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Faculty Book Club: On the Road with Saint Augustine

Home » Faculty Book Club: On the Road with Saint Augustine

I appreciate the esteemed author’s dual posture—a mature Protestant who learns from existential atheists and the Roman Catholic Church, aware that all three traditions are rooted in Augustine, while taking the role of a compassionate, wise older brother to his intended readers. On The Road is partly Smith’s memoir of  studying philosophy at Villanova (a Catholic) University and working through the challenges of being a fatherless father.

On the Road book cover

The first part of the book is “Orientation.” Augustine appropriated perhaps the deepest archetype of Scripture and the human heart—the persistent feeling that life is a journey that is stirred by restlessness and anxiety—what Martin Heidegger called Unheimlich (“not-at-homeness”). We spend our lives either in denial, with Albert Camus, accepting a Sisyphean existence, or, with the majority of society, distracted by insatiable, disordered desire that can only bring “manufactured joy.”

Smith gently exposes the default, unexamined, governing narrative of his readers, which is actually a distorted Augustinianism, and invites them to try on the original story rooted in faith, love, and hope. Again, he draws on Heidegger who distinguishes between the true and false self with Dasien (“being there”) and das Man (“the they”). We are summoned to a “refugee spirituality”—to use biblical language, living between Egypt and the Promised Land, between Christ’s baptism and ascension. However, the journey’s goal is not to discover ourselves but to be found. Our natural, wholesome desire to be loved is met by the Lover, the Prodigal Son’s father.

Like Israel in the wilderness, the journey is not a highway; the book’s second part is “Detours On The Way to Myself.” Its chapters are more specific meditations on “Freedom,” “Ambition,” “Sex,” “Mothers,” “Friendship,” “Enlightenment,” “Story,” “Justice,” “Fathers,” and “Death.” Like Heidegger, Smith attempts a clearing (Lichtung), so that readers may see the reality behind these words. True freedom is not self-determination or getting everything we want but not being enslaved to passion, with its diminishing returns, so that we might will the will of God and find eternal happiness. The opposite of ambition is not pride but sloth. But we have inherited the “twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention” (81). Smith then asks: “What if you’re wired not to be ‘liked’ but to be loved, and not by man but by One?” (83)

Wholesome ambition is friendship with God. Smith models a hermeneutic of love and humility, but not without the critical eye of a philosopher: “Sometimes learning from Augustine means deconstructing Augustine” (95). The church father could not celebrate sexual intimacy between a husband and wife. To be fair, this was a pervasive problem in monasticism (see, for example, Augustine’s critic John Cassian in Conference 14); nevertheless, it stripped the typical Christian of a beautiful, wholesome analogy of rapturous joy of union in commitment. But Smith can recommend the virtue of continence—“part of a healthy sexuality will be refusing to let it consume me” (102). He also criticizes Augustine’s theodicy: “I wish there was more lament” (184). Like some Vatican II theologians, he has great sympathy for what he calls “hard-won atheism,” presenting Camus as a model. Ultimately, we are not given an explanation of evil but a solidarity with Jesus in Gethsemane and his ultimately glorious resistance.

A major burden of the book is to show how we are found in right relationship with one another—like the Triune God, united yet distinct in person. Especially moving are the parent chapters. Augustine needed Ambrose to praise the simple piety of his mother to re-enchant his family-origin story beginning in “natal grace” and its analogy in baptism. Smith frankly shares the pain and loss of losing contact with his father and stepfather. A part of the human palimpsest is “father hunger” (Margo Maine’s term)—a deep, persistent yearning to be seen and loved by our Creator. However, orphans in this world have surrogate fathers—like Ambrose to Augustine. The author mentions several of his mothers and fathers by name (200).

I am glad the author waited until he was nearly fifty to publish this masterpiece. Absent is youthful overreach, the false dichotomy, or the political self-censoring of an academic seeking tenure, which disarms readers and allows the journey to begin anywhere. On The Road was published in 2019—before Covid-19 further exposed the restlessness and racism of our society. Prescient, Smith models the way to be alone together and to learn from the hope of Kehinde Wiley, the pain of Ta-Nehesi Coates, and the forgiveness of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

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