Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is an American classic. It is easily (and often) parodied for its freewheeling style, but it is also full of magical sentences and encapsulations of life in postwar America. At its heart, the book is about longing: for transcendence, for love, for experience, for a sense of place and belonging. And, more deeply, for a sense of self.
In one revelatory scene, Kerouac writes, “I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
That sense of hauntedness permeates Kerouac’s writing. For most of his life, he was a wanderer. A sometimes-Catholic, sometimes-Buddhist. A chronic alcoholic. A restless soul crisscrossing America in search of a sense of self. And that hauntedness makes him a kindred spirit with Augustine of Hippo, the early Christian theologian who penned that time-honored phrase, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.”
This affirmation is at the heart of James K.A. Smith’s new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. “In a way,” Smith writes, “it’s a book Augustine has written about you. It’s a journey with Augustine as a journey into oneself.” Later he adds, “If he jackhammers his way into the secret corners of our hearts, unearthing our hungers and fears, it’s only because it’s familiar territory: he’s seen it all in his own soul. Augustine isn’t a judge; he’s more like an AA sponsor.” But unlike Dean Moriarty, the thrill-seeking adventurer who leads Kerouac’s character out onto the road, Augustine has found his way home.
The Geography of Grace
Although Smith tells us much of Augustine’s story, On the Road with Saint Augustine isn’t a biography. Likewise, while we get to know a good deal about Augustine’s theology, the book isn’t quite a theological work either.
Smith, for his part, calls it “a travelogue of the heart.” He uses Augustine to survey the human heart and its multitude of longings, exploring themes like freedom, ambition, mothers and fathers, friendship, and death. The underlying message? You are not alone. Whatever you may feel—whether it’s conflict over ambition, complicated feelings towards your parents, or the desire to live a more meaningful life—your feelings are perfectly normal. Augustine and Smith (who shares candidly from his own story) make for wise and generous guides.
Smith’s books, most notably his three-volume Cultural Liturgies series, tend to lean heavily on his expertise as a philosopher. On the Road with Saint Augustine is no exception—readers can expect a good bit of Martin Heidigger, for instance—but the manner of writing is more personal and devotional. There are profound depths here, but there are also ladders that help you reach them with ease.
As his Kerouac-invoking title suggests, Smith uses “the road” as the book’s unifying theme: specifically, the road taken by the Prodigal Son. Augustine’s work, he argues, is deeply indebted to that story—a story Smith believes we desperately need to hear today. Given the many dead-ends and wrong turns in our world, it’s easy to conclude, as Kerouac seemingly did, that life is about the journey itself rather than the destination. To that, Augustine would issue a clear dissent. “Oh the twisted roads I walked!” he writes in his Confessions—before praising God for “freeing us from our unhappy wandering, setting us firmly on your track, comforting us and saying, ‘Run the race! I’ll carry you! I’ll carry you clear to the end, and even at the end, I’ll carry you!”
Commenting on this passage, Smith writes, “To map our roamings like that of the prodigal is not a cartography of despair or self-loathing and shame; to the contrary, it is a geography of grace that is meant to help us imagine being welcomed home.”
Smith is willing to argue with Augustine at times, as he does in his chapter on sex. But the debate reads like a charitable conversation between friends. “At times,” Smith writes, “the vision of healthy sexuality that Augustine extols—prioritizing celibacy—simply looks like the inversion of promiscuity and suggests his failure to imagine a sexual hunger that runs with the good grain of creation.” (This, I suspect, could be said of much early Christian writing on sexuality, not to mention a good deal of evangelical teaching on “purity.”) Yet he credits Augustine with helping him appreciate “the gift of chastity,” which “trains us not to need; it grants us an integrity and independence and agency in the face of various drives and hungers.”
This points to another of the book’s prominent themes: that life after the Fall has a certain amount of dissatisfaction baked in. Our hearts are restless because there is nothing in creation or experience—apart from communion with God—that can make us feel whole. I’m reminded of a scene from Midnight in Paris where Gil, the time-traveling protagonist, warns his love interest Adriana that she can’t inhabit the golden age she longs for without it coming to seem as dull and unsatisfying as her present circumstances. “That’s what the present is,” he says. “It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”
So much of On the Road with Saint Augustine echoes this insight. Sex, achievement, and justice cannot offer enough satisfaction to cure our restlessness. Smith’s chapters on mothers and fathers are especially poignant in this regard. So many of us bear wounds because of the failures, absences, unrealistic expectations, or apathy of our parents. We long for an all-accepting embrace that we can never get—that is, until we go home, where a Father awaits us and will come running down the road to meet us.
In many ways, the book reads like Ecclesiastes. Smith turns over a variety of ideas and asks, “Is there meaning here?” And there is meaning, but it is limited. Augustine chimes in either to expose those limits or deconstruct the very impulses that lead us to ask the question.
For example, in a chapter titled “Enlightenment,” there’s a wonderful section on the way Augustine debated the Manicheans. Their trust in the power of reason calls to mind many of our celebrated thinkers today. (Smith cites Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker as two examples.) Augustine saw the foolishness of enthroning reason, recognizing that it was just a case of swapping out idols on the shrines where we worship. In keeping with his previous book, You Are What You Love, Smith reminds us that “everyone believes. Everyone submits to some authority. And all these people priding themselves on enlightenment have decided to simply trade belief in one set of authorities with belief in another.” He later concludes, “If anything is irrational, it’s the notion that we are our own best hope.” The question then isn’t whether we’ll believe in something but “who to entrust yourself to.”
Observations like this help reveal how a book ostensibly about Augustine is really about God the Father, who chases down prodigals and welcomes them home. With each idea Smith explores, we see—in ways that are never trite—that our restlessness is meant to lead us back to God, that the answer to our soul’s aches is the divine embrace, and that grace is our only sure hope.
‘Am I Crazy?’
One of my favorite Jack Kerouac quotes comes from a different book, The Vanity of Duluoz, which recalls his college years. He went to Columbia and played football. He discovered his vocation as a writer. He had his first twinges of longing for the road. And perhaps most importantly, he began to suspect that the rest of the world didn’t see things the way he did: “I realized either I was crazy or the world was crazy; and I picked on the world. And of course I was right.”
At some point in our lives, we have to look at the world around us and decide, “Am I crazy, or is the world crazy?” It’s a strange thing to worship a crucified God. It is strange to eat his body and drink his blood.
Augustine picked on the world, embarking on a journey that led him, finally, to his home. For the remainder of his life, his work was geared toward pointing the way home for the rest of us. Smith has made that work wonderfully accessible. His exploration of the various beats of Augustine’s life and thought makes a grace-saturated faith plausible for those who, like me, still wonder if we’re crazy from time to time. The gap of 16 centuries separating Augustine’s era from ours only goes to show how human desires, ambitions, and anxieties remain stubbornly similar across worlds and ages. Indeed, you are not alone.
We need the testimonies of saints like Augustine to help remind us that we’re never alone because we’re never apart from the God who wants to bring us home. As Smith puts it, “Grace isn’t high-speed transport all the way to the end but the gift of his presence the rest of the way.”
Mike Cosper is the founder of Harbor Media and the host of Cultivated: A Podcast About Faith and Work. He is the author of Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (InterVarsity Press).
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