Theologian James K.A. Smith on His New Book ‘On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts’

“On the Road With Saint Augustine” and author James K.A. Smith. Courtesy images

The morning after an event at Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture last week, theologian James K.A. Smith reviewed his against-the-odds attempt at convincing the crowd of the relevance of Augustine, the fourth-century Christian bishop and the subject of Smith’s latest book, “On the Road With Saint Augustine.”

Augustine, Smith said, has something to say to all of us, no matter our age — “Augustine is no respecter of generations,” he told Religion News Service. “There’s nothing new under the sun in a way.” Smith said he is skeptical of generational analysis and reiterated what he told the audience the night before: it’s not just the millennials or “kids these days” who are somehow uniquely a mess.

“I’m not a big fan of this notion that all of a sudden we sort of fell off a cliff,” said Smith. “If anything, I think Augustine calls into question the world the boomers gave us — which so fetishized freedom, autonomy, individuality.”

Freedom, autonomy, individuality. These are the abstract antagonists of Smith’s book — desires easily disordered and all too commonly so in the 21st century.

Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, but this is not an academic book. Part memoir and part lived theology, it carries Smith’s hopes that people will see Augustine as an appropriate guide for navigating these ills — not because the church father was perfect, but because he experienced and wrestled with them so deeply and personally. Think of him, Smith writes in his preface, “more like an AA sponsor.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What makes Augustine an important voice now?

So it’s this weird mix of: He’s ancient enough to be strange, but he’s perennial enough to feel contemporary. It’s a bit like getting a perspective on our own whacked-out cultural moment.  He is such a powerful diagnostician of our tendency to idolize things that will eat us alive. He could help us understand why idolizing political power is not going to give you what you were hoping. Everything we foist our hopes upon is doomed to disappoint us. I think he offers a sort of psychology of some of our disordered hopes in that regard.

Talk about the addiction narrative that you’ve woven into the book.

I teach Augustine’s confessions every semester — for 20 years — and when we get to this climactic narrative where Augustine is trying to take stock of his own inability to become the person he really wants to be, it has struck me that there are ways in which we’ve set freedom up so that almost everything we imagine as freedom turns into addictions. It’s like Augustine sees on the other side of the river the Augustine he’d like to be. It’s like somebody who wakes up and can’t move, this sort of paralysis. Then he looks back and he realizes it was all his own free choices that got him to this place where now he’s locked down and chained in.

The ways you describe the pursuit of freedom, autonomy, individuality — and the dangers in those pursuits — actually sound a lot like the language used in therapy and self-care: finding myself within, finding my truth, releasing baggage. We’ve mostly acknowledged how important counseling can be. But is there some danger there as well?

To be perfectly honest, it was some of my own therapy that got me to a place I could write this book!

But the difference between therapeutic culture as we know it and what Augustine offers us is that I don’t get to make up the story. It’s not me forging a story for myself. It’s me being found in a story that heals, that gives me a sense of “Oh, this is who I was made to be.”

So it’s almost the exact opposite of self-help. And yet it speaks to what I think our cultural self-help is looking for, which is wholeness, healing, fullness, integration, identity.

Much of the narrative of therapy right now focuses on healing from past wounds — be they childhood wounds, church wounds, oppression wounds. That is good work, but can it become too “I-centric”?

Exactly the point. What therapeutic culture is addressing is a perennial human struggle with wounding, right? The difference between the Augustinian prescription and the kind of ‘cult of self-help’ is exactly the difference in what you think the self can do. For Augustine, there is help available, but it’s actually found in coming to the end of yourself and receiving.

Whereas I would say the tendency of a therapeutic culture is it thinks, ‘Oh, we’ve got all the resources we need.’ Augustine thinks if you keep relying on yourself, you are doomed to be continually disappointed. I’m the last person I trust, in a sense. I get that there’s something scandalous in what Augustine is saying to us there. And yet, if it’s true, if that really is the human condition and we are made for someone and something else, then coming to the end of yourself looks like the beginning of healing.

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Source: Religion News Service