The Distillery

Ambition, existential angst, hunger for belonging, and the life of faith as a refugee’s journey. What might an early church father and theologian have to say about the most pressing matters for today’s Christian?

Show Notes

In this episode, Shari Oosting sits down with author James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, who sets out to speak to this question in his book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, revealing how Augustine’s timeless wisdom speaks to the worries and struggles of contemporary life.

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin University, where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Trained as a philosopher with a focus on contemporary French thought, Smith has expanded on that scholarly platform to become an engaged public intellectual and cultural critic. An award-winning author and a widely traveled speaker, he has emerged as a thought leader with a unique gift of translation, building bridges between the academy, society, and the church.

The author of a number of influential books, Smith’s writing has also appeared in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today, as well as in magazines such as America, the Christian Century, Christianity Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and LitHub. He serves as editor-in-chief of Image, a quarterly journal at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery.

Dayle Rounds (00:01): 

How does Saint Augustine, an early church father and theologian, still speak to us today in the 21st century? In this episode, James Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin University speaks with Shari Oosting about his new book, *On The Road With Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts*. They discuss how Augustine's teachings provide fresh perspectives for our contemporary context. Smith speaks about how the myth of self-sufficiency could be the root of our anxiety, how a refugee is an appropriate metaphor for the Christian journey, and how we can find liberation in the midst of restlessness. 

Interlude (00:48): 

[percussion music + water drop sound] 

Dayle Rounds (00:48): 

You're listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. 

Shari Oosting (00:52): 

Jamie, thank you so much for talking with me today. 

James Smith (00:54): 

Oh, it's really a treat. Thanks Shari. 

Shari Oosting (00:56): 

So it was great to spend some time with what feels like you and Saint Augustine. So I'd be curious if you'd walk us into kind of why it felt significant to write this book? Who is Augustine, and why does he matter? 

James Smith (01:12): 

Yeah, it's a great question. Because, on the one hand, it's like really? Augustine? Today? It's the 21st century. Hello. Maybe there's more relevant... On the other hand, my intuition and my conviction are that actually, this ancient character gives us a fresh take on our own contemporary contexts. So it really stems from the fact that I think, Augustine has this kind of perennial insight into human nature, into the psychology of the human heart. And, in that sense, he feels like a contemporary. So, we should remind folks, just as a refresher. So when we're talking about Augustine we're talking about somebody who lived in the late 300s and early 400s, so late Roman Empire. But a feature of Augustine that's really interesting is that he's from North Africa. So he's kind of from the provinces. He grows up in a bi-cultural and probably biracial home. 

James Smith (02:19): 

So there's all kinds of, sort of, fresh aspects of who Augustine is that we also maybe don't get from the typical theological textbook. So... And then the last, the other piece of it -- is I'm trained as a philosopher. And one of the things that fascinated me was the extent to which 20th-century thinkers who have, you know, influenced us like the writer, Albert Camus, or Jacques Derrida, you know, the terrible postmodernist or Martin Heidegger. These, these were all people who were still grappling with Augustine firsthand. So, there's ways in which we are heirs to this Augustinian inheritance that we might not have realized. 

Shari Oosting (03:05): 

Yeah, there's a part where you talk about how, even for those of us who would never define our worldview as Augustinian, or have any of that language, we've been swimming in the water anyway. Can you give, like, a couple of examples of what it means to have kind of absorbed some of his influence along the way? 

James Smith (03:23): 

Yeah, let's try this as an example. So one of the things that maybe people don't immediately think of when they think of Augustine is -- he has this really fascinating diagnosis of the restlessness of the human heart. Do you know what I mean? And he's very vulnerable and open about his own sort of struggles of, like, not knowing who he was or what he was about. And especially, you know, in his twenties, he's like trying to figure these things out. And he talks about that specifically, as a kind of restlessness, because as we all -- everybody who's heard of Augustine has heard that famous opening line from the Confessions -- "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." What's interesting is, so -- fast forward 1600 years. And, our language of angst, of anxiety is a direct influence from Saint Augustine; the way, you know, we talk about angsty teens now, or whatever it might be. But it's interesting that what put that language on the map for us of an angst, anxiety, this unsettledness, this dis-ease, really trickles down from a German philosopher who was kind of the father of existentialism named Martin Heidegger. And he gave this really sort of influential analysis of angst that then started influencing in France and film and television and literature and things like that. It turns out angst is Heidegger's German translation from when he was reading Augustine's Confessions in like 1919. 

Shari Oosting (05:11): 

And now it's all over pop culture and... 

James Smith (05:14): 

And you would never know the genealogy of that. So then, what becomes interesting is, I mean -- man, is anything more relevant than anxiety, right? And, so now what, what happens is... My hope is that people come back to an ancient, theologian and bishop like Augustine with these new eyes and say, okay, this was a person who was trying to diagnose anxiety, like cultural and personal and existential anxiety. And that's when I think a text like the confessions sort of opens up afresh to us, and it's not -- it's no longer a kind of spiritual memoir. We don't read it as this moralizing preachy kind of thing. It now it's this interior investigation of his own dis-ease and unsettledness and anxiety. And that, that's why I think he also maybe has something to offer us, as we continue to struggle with that today. 

James Smith (06:20): 

Well and it's hard not to think about anxiety, dis-ease without also thinking of our contemporary context, where we've just -- we're living in a global pandemic and our country is in the midst of more and more public exposure to incidents of racial injustice, on top of the ongoing experience, of course. But I wonder, the book came out in '19 and then immediately after we, you know, have been collectively experiencing heightened anxiety and dis-ease. And I wonder if you've had a chance to reflect on that. 

James Smith (06:56): 

Yeah. That's... and I can totally identify. I have to say the... Somebody in the New York Times recently described our situation as this languishing that we find ourselves. And it just, I felt so seen. 

Shari Oosting (07:13): 

Yeah. Yeah. A friend pointed that same article out to me, and I said, thank you. 

James Smith (07:17): 

Yes. It was like, almost gave us permission to sort of name where we are. And I think, I do think someone like Augustine kind of gives you categories and lenses to think about that. So how would that go? Well, on the one hand, Augustine thinks a lot of our anxiety and unsettledness, and not being at peace comes from looking for love in all the wrong places, so to speak. Right? In other words, what he would say is it actually comes from us sort of over-expecting from the even good things that God has surrounded us with. And so what happens is, we kind of like glom onto things, or we fixate on things that we think this is the one thing that's finally going to give me meaning and significance and happiness. And it -- when we, sort of cling to it in that way, it melts between our fingers. That I think is still a very, very powerful analysis of, sort of, our own penchant to look for love in all the wrong places. 

Interlude (08:30): 

[Water drop sound] 

James Smith (08:32): 

Now, if you pivot and say, okay, well, how would Augustine help us understand where this anxiety comes from in the amorphousness of isolation in the pandemic? Well, this is where, I think, he also has a really interesting account of how and why we are these inherently social creatures. That we are made for friendship. In some ways, friendship is one of his most perennial metaphors for what the good life looks like. And to wither those possibilities of connection is to sort of encase ourselves. And it starts to feel like we are imprisoned within our own mind, we start to feel like we are losing the chance for these connections and webs of meaning and love and significance... And service, I would say, too. Augustine would say the myth of self-sufficiency might be the root of so much of our anxiety. And so then I think what happens is when we are left on our own, we start to experience this dis-ease and we realize, gosh, I need others. I need, and I also need to be needed by others. And that's, I think, what so many of us missed during this past year. 

Shari Oosting (09:59): 

Yeah, and we have a culture that's told us that we're independent and we're rugged individuals, but of course, none of us actually is. 

James Smith (10:06): 

No, exactly. The other thing I would say too, I mean, if you think of then the sort of injustices that we have witnessed and that too many people have experienced over this past year, Augustine can also... I mean, he has a lot of powerful resources in *The City of God* to help us make sense of why a disordered people sort of steamrolls the neighbor, right? So for Augustine... There's just no possibility of the Christian life for Augustine that is not a social vision. And in that sense, whenever we experience this disruption of the commonweal, because neighbors are being ground under by oppression and exploitation and marginalization, Augustine says, in a sense, the entire -- the fabric of the commonweal itself is rent. And we lose a sense of hopefulness. We lose a sense of commonality and we lose a sense of neighborliness. And there's a lot of ways in which Augustine's diagnosis of what happens in and to Rome (including by the way, Rome's own tendency to idolize itself) actually breeds injustice. And, so I would love to make the case that Augustine's *City of God* is very, very relevant reading for us today. In fact, I couldn't help but geek out when President Biden's inaugural address quoted from *The City of God*, which is... And his point was exactly right. 

Shari Oosting (11:49): 

Now. That's fascinating. That's a great transition point. You made choice to think about Augustine as a 'refugee' and as the Christian life as a 'refugee' experience, where often that would be translated as 'pilgrim.' Can you talk a little bit about that choice and what that means, what the implications of that choice are? 

James Smith (12:08): 

Yeah, and I have to give a shout out here. The footnotes are in the book, but I have to give a shout-out to a scholar named Sean Hannan, who... I heard him give this amazing presentation at the American Academy of Religion probably four years ago, where he suggested that the language that we typically translate into English from Augustine's works, that we translated as 'pilgrim,' he says that actually there are connotations and resonances in which it would make more sense to translate it as 'refugee.' Well, what difference does that make? Pilgrimage is a kind of sojourn where you actually leave home, go make your pilgrimage, but then you kind of circle back, and for the pilgrim, there's a certain voluntariness almost you could say about that. And there's a kind of -- maybe not... Security isn't the right word... but there's at least a sort of intentionality about it. 

Shari Oosting (13:13): 

Or a temporary nature of a pilgrimage? 

James Smith (13:14): 

Yeah. And it's temporary. Exactly. Exactly. And it's this kind of circular path. Hannan points out, he says, well, actually, some of the connotation of the phrases that Augustine uses are not of somebody who's going on a trip for spiritual purposes, it's somebody who is fleeing danger, who is trying to escape brokenness, who is running away from injustice and trying to -- importantly -- reach a home they've never been to before. And I think that is a very, very powerful way to re-imagine what the sojourn of the Christian life is in time, which is, in a sense, we are aspiring for a home we've never been to. And yet, to arrive there would be the place where God has built many mansions and says welcome home. The other thing that I found really powerful about that metaphor is, and Hannan highlights this too, the refugee's journey is fraught and vulnerable. 

Shari Oosting (14:35): 

Yeah, I'm thinking of Syria. I'm thinking of unaccompanied minors at the Southern border. 

James Smith (14:40): 

Absolutely. The tenuousness of the whole endeavor. And it is almost always, even in those contemporary examples, it is so often communal. It's the caravan, it's the boat laden. It's a whole people that are hoping to get somewhere. It is tent cities on the way. And it really kind of opened my eyes to see Augustine afresh. And I felt like it was also probably learning to read Augustine the way, say, the Black church has always read him. In other words, from my white comfort and privilege and status, I'm like, oh yeah, pilgrimage. I would love to go to the El Camino. And that'd be a great to have a trip to Spain. Whereas what we're talking about here is immigration. What we're talking about is asylum. And I think it's spiritually powerful. And then when you see the way that Augustine preaches, one of the things I really try to do in the book is try to say, yes, we know the Augustine of the books of the treatises, confessions, De Trinitate, and so on. But I don't think you can ever really know or understand Augustine until you listen to, read his sermons and read his letters. And in the sermons, you will see him preaching, especially from the Psalms, in a way where he's kind of like with his parishioners in that boat and in the storm-tossed to sea, and he feels the fraught nature of this Christian life. And I think it speaks to a lot of the challenges of an authentic Christian life, one that one that's genuinely, sort of in the world and facing the world. 

Shari Oosting (16:27): 

Alright. So you brought this up, so I have to push a little further into this direction. Is there some hesitation about universalizing, in a sense, the refugee experience as the universal Christian experience in some way? Does that question make sense? 

James Smith (16:43): 

Yeah, absolutely. No. And I think you're right, that I do think that there is something at the heart of the Christian life as such, that will always experience a spiritually fraught situation if we're really being honest and open about things. Do you know what I mean? On the other hand, I don't think that that should translate into imagining that I experience, the storm-tossed sea the way everyone does, or, that there, that there aren't, for example, Christian communities, for whom this isn't just a metaphor, this is reality. And then actually to see how much the vision of the hoped-for coming city of God animates and sustains them in that situation. I still... It's so unbelievably humbling, for example, to see the way hope works in Black churches, which is almost unthinkable, given what they've endured at the hands of other Christians. 

Shari Oosting (17:53): 

And the origin of the Black church in the United States. 

James Smith (17:56): 

Yes, exactly. Exactly. What's interesting is that, for Augustine this also wasn't just a metaphor. Like, he kind of put his money where his mouth was, and as a bishop in North Africa, he was actually a really strong advocate for sanctuary for those who were in flight and... 

Shari Oosting (18:16): 

Yeah. Talk about that more. That was fascinating to hear about. 

James Smith (18:19): 

Yeah. So it's interesting. He really stood up for sustaining congregations and churches as spaces of sanctuary for those who are fleeing all kinds of persecution and injustice. And even to the point where somebody says, well, you know, you never know you might be giving comfort to a criminal or whatever. And Augustine says, I would rather risk that and make sure that I'm giving shelter to those who are fleeing slavery, for example, or fleeing political persecution at the hands of the empire. This church should be a sanctuary. And if that even means we don't always sort of sort out who quote-unquote deserves it. He says, that's not my job. I'm not sorting wheat and tares here. And we have to remember, too, in Augustine's time, a Bishop did have quite a bit of cultural sway and influence, and they're connected with people in power. And how does Augustine use that power? He advocates against the death penalty constantly. He is constantly appealing for clemency, for mercy in judgment. So you see him standing up for those who are being ground under by this experience in ways that I think a lot of people might not have realized. 

Shari Oosting (19:42): 

When you think of Augustine as being this kind of journeyer or refugee, at one point, you also described him as an ethnographer, perhaps that's just like a nerdy aside, but I found it just an interesting claim. 

James Smith (20:00): 

So what I mean by ethnography -- and by the way, I do think that this is really relevant for those who are engaged in pastoral ministry -- so, let's say, for our purposes, by ethnography, what we mean is: an ability to read the practices of a people in order to understand, sort of, who they are and what's at stake. Do you know what I mean? 

Shari Oosting (20:25): 

Can we also call it a little bit of cultural exegesis, but much more locally contextual? 

James Smith (20:31): 

Yes, exactly. Cultural exegesis. I love that. I think it's great. And the difference is, we're not just listening to what people say. We are trying to look at what people do. We're trying to understand the rhythms and rituals and routines that shape a people's life. And I'm using people as a community, a sector, whatever, whatever it might be. And so in that sense, it's not just... It's a kind of cultural exegesis, where you're not just attuned to the messages. You're looking at, what I call elsewhere, the cultural liturgies of a society. What are the things we do that do something to us? And I think pastoral care and I think really, really good preaching, has to be informed by that kind of ethnographic attunement, where you sort of read the world that your parishioners are living in, moving in, and what's at stake and what is it doing to us? I have a good friend, Mark Mulder, a colleague of mine in sociology here at Calvin who teaches actually in D.Min. Programs an ethnography course for pastors. So I think this is a really great skill for pastors to develop. What you see in Augustine is exactly that kind of cultural exegesis, where, in his preaching -- and then I would also say, especially in *City of God* -- he doesn't just say, you know, what does Rome stand for? What are the values of Rome, or what's the constitution say or something like that. He's like, no, what are the rites -- R-I-T-E-S of, or what are the rituals that Rome sort of asks of us? And when it asks us to participate in these rituals, what are those rituals subtly doing to us? And so he becomes I think very attuned to the formative dynamics of culture and in some ways the malformative dynamics of culture, which is also, of course, why he's very intentional about sacraments and liturgy as a kind of counter formation to that. 

Shari Oosting (22:49): 

But it gives you all these tools, right, for reading our own culture about what are the practices that we engage in, what are the norms? And it kind of makes visible things that otherwise seem invisible if you have been soaking in your own context. 

James Smith (23:02): 

Yes, exactly. Especially if, if we've been primed... I bet this is probably less true of your listeners, but I would say in, especially in other wider sectors of Evangelical Protestantism, there's been a tendency to analyze culture as sort of -- propositionally, do you know what I mean? Like, what are the ideas and standards and values and laws or whatever it may be. What we're talking about is, yeah, if you have this sort of Augustinian ethnographic posture, it's not like -- what message is being said? It's what, you know -- what is capitalism? And that's not about economic policies that are set. It's about -- what does the consumer ritual of looking for fulfillment in stuff do to me? Or what do parades of militarism and weekly rituals of nationalism do to us? That's the kind of, sort of, radar that Augustine works. 

Interlude (24:11): 

[water drop sound] 

Shari Oosting (24:14): 

Let's talk about the concept of being on a journey, being on the road. And, you say at one point that you can go on a journey without moving an inch. So, so talk about some of the different kinds of journeys that Augustine can be a companion for. 

James Smith (24:29): 

Yeah. And the title of my book, *On The Road with St. Augustine*, is also a play on the Kerouac, of course, which is this sort of... Basically what happens is, we have absorbed this sensibility, that life is a quest, right? That everybody's on a journey. And what do we mean by that? Well, we're on the road to some destination. We're looking for something, we're chasing something we're after something and whatever that is, whatever we kind of picture as the destination is what we imagined happiness would be. Fulfillment, a significance. 

Shari Oosting (25:07): 

Somehow you're going to arrive. 

James Smith (25:07): 

Somehow you're going to arrive, exactly. And what Augustine would say is, what happens is so often we imagine, oh, if I can just get to here, then I'll be happy. Then I will have arrived. And what he'll say is, well, basically, if anything you pick as your destination that will count as arrival, if any of that is just finite, your hungry heart is going to chew through it and eventually be dissatisfied. It's not going to work. And so that's the exhaustion of this kind of question. 

Shari Oosting (25:50): 

I have to confess. I kept thinking of the *Hamilton* musical song, "They'll Never Be Satisfied." 

James Smith (25:56): 

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You can also think of Bruce Springsteen at this point. Everybody's got a hungry heart, and there's a sense in which, to put it this way, almost sounds cliche, except I still think he's right... If, because that heart's hunger is infinite, the only thing that could ever satisfy it is ultimately infinite. And so, whatever we're settling for, these finite substitutes, we're deemed to disappointment and that's the exhaustion -- so, okay. That didn't work. What's the next thing. What's the next thing. And I think a lot of us can identify with that. It's like, oh, if I could just get tenure. If I could just get, you know, this pastorate or something... Like now, Augustine's point is this is not about geography, or at least not about physical geography. It's more like the geography of the heart, which is you can be sort of chomping at the bit to "get away" and never leave home because the point is, you're looking for this satisfaction. You're looking for something else and outside of you. Now, I should say, I don't think Augustine wants to demonize or criticize actually that hunger. I think he thinks that's what's built-in. I think he thinks you can't be human and not have the sense that your heart is kind of made for some other shore. 

Shari Oosting (27:29): 

So if you're restless, it's not as though you have some sort of human deficiency. 

James Smith (27:33): 

No, exactly. It's almost a backhanded testimony that you are the kind of creature who was made for more. That's why I think, you know, pastorally, you might almost say apologetically, Augustine would meet folks in that situation and say, I see you're longing for more. Yes! Yes! Yes! You know, deep, deep affirmation of that. It's just then, where could we find satisfaction? What would arrival look like? 

Shari Oosting (28:09): 

Well, you brought up tenure. So can you talk about ambition? Like the way in which this plays out with something akin to ambition? 

James Smith (28:16): 

Yes. Yes. And I suppose only egg-head academics would think tenure is ambitious. 

Shari Oosting (28:22): 

But Augustine had some, like, he had ambition, right? 

James Smith (28:24): 

Absolutely. I mean, I say, if you really want to understand sort of who Augustine was in his time, he was basically a Manhattanite, 1500 years before Manhattan existed, or he's the person who wanted to be working on the hill in the thick of things, changing the world and being admired for doing it. And Augustine is very honest about this, even when he's a bishop. That he says, you know, I'm still ambitious. It's not ambition that's the problem. It's when I imagined that achieving whatever I'm ambitious for would be the ultimate satisfaction. So if I've... What would happen... Let's take my silly example, if, you know, getting tenure was my vision of, like, arrival. There's nothing wrong with hoping to attain that goal. The problem is when I thought that's all I needed to be happy. 

James Smith (29:25): 

And then what happens is you get to the top of that hill and, and we all know this. We all know this. You get to the top of the hill. And on the other side of it is this - for lack of a better... A kind of postpartum depression that sets in. And everybody's like, that's it? Really? This is not... So now it's the next thing. And it's the next thing. And it's the next thing. And that's, again, this sort of exhaustion sets in. What is that exhaustion? Restlessness. So what does it look like to be ambitious, but also find rest? 

Shari Oosting (30:00): 

Yeah, and what would like a reordered ambition look like? 

James Smith (30:02): 

Yeah. So I think Augustine envisions a reordered ambition where now I'm ambitious, not because I think achieving this goal will ultimately give me meaning and satisfaction and happiness. But because now, because I know I rest in God's love for me. In a sense, now, I'm not doing this to prove anything. My ambition is not driven and fueled by demonstrating my worth. Instead, my ambition is propelled from knowing that God's love for me is not dependent on what I accomplish. And I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly liberating. Because now... And so God doesn't say, I love you, sit back and do nothing. It's I love you, you can't do anything that would possibly make me not love you, including failing, not even that it would never affect anybody. So launch out into the deep, take your gifts, discover who you are, and now, you know, unfurl and unfold possibilities that I have packed into this creation as only you could do, so that we can celebrate it. So that it can be a gift to your neighbor. So that it brings joy to the world. And do it excellently and do it as well as you can and train yourself. And what you will find then is now your ambition is sort of the thing that you hold with an open hand. 

Shari Oosting (31:43): 

Sounds like a freeway. 

James Smith (31:45): 

Yes, exactly. I think so much of how Augustine imagines, what rightly ordered love for the world looks like is it's not love God instead of the world. And it's not cling to the world instead of God. It's receive all of these good and beautiful gifts and hold them in that open hand and be grateful for them, which also means that you could know how to lose them. And I think that's a very vulnerable place to be in. Another reason why I think Augustine is a gift to us is he's also really honest by saying in this life -- that is, in this temporal mortal life, in which we find ourselves, even in Christ -- in this life, it's a long road. There are many miles to go before we sleep. There's still not... Being in Christ is not an escape from restlessness. There's just a kind of different orientation and almost therapy for us in the midst of that. And I find that very liberating too. 

Shari Oosting (32:53): 

Yeah. That sense of like an open hand and being able to lose something. There's something that seems really comforting about that. Again, given that we're in a pandemic where there are legitimately so many things to grieve. So how to kind of hold, not because they don't matter. Right. But because things are temporal. 

James Smith (33:13): 

Yes. Yes. And it's almost kind of counter-cultural to name that a little bit, but I think you're right. I actually think doing that enables us to grieve more fully. To lament, to honestly lament, and yet do so with hope. 

Shari Oosting (33:30): 

Yeah. Well, you've mentioned exhaustion a couple of times, so I have to ask you to talk about what... It sounds to me, the way that you talk about Augustine is he's been a pastor to you. And his sermons and his letters, even in his relationship to his mother. So can you talk about maybe how he's pastored you and what you think rest looks like, in a temporal life that can be exhausting? 

James Smith (33:55): 

Yeah. It's, you know, it's funny, I, so many of your listeners must... I imagine pastoral ministry comes with its own loneliness because you're the one who always has to be the pastor and being pastored, I bet is astonishingly rare. And so that can be a very lonely place. And, I would say, Augustine... What I found in Augustine was somebody who like, in a sense, he only gives to me. He doesn't ask any, you know, I don't have to give anything in return and there's there. There's, like, no end to what I learned from him in his sermons in particular. There's such a powerful pastoral presence in those sermons that I find he's almost like the pastor I wish I had. And, rest (this will sound strange) but I would say one of the aspects of rest that I think Augustine articulates is the rest that is found in confession. 

James Smith (35:02): 

So that there's something unbelievably liberating in being able to be honest about not getting it right or failing, or as we said, languishing, or just, you know... When Augustine is talking about ambition, you know, in the present tense for himself, and he says, you know, man, I don't know if I'm doing this for God or if I'm doing this for myself and actually I'm probably doing it for both reasons. And there's something like, oh, so we can just say that we could be honest about that. Yes. And God says, I forgive you. I find that incredibly enduring, and I would say it's like, it's counsel, it's, it's deep counsel that you sort of carry with you for a lifetime. 

Interlude (35:49): 

[water drop sound] 

Shari Oosting (35:52): 

All right, someone who loomed large in Augustine's life was his mother. So, can you introduce us to Monica? 

James Smith (36:00): 

Yeah, Monica... She's such an interesting character. She's like helicopter mom extraordinaire. So she, Monica, is an African, probably of Berber origin. She was a Christian and his father was not. She was kind of constantly concerned about the state of Augustine's soul, especially when he was living his kind of frat boy life for 15 years. And what's interesting is Monica is in some ways the star of the Confessions, because she is the sort of incarnate embodiment of God's covenant faithfulness to Augustine. And so she keeps her persistent presence, her indefatigable love for Augustine and also her just confidence that God would hold him and care for him -- is such a steady presence. When I was writing the book, so we, we had an opportunity to spend three weeks, doing sort of field research. 

James Smith (37:13): 

And originally we -- unfortunately, because of terrorist activity, we couldn't get to North Africa at the time. So we spent all three weeks tracing his steps from the port city of Ostia up through Rome, and then the ways that he would have made up through Tuscany to Milan, and of course the real sort of culminating scenes of Augustine's life take place in Milan. And then eventually he makes his way back to Africa through Ostia. One of the things that struck me so powerfully is that, in many ways, Monica is more recognized, more celebrated, more revered than Augustine. I mean, if you just think in popular Christian piety in Italy, if you just take, you know, tiny little chapels in out of the way places, how frequently Monica is present is a sign that, of this perennial reality -- which is here is a mother who is praying in tears for the children who are on the run. And if we can all identify with this. Some of us have been that child, we've had those mothers and grandmothers. And so in the sense -- the cult of Monica is such a beautiful, picture of God's own sort of love for us. I was so moved by it. 

Shari Oosting (38:37): 

Why do you think that that resonated so deeply with you? 

James Smith (38:40): 

To be honest? It's because I have watched my wife, Deanna. So we, I don't know how much autobiography you want to hear. Deanna and I both come from like multiple broken homes, multiple times over. And so we, in a sense, have been trying to be something for our kids that we've never had. And, we've -- you know, our kids are all in their twenties now and things -- and we knew something of what that journey was to like stay alongside children on the run. And Deanna's just utter devotion, just utter unconditional affection and devotion, was such an incarnation of God to me and to her kids that it was so moving. So when we visited the church in Rome where Monica's relics are, and I spotted Deanna in the chapel, and Monica was new to her at that time. And she found this prayer card that listed a sort of a prayer to St. Monica for children on the back of it. And I just looked to the left and I saw Deanna was weeping in this chapel devoted to St. Monica. And I knew that there was this just intense identification. Probably, I bet it's the case, that mothers surely identify with Monica, unlike anybody else could, but there's a sense in which she's also just this human embodiment of indefatigable love and it's so strange because as a philosopher, the way I learned to read Augustine was slanted, if you will. Do what I mean? You come to Augustine in a certain way, and it's crazy that, you know, I'm almost, I was in my forties before I realized, oh, Monica, Monica, Monica is the engine here. And it was... So that was probably my favorite chapter to write. 

Shari Oosting (40:55): 

[percussion music starts in the background] Well, that's striking. I mean, when you think about the constellation of people who form others as Christians, the Monicas in that, in that cloud of witnesses, so to speak, loom large, the Deannas loom large, if everyone were to draw out who their kind of religious influencers were, right? 

James Smith (41:16): 

Yes. And you know, what's maybe one of the reasons why I'm so humbled by Monica, too, is she's so devoted to prayer. And if I'm honest, this is not what I do. Like, that's not my... It's very hard for me, but you can see that this is somebody who, in a sense, chases her son in prayer to God. And it's -- I think you're right. There are Monica's everywhere. 

Shari Oosting (41:46): 

Well, that's beautiful, Jamie. Thank you for the conversation today. 

James Smith (41:50): 

It's my pleasure. Thanks for your interest. 

Dayle Rounds (41:54): 

You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds. 

Sushama Austin-Connor (41:58): 

And me, Sushama Austin-Connor. 

Shari Oosting (42:01): 

And I'm Shari Oosting. 

Speaker 5 (42:03): 

I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production. 

Dayle Rounds (42:06): 

Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at Thanks for listening. [water drop sound] 


What is The Distillery?

The Distillery podcast explores what motivates the work of Christian scholars and why it matters for theology and ministry.