Why go on the road with Saint Augustine? Why turn backward to this old saint?
Augustine’s journey was haunted by painful questions, uncertainties, and longings. James K. A. Smith’s new book, On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, connects with those aspects of Augustine’s life, but, on a deeper level, it connects with those aspects of my own life. Some of the deepest questions of my heart somehow found their way into Smith’s book, and Augustine painted a way forward for my own heart’s journey.
I decided I’d review this book in an Augustinian way, not as primarily a thinking being as much as a desiring being. I read this book with my affections. I didn’t just want to review it; I wanted to encounter it. So I tried to articulate the questions it was answering for me—although I’m not sure “answering” is the right word. Maybe I should say that I joined Smith (and Augustine) in a conversation around the following questions. These are my questions and the questions that I’ve heard from people I’ve pastored.
1. Why are rational answers to my skeptical questions never enough?
As Augustine would tell me, I’m not just a rational being. Rational questions alone will never satisfy my doubts. Humans don’t understand in order to believe; we believe in order to understand. To demand that Christianity answer all our rationalistic questions to our complete satisfaction requires something from the faith it was never meant to supply. Our faith doesn’t explain everything on our terms; it does, however, give us enough insight for the journey. Answers to our questions are supposed to create better questions and take us another step down the path. Having new and better questions is the way life works; it’s how we grow in truth and wisdom. Answers will never satisfy our souls; only love will do that.
Understanding doesn’t transcend belief; it relies on belief. (149)
To demand that Christianity answer all our rationalistic questions to our complete satisfaction requires something from the faith it was never meant to supply.
2. Why am I so restless, even after I know that God calms a restless heart?
Augustine’s own journey demonstrates that ultimate rest isn’t yet ours. While we’re no longer traveling aimlessly, we still haven’t arrived to the safety and peace of our home. The road is hard—even now that we know where home is. The peril of the road reveals to us the sources of our discontent and draws us toward our source of rest.
Augustine also shows us that, even though we aren’t yet fully at rest, eternal rest does exist. Our present unsettledness isn’t useless; it awakens within us a greater longing for the never-ending peace of eternal home.
For Augustine, so much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves that we’re already home. The alternative is not escapism; it is a refugee spirituality—unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to find the hometown we’ve never been to. (50)
3. What is the cause of all the evil in this world? Sin? Free will? God?
To explain evil is to naturalize it, to make sense out of nonsense. Try to think of an ultimate reason for evil or suffering. Is the answer satisfying? “Suffering is the consequence of free will.” Is that good enough? Was the suicide of our best friend’s teenage daughter worth free will? “God made evil for his own glory.” Really? Does that make us feel any better about the ravages of evil, or God, for that matter?
We aren’t supposed to feel good about evil’s existence, for any apparent reason. God doesn’t explain it or give its cause. Instead, God’s solution is himself, giving his own life for us, experiencing evil’s most heinous extreme: killing God’s Son. We have a humble God who joined us on the journey to make a way out for us.
In [Augustine’s] sermons, what is offered is not an “answer” to evil, as if it were merely a problem or a question; instead, what is offered is a vision of the gracious action of God, who takes on evil. (185)
Addressing believers and skeptics alike, this book shows how Augustine’s timeless wisdom speaks to the worries and struggles of contemporary life, covering topics such as ambition, sex, friendship, freedom, parenthood, and death. As Smith vividly and colorfully brings Augustine to life for 21st-century readers, he also offers a fresh articulation of Christianity that speaks to our deepest hungers, fears, and hopes.
4. Why does the goodness and beauty in this world seem so distant and ultimately unsatisfying?
Our hunger is infinite; it can never be satisfied with anything finite. The beauty in this world isn’t meant to fulfill us. Beautiful mountains, kind gestures, and delicious food point to the goodness and grace of God. They’re designed to envision eternal life with him, not to be enjoyed as a temporal end in themselves. The aesthetics of this life open up the imagination to who God is and what it will be like when we’re finally home with him at the end of our journey.
Our hunger is infinite; it can never be satisfied with anything finite. The beauty in this world isn’t meant to fulfill us.
To be honest, I don’t want to let go of this world. I want to believe it can give me everything I desire. I want it all and I want it all now. Inside, I feel a great sense of loss when I turn my focus to what awaits me after this life. But this world will never meet the deepest longings of our hearts. And the sooner we let go, the sooner we will live a life that is “happy in hope.” The hope that we are going to a place enlivened by the presence of God everywhere, in everything, with no presence of evil. No loss. No dying. No pain. No tears.
The heart’s hunger is infinite, which is why it will ultimately be disappointed with anything merely finite. (13)
5. Why hasn’t Christianity made my life easier?
In some ways it has. Because of the gospel, we now inhabit a better story that helps us make some sense out of who we are and why we are here. But it also enlivens within us an awareness that we don’t completely fit here. We were made for another place. This isn’t home. Knowing the way home and envisioning the place we’re going isn’t the same thing as being there.
To know where you’re headed is not a promise of smooth sailing. (17)
6. Why is finding myself and my purpose so elusive?
We live in a time that philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as “the age of authenticity”; it’s the generation of “you be you.” Resist the man. Do not conform. Write your own story.
As a consequence, we’re alienated from others. We feel lonely and purposeless. Sometimes, we share our personal stories to show how unique and special we are. But instead we should share our story in order to connect with others, to reveal that our lives have a common script. Our purpose isn’t found by resisting “they,” but in opening ourselves to “us.” Not being better than others, but being with them.
Freedom to be myself starts to feel like losing myself, dissolving, my own identity slipping between my fingers. (62)
7. Why should I get close to people when the pain of losing them or being hurt is so great?
The pendulum also swings the other direction. Friendship becomes everything. People give us meaning. Knowing and loving them is life’s end. But we can lose them. Tragedy strikes. In an instant, they’re gone.
Our first love, then, must be for an infinite, unchanging being who loves us with a never-ending love. Established in that love, we can love others in God. We share the love with them that we have in God, a love that can never be taken from us. Any love we receive from them, we receive it as from God. Since all true love flows from God, we’re free to open up ourselves to the love of others.
Even the most beautiful things and faithful friends share something in common: they are made, created, finite, temporal, and therefore mortal. To love them as ultimate, to cling to them as what gives meaning, is to stake one’s happiness on realities that are fugitive and fleeting—or as Augustine . . . hinted: it is to build one’s house on the sand. (214)
8. Why do my closest friends still seem distant?
Augustine would tell us that we don’t even know ourselves. How will our friends ever truly know us when we can’t know ourselves truly? Long ago, I came to the realization that the most important thing isn’t that I know God, but that he knows me (Gal. 4:9). But there will be a day when we will know even as we are known. In that eternal day, the shame and the guilt, the façades and the masks, the fears and insecurities will be no more. We will know each other with the depth of intimacy we truly long for. No more hiding and covering ourselves in the garden. We will know and be known, and it will be good.
I know Alypius better than anyone, and Alypius knows me better than anyone, Augustine is saying. And yet we remain mysteries to ourselves. (140)
9. Why doesn’t my personal relationship with God feel more personal?
Perhaps we try to relate to God intimately and existentially without knowing him eschatologically. We’re disappointed because we simply want a direct, mystical encounter. Others seem to have that kind of relationship with God, but not us.
But maybe, in this world, we know him ironically in our longing for him, in our hope for the beatific vision when we will see him in everything, with our new bodies, in a new heaven and new earth. We know we should know him that way, but maybe what we long for can’t be fully realized until we see him with our glorified bodies. Sure, we can know God now in this foreign land—in exile—but we will know him best when we dwell with him in his homeland; until then, our hearts will never be fully satisfied.
To aspire to friendship with God . . . is an ambition for something you could never lose. (88)
10. Why has achievement left me empty? Is ambition wrong?
Augustine admitted his struggles throughout his life. Confession isn’t something he did once, but a pattern he maintained. He especially struggled with ambition, a desire instilled in him by his parents. And he achieved much notoriety and success before his baptism.
But his ambitions and accomplishments only revealed his deep unhappiness. He realized that the joy of accomplishment always fades, but friendship with God could never be lost. Happiness in God would only grow stronger throughout time and eternity. He discovered that ambition for God is good because it’s fueled by the knowledge of God’s love. You pursue things for God because you’re free to fail in his grace. But even as he matured, and maybe because he matured, Augustine could admit he often served God and his own vanity simultaneously.
If you ask him, “Are you doing this for God or for your own vanity?” Augustine’s answer is an honest, “yes.” (91)
11. Why are my attempts at apologetics so ineffective?
Often we understand apologetics as primarily rational. In defending our faith, we must convince others of the intellectual viability of a set of facts about Christianity. There is another way to see it, and Augustine points us toward it.
The language of apologetics is love, which woos others to the Way.
If we consider apologetics as primarily constructive—as a story, a script for our lives, a way of being in the world—it can appeal to the imagination and affections, as well as to the intellect. Ultimately, apologetics should involve the whole person. Augustine’s apologetic is often poetic and pastoral, rather than merely syllogistic. There is an aesthetic attractiveness to his apologetics that invites people to a journey toward goodness, truth, and beauty. It invites others to “try on” the faith, to live it and experience it. The language of apologetics is love, which woos others to the Way.
Why does Augustine give us the drama of this narrative instead of the arguments of a treatise? Because his apologetic is aesthetic. (173)
12. Why do I sometimes feel like I would rather just fade away into nothingness than live forever?
Eternal life isn’t just the endless duration of our sad existence here on earth. Feelings of loneliness, failure, uselessness, and apathy can overwhelm our lives until we just want to give up and cease to be. But eternal life isn’t a never-ending continuation of more of the same or, even, a numb existence forever. It’s not just a good place to go in order to avoid hell. Entering the new heaven and new earth will be like being welcomed into a place you’re not from but feels like your hometown. It’s a welcome home!
But what if forever weren’t just an extension of a sad, solitary present but instead mean being welcomed home? (207)
Reimagine Your Journey
While I have borrowed some words, several phrases, and many concepts, I haven’t stolen Smith’s thunder. The best part of the book may be the way he writes. He personally inhabits his subject matter, the way Augustine did.
I’d encourage you to read On the Road with Saint Augustine with your imagination and affections. Allow the book to probe into your most difficult questions. Perhaps it will help you reimagine your journey to the homeland you’ve always longed for.