A “Travelogue of the Heart”: A Philosopher’s Journey with Ambition, Fathers, Justice, Sex, and More

A review written by Wendy Helleman

This guest blog comes as a book review by Dr. Wendy Helleman, the co-founder with her husband Adrian of Global Scholars Canada. Dr. Helleman is a philosopher of antiquity, and has taught in universities in Moscow, Nigeria and The Gambia (and Canada!). I asked her to review this popularization of St. Augustine’s journey for our constituency. The book is a great conversation starter, not just about philosophy, but about our own personal journey in faith and relationships.

Review: James K.A. Smith, On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press (Baker), 2019.

“[The book] comes from a place pretty close to Smith’s own heart, from the healing of his own wounds in unexpected ways and unexpected places by Augustine’s recipe for joy, peace and homecoming.”

Smith’s new book on Augustine aims to distill wise advice from the fifth century giant of early Christianity for moderns “on the run.” It presents a very old spirituality with new clothes for a 21st century pilgrimage. And it comes from a place pretty close to Smith’s own heart, from the healing of his own wounds in unexpected ways and unexpected places by Augustine’s recipe for joy, peace and homecoming.

Educators of earlier days led Smith to think of Augustine as champion of dogma and doctrine, until he read the Confessions with his professors at Villanova, where he had gone for postgraduate studies in Heidegger and Derrida. Instead he discovered an existentialist saint who struggled with all the issues that concern us still, after all those years. He found a classic, to be profiled with Homer’s Odyssey, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Smith manages to weave together Augustine’s answers on basic questions of human existence with major themes from modern Continental philosophers Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Lyotard, or Derrida, as if they were engaged in real-life conversation. Nor is this altogether fanciful, as his research uncovered the groundwork for Heidegger’s Being and Time from early lectures on Augustine. Camus also interacted seriously with Augustine for doctoral work on metaphysics. It was only partly through their connections with France’s former colony of Algeria, the modern context for Augustine’s work as bishop of Hippo.

But this is not really a book about Augustine. Nor is it really a book about philosophy. And it does not pretend to be scholarly, even though far more densely footnoted than most spiritual guides. Rather, it has been called a “travelogue of the heart.” Smith works with a diagnosis of our postmodern spirituality that tells him people are too busy to be in touch with themselves, too quick to run away if the problems get too difficult, too much caught up in motivators like ambition to come to grips with their inner restless selves. And he presents the answers given by Augustine, against a backdrop of existentialist thought, but also voices from contemporary culture, novels, theatre, film and music.

The heart of the book consists of a series of chapters with titles designed to catch the reader’s attention: freedom, ambition, sex, mother, friendship, enlightenment/education, story, justice, father, death. The treatment is somewhat uneven. Smith’s attempt at theodicy in the chapter on justice is perhaps the least satisfying among them. Even so, we can appreciate the solution offered: in Christ God himself drank the bitter cup, to allow for sharing of real gifts of grace and mercy and forgiveness.

The theme of freedom gets a thorough discussion in terms of escape from claustrophobic environments and the scandalous modernist search for autonomy, bringing solutions that break down social bonds. The chapter on ambition signals the lure of idolatry in the celebrity culture of modern evangelical Christianity. The discussion of sex features Augustine’s prolonged battle with lust as spiritual hunger; Smith finds himself properly challenged in explaining Augustine’s solution of ‘ordered love’ for a wisdom of ‘continence’ or ‘self-restraint.’ On friendship, Smith notes the satisfaction and joy of relationships established from Augustine’s youth, friends like Alypius who move along with him to Rome, Milan and Cassiciacum, and still show up in his final letters, attesting to a depth of connection and loyalty our age can only envy. In the chapter on fathers, Smith reveals his own painful relationship with absent fathers alongside Augustine’s disappointing relationship with his father Patricius. A search for authenticity in our parents’ generation came at a price in family breakdown, with serious damage for the children. All the more touching is his portrayal of the father in the parable, running to meet the ‘prodigal’ son, emblematic for Augustine’s own discovery of a father figure in Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who baptized his return to Christianity.

Fra Angelico (1395-1455), the conversion of St. Augustine, prayers in the garden

The final chapter brings the theme of pilgrimage back into focus, as Smith picks up his own personal story, benefit of a research project to follow in the footsteps of Augustine from Ostia and Rome, to Milan and Pavia. Here the bones of Augustine were laid to rest after the ravages of invaders made ancient Hippo an inhospitable locale for Christian remains. And here Smith found the “morbid comfort with mortal remains” unexpectedly moving, as he came face to face with what was left of the saint in the way of bones. The end of the pilgrimage leads to a confrontation with death, but the story is not finally one of grief and despair, but rather, with Augustine, one of hope in the resurrection. For a life well lived, when it is “hidden with Christ,” death gives way to hope for new life.

Themes from the existentialists: desire for authenticity, meaning, alienation and identity are woven in with themes from ancient Platonists on our better selves ruled by bodily appetites, and in turn with themes of loneliness or addiction featured by modern novelists, in film, or music. And the story is ultimately not academic or intellectual but, at its best, a popularization of Augustine for modern needs and interests. If this is apologetics, it comes in a rather subtle form.

Is this a book that can be recommended for our student population? Absolutely. There are many indications among the references used by Smith that he was writing for a population like that of his college-aged students, whether Christian or seekers. The book certainly makes its appeal to the spiritually hungry. It reliably points the way to answers in an old classic of Christian literature. It will do its job well if readers turn to the source of Smith’s advice, Augustine’s Confessions itself, and even more, if it leads them to his further source in the Scriptures.

Wendy Elgersma Helleman

Toronto, July 2020

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