Book Review

We are more Augustinian than we realize

A look at James K. A. Smith’s "On the Road with Saint Augustine"

November 14, 2019

After Christ’s apostles, no sinful human being has exerted greater influence on the heart and mind of the church than Augustine of Hippo (354-430 B.C.). Over the last century, scholars have argued that Western church history is, technically speaking, Augustinian. Carl Truman insists, “as all medieval theology was to some extent a dialogue with Augustine, one might say that all medieval theology could be categorized as broadly Augustinian” (Luther on the Christian Life, 32). In the same vein, B. B. Warfield famously described the Protestant Reformation as “the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church” (Calvin and Augustine, 321-22). 

The relevancy of Augustine today 

Even still, James K. A. Smith argues that Augustine’s legacy extends far beyond the Reformation. According to Smith, Augustine is more relevant today than ever before. In the recently published On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (2019), Smith presents the North African bishop as a “cartographer of the heart,” someone able to speak to all of life and to every wandering soul (30). “There are ways in which the twentieth century was Augustinian, which makes him our contemporary in ways we haven’t considered” (xiv). In an age of spiritual sojourners, no one speaks more effectively to our innate longing for rest than Augustine, the fatherless, sexually promiscuous, cult-inspired, continent-traversing, knowledge-thirsting, former gang member who discovered that the faith of his cloying mother was not as prosaic as he had imagined. As a result, Augustine’s life provides for us a “hitchhiker’s guide to the cosmos of wandering hearts” (55). 

In a sea of literature on Augustine, the greatest strengths of Smith’s work are his fluid writing style, his startling transparency, and his ability to locate Augustinian themes in the least expected places, including his own life. Smith eloquently draws the reader in with modern philosophy and pop culture while honestly presenting his own Augustinian journey. On the Road with Augustine is part historical theology, part cultural commentary, part introduction to philosophy, part biography, and part autobiography. 

From Martin Heidegger’s concept of authenticity to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to Jay-Z’s conflicted memoirs to Charles Taylor’s idea of the “buffered self” to friendship in Good Will Hunting, Smith is able to depict the world as a stage upon which the seminal ideas from Augustine’s life are played out before our eyes. He achieves this through the arch-theme of Augustine’s “refugee spirituality.” According to Smith, Christians are more than pilgrims; we are migrants in search of refuge. And this search is latent in all of us. As Smith labors to show, the human journey is not an Odyssean “departure and return” nor is it a Sisyphean “the road is home.” Instead, as an “ancient ethnographer of our present,” Augustine shows us an “émigré spirituality” where God is our home and rest, not the road. (46, 54) Everything we experience and everything Augustine wrote was subject to this theme (Smith even calls the city of God a “tent city” and a “refugee camp”).

In this sense, there is seemingly no part of human existence wherein Smith does not find an Augustinian theme. If we merely pose church history as Augustinian, we’ve short-changed ourselves. Indeed, history itself is Augustinian. “In many ways,” Smith notes, “modernity is Augustinian” (26). Better yet, “the postmodern is already Augustinian. We are already Augustinian; we just didn’t know it” (34). Where there is longing and searching, there is Augustine the son or Augustine the friend or Augustine the Manichean or Augustine the Ambrosian convert or any number of hats he wore from Thagaste to Carthage to Rome to Milan to Hippo. 

Although a litany of Augustine’s works are examined, On the Road with Augustine is very much a confession from the Confessions, drawing out life stories from Augustine’s story. Only Smith could have written this work due to the extent of its philosophical range, its theological devotion, the breadth of knowledge of secular literature, and its cinematic expertise. Anyone could read and appreciate this all-encompassing book. For Smith, Augustine’s Confessions is not a memoir or an autobiography, but a “hetero-biography,” a life told by Augustine and to Augustine from the point of view of God (162). Smith presents his book much the same way. 

Finding his own story in Augustine’s 

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Smith’s book is his Augustinian willingness to draw back the curtain of his own life and tell his own story, beginning with his arrival at Villanova (founded as an Augustinian order) in 1995 to study Heidegger (inspired by Augustine). By revealing his own spiritual longings, Smith takes an Augustinian approach in recounting his very Augustinian life. The most compelling part of the book is the penultimate chapter on fathers, a topic Augustine had much to say, but, oddly enough, did not always do so. Before expounding an Everclear song from the late 90s and examining Ambrose as the “anti-Patrick” (Augustine’s father), Smith reflects upon his own mind and heart: “Maybe this is what has drawn me to Augustine on an unconscious level: a shared longing for a father I’ve never known. I suspect I’m not alone in this” (200). What follows is a heart-wrenching account of Smith’s fatherless life—a very Augustinian life. 

As professor of philosophy at Calvin University, Smith’s name may bring one to expect a very cerebral book with dozens of references to Pelagius or City of God. While these works are mentioned, Smith is much more concerned with pulling back the veil of faux-autonomy and revealing the fact that we, with Saint Augustine, are fellow travelers in this life. Through Hollywood and Rolling Stone articles and by his very own testimony, Smith wants us to see that “we are more Augustinian than we realize” (30). 

Obbie Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of the Church at Haynes Creek in Oxford, Georgia, and a Ph.D. candidate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also blogs regularly at www.themajestysmen.com/obbietodd on theology, history, and culture. Obbie and his wife, Kelly, have boy and girl twins.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24