On the Augustinian road
How an ancient text applies to our modern lives
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Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith, 49, grew up in Canada and recently became a U.S. citizen. He is the author of numerous books, including You Are What You Love, Awaiting the King, and (in 2019) On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Here are edited excerpts of our discussion.
You’ve written that you’ve been estranged from your dad since you were 13, and haven’t seen him for 28 years. Your stepfather also disappeared. What effect did that have on you?
That partly explains why hearing the good news of a Father who chose me and came looking for me was very poignant. It’s one thing to be intellectually convinced of that, and another to make it the story you carry in your bones.
You started editing a magazine as a teenager.
Freestyle BMX biking, the kind of thing you see on the X-Games, was my religion. I actually published my own little BMX magazine. It was very much about belonging, a bit like what Augustine was looking for in the Manichaeans when he joined them. I still have a BMX bike, but I’m not so tempted by that cult quite as much anymore.
You quote Augustine saying, “To desire the aid of grace is the beginning of grace”—and coming to the end of your self-sufficiency is the first revelation. When and how did that happen to you?
Before I became a Christian at 18, I had a kind of hubris and pride about what I was going to accomplish. I’ve gained an appreciation for the limits of my own self-sufficiency. Christians can fall into the trap of imagining that we can manage our spiritual lives.
I had a hard time taking a Sabbath. What’s your experience?
It was a long time in my Christian walk before I really understood what Sabbath was. That’s such an Augustinian idea because it means resting enough so you don’t think God’s depending on you.
Arthur Brooks has observed that both trust fund babies and welfare recipients often feel inadequate because they don’t have “earned success.” He’s right, but do any of us earn our success?
A verse that’s always lived with me is from 1 Corinthians: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
We chase a million alternative ways of trying to satisfy that in-built hunger and longing to be seen and known by God.
Our work, God’s grace?
One of Augustine’s favorite verses is also from 1 Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive?” So my creative talents and capacities are gifts, yet I’m called to be a steward and use those gifts. There’s a big difference in acting out of gratitude as opposed to doing it out of performance and imagining my actions earn me dignity, and worse: that I imagine I can earn the love of God. It’s a fine line to dance, but a really significant one.
You write about Augustine’s dad, Patrick: Neighbors praised him for investing in his son’s education, and you quote Augustine saying, “The same father did not care what character I was developing or how chaste I was as long as I was developing a cultured tongue.”
Absolutely. You can see young Augustine living out a script very familiar to us: imposed ambition from his parents, worldly success disconnected from any concern about cultivating his soul, developing character and virtue. He looks back and says, “I wish my parents aspired differently for me.”
That does sound contemporary, since parents today get bragging rights if their children go to Yale.
Many parents today instrumentalize their children’s education, either for themselves or because they see it as credentialing for economic performance. That partly explains some of those recent college admission scandals. Augustine later championed the liberal arts for the formation of a soul, not just to get top rank at law school.
You write that we expect to find fulfillment from people looking at us: How many “likes” is enough, how many followers will make us feel valued? What if we’re wired not to be liked but to be loved, and not by many but to be loved by One?
This is Augustine’s important intuition, the in-built hunger and desire of the human heart. As he famously put it, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
We search for alternatives.
As human beings we chase a million alternative ways of trying to satisfy that in-built hunger and longing to be seen and known by God. We keep trying to satisfy it by being seen and known and liked and clicked by everybody else. That’s doomed to disappointment and failure because human attention is so fickle, whereas God’s covenant attention, love, is of course the one friendship you can never lose.
You write about Andre Agassi’s alienation from a father who forced him to play tennis. That culture of ambition is certainly present in America now, but is there also a culture of no ambition: We don’t want to direct children in any way, since they must “find their own bliss.” Which tendency do you think is dominant now?
Yes, the dominant default cult of our age is the cult of autonomy. We imagine, “I am my own master and I get to decide what the good is.” Or people say, “You do you.” That comes with its own burden to make something of yourself.
It looks like a hands-off approach.
But it still is part of high expectations that you should now forge your utter uniqueness. Parents expect you to be successful in forging your own identity. Christian communities can sometimes confuse ambition with arrogance, and risk-averse comfort with humility. Sometimes I wish the young Christians that I teach were more ambitious, not just to make something of themselves but to live into the fullness of the gifts that God has called them to.
You write that even aged Augustine was tempted to get attention and adoration.
And to receive the praise of men. But he says he won’t avoid that problem or temptation by not doing a good job: He’ll try to live into doing what he’s called to do for the sake of God, and learn how to receive the praise of men well. I would much rather see people risking that than just staying safe.
If Augustine still yearned for adoration, who then can be saved?
Happily, our salvation doesn’t depend on the purity of our intention. Part of the grace of God in my life will be the grace God gives me to be honest about that conflicted nature of my own ambition. If you ask Augustine, “Hey, are you writing Confessions to move people to God? Or are you writing so people pay attention to you?” His answer is, “Yes.” It’s always a conflicted mix, but he admits that and knows that God receives him, forgives him, and is bending his heart more toward what God desires for him.
He realizes that he’s posting on Facebook about his upcoming book on humility.
If somebody like Augustine can admit he still struggles with those things, I guess maybe God still loves me too since I struggle with those things. I love that Augustine has no hypocrisy—not because he is without guile, but because he’s honest about his own continued struggles. Better than pretended purity is his acknowledgment, “Pride lurks even in good works.”
Happily, our salvation doesn’t depend on the purity of our intention.
He also refers to lunatic lust—and you write that promiscuity reduces us to organs and glands as a perverted way to feed a soul hunger. How do churches deal with that, since it is so rampant?
An Augustinian analysis begins with the realization that a disordered spiritual hunger motivates that. Lust is disordered love, so to re-apprentice our hungers we need to change our habits and adopt different rhythms and routines. We can live in community, worship together, and pursue spiritual disciplines and fellowship together.
Can we easily fall into rituals that don’t actually change us, but just let us feel good about ourselves without going through Augustinian thinking?
In Confessions, all of his intellectual convictions have been changed by Book 7, but in Book 8 he still confesses he doesn’t have the transformed will that’s needed. Few people think their way into holiness. We need to create porches where we can forge relationships with our neighbors that will help them taste and see, so Christianity becomes more plausible for them.
Are many churches also missing the mark internally? You write, “We have created youth ministry that confuses extroversion with faithfulness.”
Yes, we think entertaining young people will keep them in the building, as if keeping them in the building is keeping them in Christ. They’re not the same thing. The template for a youth pastor is this incredibly perky, energetic, rah-rah cheerleader for Jesus. If a young person is more contemplative, or struggling with doubt, he’ll start to conclude, I can never be that kind of person, so I couldn’t be a Christian.
You’re now the father of four.
It’s made me think one of the most powerful expressions of witness to God’s covenant faithfulness is being a father who stays.
—This story has been updated to correct the Augustine quote referring to the aid of grace.
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