good companion is because his heart is our heart, his temptations are our temptations, and the grace that he found is very much the grace that we need. In those quiet moments in Milan when Augustine is forced to be honest about his own restlessness (“our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee . . .”), the bitter weight of alienation from oneself and one’s world is itself the first sign of prevenient grace calling Augustine to a long pilgrimage. Smith asks us to “imagine a refugee spirituality, an understanding of human longing and estrangement that not only honors those experiences of not-at-home-ness but also affirms the hope of finding a home, finding oneself.” Inasmuch as we experience this world as a vale of tears, we are refugees. And yet as Christians, we travel with a destination dimly in view on the very edges of our horizons and in that sense, we are also pilgrims.

I reflected above on Augustine’s admonishment that we must search without despairing. If we were existentialists, we might read that passage as a heroic call to shun all dependency and relationship in order to seek out the truth on our own. But this is not how Augustine reconciles himself to belief. Instead, Augustine realizes that even his own self-conception and identity is contingent on the testimony of others. Augustine notes that since he has no memory of his mother’s womb or the earliest years of his infancy, he cannot know who his own parents are without some degree of faith. This realization—that faith is the bedrock of any meaningful knowledge—helps open Augustine toward belief. But more importantly, it allows Augustine to surrender himself to the loving influence of people like Ambrose the bishop without the radical skepticism that inhibited his reasoning. In his commentary on Augustine’s epistemic journey toward faith, Smith explains that “there is a relationality to plausibility. Illumination depends on trust; enlightenment is communal.” Smith thus connects Augustine’s maxim of “I believe in order to understand” to his equally important maxim that “I love in order to know.” There is a stunning degree of contingency in all of this. Smith holds up Augustine’s life as a narrative of radical dependency, first and foremost on the grace of God, standing over and against what he calls “an epistemic Pelagianism” that pictures salvation as the product of our human will and intellect.

Once Augustine allows himself to be open toward the Other, seeking wisdom not as a means to fulfill his ambition but as an end in itself, he is able to encounter Christ sacramentally in sacred Scripture. You probably know the famous scene in which Augustine randomly opens to the book of Romans, but Smith underscores the ways in which Scripture (especially the Psalms) became the very language in which Augustine lived, thought, loved, and worshipped. Smith writes that “Scripture irrupted in Augustine’s life as revelation, the story about himself told by another, and as illumination, shining a light that helped him finally understand his hungers and faults and hopes.”

Pilgrimage is communal and, in the end, Smith’s book is a loving invitation to embrace Augustine as a spiritual father who can guide us into authentic formation. Smith borrows the concept of “witness authority” (what Aristotle called ethos) to suggest that Confessions is about bearing witness to our human condition and testifying to the grace that can fulfill our nature. For Smith, what Augustine offers is a chance to “find ourselves in someone’s story—to feel known by the witness of another.” Speaking from his own personal experience as Augustine’s spiritual pupil, Smith notes that “it can be freeing to effectively live as the understudy of some exemplar who gives us an orientation to the world, something to live for and a way to live.”

I’m still searching for that “shape of a life” that can make sense of my bundle of hopes and hungers. But Smith assures me I have a companion in Augustine. His ultimate exhortation to readers like me is that despite the angst and alienation, I do not despair in searching the more closely, because I have a hope grounded in the promises of Christ and the testimony of all the saints who find their rest in those promises. The harder the pilgrim’s journey grows, the more valuable a literary friend like Augustine becomes. As Smith memorably quips, “Augustine doesn’t write from the sky, he writes from the road.”

Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He also writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.

If you enjoyed this review, which is a preview of the autumn 2019 print edition of FORMA, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.