George Harrison’s final album Brainwashed opens with a joyful anthem to the possibilities of the road. Whimsical ukulele jangles and burnished slide guitar snakes around the classic Liverpudlian voice as the famously “spiritual” Beatle sings, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there.”

The imagery of the road is pervasive and resonant. Whether it’s Sal and Dean freewheeling across the country or Frodo and the Fellowship walking to Mordor, the road is the setting for any archetypal Hero’s Journey. Nowadays, as Harrison’s song implies, there’s no quest set before us, no Ring to destroy or Kingdom to restore. Nevertheless, we continue traveling; in Kerouac’s words, “the road is life.”

Harrison hints at the anxiety of such a life as he reaches the bridge: “You may not know where you came from. You may not know who you are.” We’re all our own heroes now, and our journeys are to find ourselves, or to invent selves we can call our own. But a journey with no end offers no hope of comfort, of peace, of rest. If the road is forever our home, there’s no final arrival to say with Sam Gamgee, “Well, I’m back.” If you don’t know where you’re going, at some point you may have to admit you’re lost.

An Ancient, Modern Guide

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The road’s timeless appeal is something of a modern myth, a marketer’s trick or a coping mechanism to distract us from the anxiety of aimlessness. Aimlessness itself, however, is indeed timeless, and to find our way out of this confusion, we could use the aid of an ancient guide. This is James K. A. Smith’s argument in his new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine.

A North African bishop who lived 1,600 years ago might not strike most moderns as a likely compatriot. As Liz Bruenig pointed out at a recent Trinity Forum discussion with Smith, Augustine is one of the rare ancient thinkers who somehow still has haters. But Smith’s Augustine is not the strict, original-sin-preaching moralist found in the pages of The New Yorker or on an exvangelical Twitter feed. He’s another wanderer on the same roads of our secular age: an ambitious young man, yearning for friendship and acceptance, seeking recognition for his intellect, pursuing positions of power and influence, trying at all costs to escape the constraints of his provincial hometown and the silly religion of his domineering mother.

Smith touches on a wide array of Augustinian literature, but his main touchstone is the Confessions, Augustine’s unflinching look at his own worldly pursuits—sex, knowledge, status—and his eventual conversion to Christianity. “The reason Augustine tells his story,” writes Smith, “is that he thinks it is simply an example of the human story—that we are all prodigals—and he wants us to ask ourselves a question: ‘What if I went home?’”

As interlocutors for Augustine, Smith offers a bevy of existentialists, particularly focusing on Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus. Both thinkers were deeply influenced by Augustine, and there are coincidental ties of place and story as well: Camus was also from North Africa like Augustine, while Heidegger was Smith’s original academic interest while pursuing a PhD at Villanova, where he developed his eventual obsession with the saint in the mid-90s. But more significantly, Smith sees existentialism as the water we unconsciously swim in, the sea in which modern wanderers are drowning without even realizing it.

Smith’s project is partially one of restoring the tarnished image of Christianity, but pitting the Confessions against the founders of the “invisible philosophies” modernity has inhaled allows the book to avoid positing some “Golden Age” to which modernity must return. Rather, the existentialists—themselves drawing on Augustine, despite often reaching far different conclusions—help to articulate why he is a crucial guide now, not merely a fascinating historical figure.

Heartless Roads and Restless Hearts

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A recurring corollary to the road imagery is the reason we’re on it: though ostensibly seeking something better, Smith observes that “ours is a pilgrimage without a destination. . . a baseline antsy feeling that leaves us never feeling at home (which brings to mind the Freudian notion of the ‘uncanny,’ the Unheimlich, not-at-home-ness).” It’s not merely frustration with our families or hometowns, either, but with ourselves: “this lack of at-home-ness with oneself generates our propensity to run.”

The existentialists know this feeling well. From angst to absurdity to alienation, one of the principal projects of modern philosophy has been diagnosing this very malaise. The ethic we’ve largely absorbed from them offers another A-word as the solution: authenticity. In her book At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell calls authenticity “the unnamed object of desire” in modern culture. This very Augustinian phrase indicates a transcendent interiority that the existentialists insist we find the courage to seek out. All externally imposed forms of meaning-making—whether epic quest or quotidian toil—are rejected. We are the heroes of our own stories; the inner road is life.

Augustine is a significant figure in the history of this interiority. Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity devotes an entire chapter to Augustine (“In Interiore Homine”) as the bridge between Plato and Descartes. Taylor describes how Augustine turned our gaze inward: “Augustine shifts the focus from the field of objects known to the activity itself of knowing.” Inward self-examination is Augustine’s road, but for him it’s only a means of moving upward. Our inner search brings greater knowledge of one’s inherent limitations, a self-discovery not achieved by merit but illuminated by a light from above: “at the end of its search for itself,” writes Taylor, “if it goes to the very end, the soul finds God.”

But what happens when God, as Nietzche claimed, has been killed? When the telos of the inner search is removed, it is a road with no end. As Zygmunt Baumann has pointed out, we’re no longer pilgrims, but tourists, flitting aimlessly about in search of we aren’t quite sure what. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there.

This is not to say we become limitless; the limitations remain, though we may not acknowledge them, absent the light of grace. Indeed, we now see only the external limits of our lives, the dingy hometowns and constricting families, now reframed as limits placed upon our endless and searching inner selves, constraints on our heroic journey.

So, like Augustine, like our existentialist forebears, we run. Augustine sneaks away from his mother’s confining plans for his life in the dead of night, fleeing to Italy for fame and fortune. Seeing home as a prison rather than a place of peace, perpetually restless hearts yearn to break free.

Insufficient Liberty

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At the Trinity Forum discussion of On the Road with Saint Augustine, Smith used his chapter on freedom as a case study in what Augustine shares with our yearnings today, and how he redirects them. Freedom, particularly for Americans, presents a particularly salient example of the similarities and differences, because it is so deeply intertwined with our cultural mythology. We see liberty as our own invention.

But Smith sees deeper roots: “Long before there were Shelby Mustangs and Route 66 and rebels without a cause, the prodigal was itching for freedom from the scowl of his father and the scolding of his mother.”

The primary—really, the only—concept of freedom in common use today is that of negative liberty, freedom-from, the absence of restraints. This idea is so ubiquitous that it’s challenging to express another conception. Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” is one clear—if skeptical—presentation of what positive liberty entails: freedom-to, the possibility of becoming what one is meant to be, a goal or telos.

Smith exposes the crack in the negative liberty story early on: “the road is already somebody else’s idea of where you should go.” What is imagined as authenticity is typically a vision that’s been sold to us, simply another way of being enmeshed thoughtlessly into Heidegger’s das Man, or “the they.” Just walk into a craft brewery or farm-to-table bistro in any city in America, and try to distinguish the reclaimed wood and artisanal pickles in Boise or Baltimore from that in Brooklyn or Buffalo. Running eagerly from the prisons of small-minded suburbia like Augustine sailing across the Mediterranean, today’s restless hearts finally land in an Applebee’s rebranded for hipsters.

To accept the idea that “the road is life” is to embrace, with Camus, the Sisyphean “perpetual pilgrimage of futility.” But this road reveals itself as merely “bourgeois luxuries indulged by those safe enough to pretend this is all there is.” This take is reminiscent of Francis Spufford’s description (in Unapologetic) of the “atheist bus” emblazoned with the slogan “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Spufford, with vitriolic aplomb, tears apart the notion that enjoyment is all that’s left of life once religion gets out of the way. It’s far too fleeting, a moving target as destination; furthermore, it betrays a privileged snobbery that blissfully ignores the world’s widespread suffering and injustice.

The ambition that sent Augustine to Rome found no rest there; he picked up and moved to Milan when new pursuits opened paths to him. This is the irony of negative liberty: with no positive goal at the end of the road, every resting point eventually becomes another prison in need of a breakout.

Smith describes this approach to freedom as an attempt to escape the confines of a too-small pool by collapsing its sides. The result is not freedom at all, but a loss of what good was originally there, as the water runs out and evaporates. As it turns out, Augustine has a similar metaphor, writing in the Confessions, “I was storm-tossed, gushing out, running every which way, frothing into thin air in my filthy affairs.”

Detached from a goal, negative liberty always demands new objects of desire and new limits to escape. Smith describes it as “the ‘freedom’ of the addict,” and quotes one of Augustine’s letters: “Free choice is sufficient for evil, but hardly for good.” Underlying and fueling the freedom myth that permeates our culture is the very angst and anxiety we seek to escape, a negative liberty feedback loop.

Isaiah Berlin’s aforementioned essay is skeptical about the misuses of positive liberty. His take is understandable for a Latvian Jew writing in the wake of WWII, who saw the worst excesses of totalitarianism firsthand, but this skepticism towards any imposition of order or direction has bled into our culture more broadly, and is now an uncritical default position.

Smith counters these assumptions with the idea that a positive vision, and even the guardrails it comes with, is not a burden but a gift. Augustine’s haters may look at him as a stern moralist, but Smith sees in his journeys a picture of something not just needed but actually desired in the midst of our aimless searching. Many wanderers on the roads of freedom long for the gift of limits.

Speaking to Two Cities

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Thus far, it’s seemed that this take on Augustine is speaking primarily to the so-called Nones, and the tone of the book certainly seems to indicate a desire to draw those outside the Church from their wanderings to the Way. But making up a big part of the rhetorical “we” used above and throughout the book are those within the Church who ostensibly belong to a deep tradition and possess a positive vision for their lives, yet are nonetheless burdened by the same modern pressures.

Jamie Smith has sought language for Christians in a secular age for some time. Several of his books offer navigation assistance to Christians unknowingly swimming in postmodern waters. In How (Not to) Be Secular, he writes: “The secular touches everything. It not only makes unbelief possible; it changes belief…We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting.”

In that book, philosopher Charles Taylor is the figure whose work Smith translates into a guide for his audience: “Such a guide ‘makes sense’ of our situation not by didactically explaining it, and certainly not by explaining it away, but by giving us the words to name what we’ve felt.” This is similar to the role Augustine plays in his new book: rather than a list of rules, he offers a story to live out.

Smith has long analyzed the ways Christians and non-Christians are shaped, both consciously and not, by the environments in which we are embedded, by the habits they encourage, by the “invisible philosophies” we breathe in. As a result of our unconscious formation, we might not love what we think we love. Smith wants Christians to love what we think we love, and for those outside the Church to love the right thing—to rightly order their loves, as Augustine would put it.

So in “translating” Augustine and Heidegger and Camus, there are two audiences in mind, though they are (Augustine again) “interwoven and intermixed in this era.” Smith writes in the Introduction:

Augustine might make Christianity believable for you even if you’ve heard it all, been there, done that, and left the stupid Christian T-shirt at home. Here’s a Christianity to consider before you stop believing. Augustine might make Christianity plausible again for those who’ve been burned—who suspect that the “Christianity” they’ve seen is just a cover for power plays and self-interest, or a tired moralism that seems angry all the time, or a version of middle-class comfort too often confused with the so-called American Dream.

For readers of Mere Orthodoxy, my guess is that the summary of Smith’s argument about limitless freedom and the dead end of aimless ambition sounds familiar. But then, these readers probably already know who Augustine was as well. Smith cites a variety of secondary sources, from Peter Brown’s authoritative biography of the saint to Justo González’s The Mestizo Augustine, but anyone looking for a deep scholarly dive into the saint’s life would be better served elsewhere.

These readers might be turned off in the early chapters by some of the overall tone, which at times (especially early on) becomes reminiscent of a self-help book, albeit a well-written one with the thesis that you can’t really help yourself. Light rhetorical questions are sprinkled liberally throughout, and the first-person plural narration (“we,” “our”) is an omnipresent tic that often blurs the line between the two audiences.

There are certainly Christians who could use an introduction to the doctor of grace (Smith recently wrote about some of them for the Washington Post), and for them, On the Road with Saint Augustine is a welcoming place to start. Rather than scrutinizing the historical minutia of ancient Rome, Smith is more likely to quote a Jason Isbell tune or Leslie Jamison essay. But Smith’s hope for Christians who know Augustine already is to give them better language with which to discuss their faith, and perhaps to guide them through their own anxieties.

Repositioning the Defense

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Many Christians of a certain generation have gone through an “apologetics phase,” in which books like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity offered an intellectual scaffolding for defending one’s beliefs and perhaps arguing nonbelievers into faith. There may be some success stories with this technique, and there’s something to be said for anything that’s bolstered people’s faith in times of doubt. Still, the world we live in doesn’t seem particularly receptive to being argued into belief. Smith would argue that’s not really how belief works, anyway; we’re desiring creatures, not merely a “brain on a stick.”

The angle here is more akin to Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, a book whose title pokes directly at the apologetics phenomenon and instead, takes a more emotional approach. Smith, too, wants to tie Christianity to its emotional pull rather than its rational propositions. If people are wary of arguments that Christianity is true, perhaps they’d be more amenable to a picture that shows it’s beautiful.

Much of the book is successful in this goal; Augustine’s story is the original “relatable content” and Smith’s winsome prose drives home its applicability. However, at times Smith seems to pull his punches. Unlike Spufford, who defends his superfluous cursing by “suggest[ing] that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience,” Smith (or his publisher) censors quotes from movies and music that contain harsher profanity (“f—” and “s—”). This is jarring in a book that wants to present a Christianity that professes to be above the shallow moralism of popular religion.

It’s not only in these trivial moments that the book flinches in order to portray the beautiful picture. The “Sex” chapter, for instance, may seem forward-thinking for some evangelicals who will be confronted with the rampant lust of such an influential Church Father. Smith argues for a reinvigoration of chastity while showing Augustine’s lustful temptations with honesty and tenderly depicting his relationship with the concubine who bore his son. But many will be left with unaddressed questions about the Church as it is now: what if I’m gay? What about the abuse scandals rampant among both Catholic and Protestant parishes? What about women in leadership? At times, it can seem like Augustine’s attractive story of unmerited grace and dedicated faith is merely a distraction from the reality of broken institutions.

A similar problem plagues the chapter on “Justice,” which engages the “hard-won atheism” of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Smith acknowledges the vast injustices and sufferings that make belief in a good and loving God justifiably challenging for many. He points out that when the “road is life” mindset isn’t blithely ignoring injustice to pursue self-centered hedonism, it typically takes up its cause du jour as similarly self-focused performance.

But the meat of the chapter nearly falls into the old apologetic strategy as it’s spent looking (by way of Camus) at Augustine’s take on the problem of evil. The concept that evil is non-existence, ultimately absurd and inexplicable, may be interesting philosophically, but it probably isn’t what was keeping someone from the Church. To his credit, Smith admits frustration with Augustine’s inadequate lament, but the question of evil and injustice among Christians looms over the chapter.

Perhaps the best question Smith asks about the problem of evil is this: “What’s the alternative, after all?” Is there a satisfying non-religious explanation of evil? The strategy of apologetics assumes that Christianity has to be fighting its way out of a corner, but in an anxious age in which the world feels fractured beyond repair, maybe it’s the “road is life” view that’s reached a dead end and needs to defend itself. A better strategy for Christians equipped with a positive vision to offer might be to patiently wait for the inevitable end of those on a precarious road, ready to bandage their friends’ wounds and offer selfless care in the aftermath.

A comprehensive alternative to all of Christianity’s ills is admittedly a tall order for a slim introduction to such a prolix author. To conclude, it’s worthwhile to take a brief look at what guidance Augustine gives to send us off in a better direction.

The Right Road

In her Trinity Forum remarks, Liz Bruenig shared her own story of ambition and aimlessness. As a graduate student at Cambridge, she had the liberty to pursue whatever aims her heart desired. Yet it was not the endless road of freedom to which she felt called, but home. She converted to Catholicism, returned to her Texas hometown, married, had children, settled. She found another life than the road.

But many are still aimless. Bruenig posited a corollary to the excess of negative liberty Smith diagnosed in his talk: a dearth of positive vocation. Looking at the angst so prevalent among young people today, she sees “a perceived lack of opportunities for heroism” at the root of this misery and social withdrawal. When the modern world has (often literally) foreclosed on more traditional opportunities for meaning-making—raising a family, working a fulfilling job, participating in a meaningful political process, or fighting for a worthy cause—it’s understandable that people will seek to escape norms seen as untrustworthy.

These escapes, as we’ve seen, are our first steps out on the road, making ourselves our own heroes. It’s similar to what Smith writes about in How (Not to) Be Secular of “conversions” to unbelief:

Such tales of ‘maturity’ and ‘growing up’ to face reality are stories of courage—the courage to face the fact that the universe is without transcendent meaning, without eternal purpose, without supernatural significance. So the convert to unbelief has “grown up” because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place.

What would Augustine say of the false heroism of this bold nihilism? I asked Smith and Bruenig this question at the Trinity Forum. Bruenig turned to Augustine’s philosophy of evil, but it was no copout. If evil is nonexistence, Bruenig warns, “Anytime you’re looking into something and say, ‘I see nothing,’ you’re entering into an area of great evil.”

Evil might seem meaningless in a culture that asks whose evil? Which moral standard? Bruenig cautioned that such a view is just a way of “destroying yourself;” this dismissal betrays the “cowardice. . . in the turn towards nonbeing, because it is easier in certain respects than the sort of heroic virtue that it takes to be what you actually are.”

Becoming who we really are is the challenge of the road. It’s a challenge that’s abdicated by nihilism’s phony bravery. To hit the road in search of yourself, you need to know which way you’re headed, that you’re in search of something, not nothing. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there. Bruenig asks for Augustine: “So this nothingness that you’re looking into. . . where does that draw you?”

This question lends itself to Smith’s reframed apologetic. His response brought up the idea that in the modern world, “the ironist is our last hero. . . the one who sees through everything, and knowingly insulates himself or herself from caring.” When this figure becomes the saint we emulate, says Smith, “I think what Augustine’s gonna say is, ‘How’s that working out for you?’” He echoes the question of the Lord through the prophet Haggai: “Consider how you have fared. . . you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill.”

Such a question is as sardonic as it is prophetic, but it may be the right one to ask our friends as they reach the end of the road of bleak detachment and ironic insulation. It’s reminiscent of a line Smith likes from Lewis Hyde: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” Hyde reveals the difference between the prophet and the peripatetic: the endless choice of any road leads to a prison mentality; everywhere you end up is a trap, and so is the road you use to escape.

But there is a road that leads home, and a loving Father who has never stopped waiting and watching for us to step onto it. Indeed, it is a road that comes straight to where we are. Augustine writes in City of God:

For there is hope to attain a journey’s end when there is a path which stretches between the traveller and his goal. But if there is no path, or if a man does not know which way to go, there is little use in knowing the destination. As it is, there is one road, and one only, well secured against all possibility of going astray; and this road is provided by one who is himself both God and man. As God, he is the goal; as man, he is the way.

This is limiting. This is a form of settling. But also, this is rest. And paradoxically, it is the true hero’s journey we’ve longed to embark upon. Bruenig remarked that “[Augustine’s] rest is a knight’s rest; it is battle-weary and grateful for repose. . . again and again, he has a heroic experience of the moral life.” Being called home is the eternal adventure.

Because in accepting constraints on our negative liberty and orienting ourselves to a telos beyond this world, God’s love overflows our limits, and sends us out on journeys inumerable. It is the body of Christ that reaches out to the one injured on the side of the road after a tragic fall. Augustine sees in this mutual care and self-giving love a truer form of heroism. He writes of the apostle Paul:

He was Christ’s athlete, taught by Christ, anointed by him, crucified with him; he gloried in Christ, and in the theatre of this world, for which he was made a spectacle in the sight of angels as well as men, he fought a great fight and kept the rules and pressed on ahead for the prize of the calling to the realms above. The citizens of God’s City are happy to gaze at this hero with the eyes of faith. They see him rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep, troubled by fighting outside and fears within, desiring to depart and be with Christ.

Paul is the quintessential traveller, guided by the Spirit onto any road that would take him where he was needed. On the road was where he encountered Christ. And he never stopped moving.

This is the lesson of Jamie Smith’s book: we are never not on the road. Augustine says constantly that “the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world.” But it is not just any road we are called to; it is the Way. It’s not endless argument that will call others along with us on this pilgrimage; it is the Truth. We will not be the heroes we once imagined, on journeys of our own making, but we will nevertheless be part of a heroic story, walking with the One who is the Life.

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Posted by Zack Holbrook

Zachary Holbrook lives in West Baltimore, where he and his wife are members of New Song Community Church (PCA), and is currently pursuing an MA in Theology at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute. He does not tweet very much at @zzzholbrook.

  • Bryan Johnson

    I enjoyed the article, but I was jarred by the missing “uck” and “hit” – what a missed opportunity to show the beauty of Christianity. Whose fault was the flinch, the author’s or the publisher’s?

  • hoosier_bob

    I hope to read the book within the next few weeks.

    As I noted on another thread, I’m not all that persuaded that positive liberty is as absent from our culture as the writer supposes. We just don’t use particularly theistic language to describe it. This makes me wonder whether these kinds of critiques are necessarily mourning the alleged loss of notions of positive liberty from our culture, or whether they’re rather mourning the loss of a theistic monopoly over such discourse.