NEW YORK — In his new book, James K.A. Smith makes his case for why Saint Augustine is the perfect companion for 21st century believers and skeptics alike. On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, released this month, addresses a range of topics, from parenting, to sex, to friendship, using Augustine (along with Jack Keroac, Albert Camus, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, among others) as a guide to navigating modern life.
Smith is a philosophy professor (and newly named editor of the literary journal Image), and although he’s a Protestant, he draws deeply on the Catholic tradition in his new work.
During a book tour in New York, Smith spoke with Crux regarding why he believes Augustine would appreciate Pope Francis’s understanding of the Church as a field hospital and how Augustine’s “City of God,” resembles more a migrant tent city than a metropolis.
Crux: Do you consider this book a direct response to the “Benedict Option” and the idea that in order to preserve Christian culture, one must withdraw from the larger culture and focus on smaller communities?
Smith: It’s not written as a direct response; however I do think that Augustinian spirituality is the great alternative to such temptations—to the imagining purity. What worries me about various renditions of what’s called the Benedict Option is that they seem to be predicated on a protectionism that is also imagining that you could carve out this purified, protected space.
Interestingly, I think that’s what Augustine himself always reacted strongly to — that’s why I think he was critical of the Donatists (in problematic ways). But for Augustine, what he reacts to in Donatism is the same imagining that we are the pure Christian community. For Augustine, he thinks that, first of all, that denies the depth of our own sin and that we don’t recognize our own fracturedness. It also underestimates the radicality of God’s grace and how it spills over our boundaries. I think that’s one reason it may be an alternative. The second reason is — I call it Augustine’s spiritual realism because it’s related to the same thing.
Augustine has no delusions of perfection, even though we’re answering a call to holiness. I think of Augustine’s spiritual realism as a pastor. One of the things I try to do in the book is to get people to read the Augustine beyond The Confessions and beyond the treatises and hear the Augustine of his sermons and letters. That’s where you hear this pastor, this shepherd who basically meets people in all the real world messiness that they have to deal with, including their vocation to public life, to being a counsel in North Africa trying to work for the empire while also hoping for Kingdom come. I think he meets people in the messiness of the call of vocation. It’s why he could never counsel a sort of running to the hills.
Let me read something back to you. You write that “The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm.” How do you think this squares with Pope Francis’s idea of the Church as a “field hospital?”
He would be all over it. There’s something deeply incarnational about this, right? It’s a sense that God is meeting us where we are and is not surprised by anything. But he also wants people to aspire to the confession that they are making. I hope what Augustine represents is the exact opposite of a fundamentalist.
Some folks criticize the idea of field hospital, saying that ultimately, they are collapsible tents and can’t sustain the Church. What’s your response to that?
I think Augustine thinks that one of the Church’s temptations is to overplant itself in self-confidence in the here and now. I love Gothic architecture as much as anyone and we all want to worship in those spaces, but we also have to realize that Augustine sees us a pilgrim people and exilic people.
One of the things that I newly appreciated in writing this book is that for Augustine, the Civitas Dei — the City of God — it’s not a metropolis. It’s like a migrant tent city. For him, there’s much more vulnerability and tentativeness, precisely because we’re looking for a country we haven’t been to yet and we have to learn how to pitch our tents as resident aliens. In that sense, the vulnerability of the people of God is something that Augustine is very aware of.
Later on in the book, you have a chapter on ambition, which you term as a “many-splendored, much maligned thing.” How do you reconcile ambition with the gospel call for humility or the demand for Christians to be poor in spirit?
The big difference is why you aspire and what you’re ambitious for — I think Augustine believes that every human being is called to something by God. That call is what our ambitions should be. For Augustine, to inhabit that vulnerable space, but knowing where home is — it’s what I call his refugee spirituality. In that sense, a moveable field hospital feels more Augustinian than the confidence of running the show.
Your book is filled with references and visits to crypts, relics, and tombs. What role do you see these ancient physical objects and spaces serving in our secular, modern age?
The power of relics is in a way a microcosm of how incarnational Christianity is. I think the tactile, visceral, physical materiality of Christianity — it was eviscerated by modern Protestantism and I think what Augustine gives you and what the heritage of this entire Church gives you, is an unapologetically meaty form of Christian faith that’s not just a message or a set of ideas or spirituality. It’s a lived embodied way of life that people are invited into. Somehow we have to get past the zombie apocalypse but there’s something about that encounter. I think relics in particular speak to our mortality in ways that our culture tries to deny our death, and I think that’s a powerful witness.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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