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‘The 20th century was Augustinian’

11 October 2019

James K. A. Smith tells Madeleine Davies why the Early Church theologian still matters


“MY HUNCH is that if people know anything about St Augustine, their picture is probably overwhelmingly negative,” Professor James K. A. Smith says, occupying a booth in the foyer of a South Kensington hotel. He suspects that they think of the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo as “the inventor of the doctrine of Original Sin . . . the champion of celibacy, and the generator of a particularly narrow doctrine of sexual ethics”.

If there is one misconception that he hopes that his new book will correct, it is the idea of an angry dogmatist: “When you really spend time with Augustine he is remarkably vulnerable, humble, and very much imagines himself as a co-pilgrim with people, rather than sitting up on this dais, sort of announcing and denouncing.”

Augustine is, he writes, less a judge than an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.

WITH a titular nod to Kerouac, On the Road with Saint Augustine offers the reader “an invitation to journey with an ancient African who will surprise you by the extent to which he knows you”.

Smith’s contention is that Augustine can make Christianity “plausible again for those who’ve been burned”.

“When I am in the States, I say, Augustine was a Manhattanite 1500 years before Manhattan existed, but this is true of all our cities of aspiration,” he says. “There’s a sense that Augustine was not a goody-two-shoes, not some prim and proper choirboy who made his way up from the cradle. He was a playboy, he was a hustler, he was a social climber. He had ambition for power and wealth and status and privilege and sexual domination in many ways.”

Those following in these footsteps who, like Augustine, have been disappointed at each summit will find in him someone who understands, Smith says. And there is the intellectual firepower to consider, too: “If you need to know that Christianity doesn’t mean kissing your brains goodbye, Augustine is a really, really good place to start.”

NOW a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, Michigan, Smith discovered Augustine as a graduate student drawn to Existentialism and phenomenology. He had intended to focus on Heidegger and Derrida at Villanova, a Roman Catholic university in Pennsylvania, but — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the housing of philosophy in the St Augustine Centre for the Liberal Arts — was soon swept back several centuries.

Augustine was, he contends, the first Existentialist. We can find the philosophical and conceptual roots of the 20th-century quest for authenticity in Heidegger’s Being and Time, and these ideas can, in turn, be traced to Augustine’s Confessions, on which Heidegger was lecturing for several years before writing his opus.

Camus wrote his dissertation on Augustine, Smith notes. He was also examined by Derrida, and, in 1895, the first two books that Oscar Wilde requested in HM Prison Pentonville were his Confessions and The City of God. Even today, Smith observes, Augustine appears on history and literature syllabuses.

“In a way, Augustine has been this underground river that’s been flowing underneath us, and we haven’t realised how much we’ve been sort of drawing on that well — although, obviously, it’s been a selective inheritance.”

If we can retrieve Augustine the existentialist, he suggests, “all of a sudden he becomes this very interesting character, who maybe offers a vision of Christianity that feels very different than staid rejected forms that feel closer to us. It’s sort of his strangeness. . .”

Augustine wants us to ask ourselves, Smith writes, “What if I went home?” What if our restless hearts were to find rest in the one who made us for Himself?

SOMETIMES associated with the Radical Orthodoxy movement, Smith describes his discovery of the wisdom of the Early Church as part of his own spiritual pilgrimage. He regards a failure to pass on this inheritance as a “tragedy”, describing how discovery can be accompanied by feelings of resentment (“Why have you been hiding this?”)

“One of the great travesties of late modern forms of Christianity in the West is that, in their desire to be ‘relevant’, . . . they act as if the Church is as old as the youth pastor,” he says. “It is a Christianity without memory, without heritage, and it is often coupled with what we call Primitivism, where, on the other hand, they also just think they leap back to the first century of the Bible, as if they are not indebted to a tradition.”

In recent years, he has observed a movement of ressourcement: “I actually think the post-modern moment propels us to reconsider the pre-modern. There are a number of trends in spiritual discipline that almost by nature push people back to those ancient sources.”

Spiritual discipline — habits — form an important part of his own prescription for 21st-century Christianity. His three-volume Cultural Liturgies project (Baker Publishing), which promises a “comprehensive theology of culture”, is rooted in the Augustinian idea that “we are what we love”. In post-modern culture, he contends, people encounter powerful liturgies — “heart-shaping rituals” — in shopping malls, stadiums, and universities; Christian education must offer “counter-formation”, practices that redirect our desires to God’s Kingdom.

THE subtitle of On the Road is A real-world spirituality for restless hearts. It is, he says, the first book that he has written for an audience that might not already consider itself Christian. The tone is empathic, addressed to those exhausted by the “anxieties and disappointments of the 21st-century”, with each chapter offering a “How to . . .”. The concluding verbs include “escape”, “belong”, “believe”, and “hope”.

Sex is there, too, of course (“How to connect?”). What could we possibly learn about it from “this celibate scold and ancient misogynist”, Smith asks, with an eye to the saint’s detractors. In a recent book proposing a sexual reformation, Shameless (Books, 22 February), the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber observed that, “While many of Augustine’s teachings have been revered for generations, when it came to his ideas around sex and gender, he basically took a dump and the church encased it in amber” (Features, 30 August).

Smith wonders whether the celibate bishop may, in fact, have insights that speak to the #MeToo moment (“as the systemic monstrosities of male sexual desire are uncovered and named for what they are”), but is also willing to allow that his subject “over-corrects . . . because his own demons propelled him to confuse promiscuity with sex”.

“I think the way Augustine thinks about sex is stunted, short-sighted, kind of anti-creational and anti-finitude,” he says. “The only way he can imagine a kind of faithfulness was just saying ‘No.’”

He suggests, however, that the caricature of Augustine as a “sexual dogmatist” tends to be “based on a sort of hearsay” rather than a reading of his words. His recommendation is to “read him against himself”, weaving in threads such as his adulation of his mother, Monica, and the possibility that his failure to name his concubine — the mother of his son — was, in fact, an act of protection.

Augustine was, he suggests, “the proto-memoirist”, and it’s the particularity of his story that offers such contemporary appeal. Another strand of biography to which he wants to draws our attention is the saint’s “refugee spirituality”. The son of an African mother and a Roman father, he was an outsider, caught between two homes, Smiths suggests. It was this that inspired the famous metaphor of the two cities: “He knows what it’s like to shuttle back and forth, to code-switch, as it were, between these different existences. . . He knows what it’s like to experience that dislocation.”

SO MUCH of On the Road is addressed to those consumed by wanderlust, both physical and philosophical — those animated by the Existentialists’ quest, who seek “a journey into oneself”. What might Augustine say to those of us who do not experience this yearning, those who feel rooted, content?

Smith thinks for a while.

“The question will always be: Am I locating my peace somewhere sustainable?” he reflects. It may be that those who feel that they have found a place of contentment have “truly ordered their loves well to God . . .

“On the other hand, I think there’s probably a version of stasis that is just the Doldrums, like almost having given up. . . Some people should be more dissatisfied than they are, because they’ve settled, and I think what worries Augustine is that we can live lives on auto pilot, where we sort of settle for less than what we are made for.

“And that is probably actually a very common phenomenon, and my hunch is that Augustine suspects that what pierces that, sadly, will often be brokenness and tragedy. You get sort of woken out of your slumbers by the sky falling in, and, for Augustine, the hope is that someone is there to invite you down a different path at that time.”

AT THE end of his life, Augustine was working on his Retractions — he made it through 93 per cent of his works in a critical survey celebrated by Smith as a “remarkable testament to intellectual humility”. Such an act might be particularly difficult today, he thinks.

“On the one hand, we have this overwhelming narrative of progressive enlightenment; so we keep congratulating ourselves that we are so much smarter than everyone who has come before us,” he says. “On the other hand, there is also something about social-media call-out culture right now that doesn’t give us much room to repent: you have to think the right thing, and you have to have always thought the right thing. It’s quite a notable stance of hubris, I think, and pride.”

Augustine knew, he says, “that his value did not depend on being right. . . Ultimately, his confidence did not stem from how smart he was.”

What might today’s church leaders learn from his willingness to make such public confessions?

“I think he really errs on the side of giving us too much information,” Smith says. “He’s a bishop, and he understands that he has responsibilities, and there’s power, even, that goes with that. But what you see in his preaching and the Confessions is there’s this sense of: But all things considered, at the foot of the cross and before God, we are equal, and here’s how I continue to struggle. . .

“His Confessions are written to move other people to undertake the same self- examination. I think he has to make himself vulnerable for that to work. He can’t be always ‘You, you, you’. He has to say ‘I’ for it to work.”

On the Road with Saint Augustine is published by Baker Publishing at £11.99.

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