Online Conversation | Habits, Home, & the Human Heart
with James K.A. Smith
On Friday, September 11th we were delighted to welcome Senior Fellow, author, and professor James K.A. Smith as our guest discussant. Smith shared insights from his recent work, On the Road with Saint Augustine. In our own current season of restlessness and wandering, we hope this conversation provides you space to consider the important questions of what do you want, what do you love, and where is home?
Special thanks to this event’s sponsors:
Laura Grace Alexander
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Transcript of “Habits, Home, and the Human Heart” with James K.A. Smith
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Alyssa. And thank you to all of you joining us for this afternoon’s online conversation on Habits, Home, and the Human Heart with special guest philosopher James K. A. Smith. We’re delighted that so many of you are joining us for this conversation. This is actually the twenty-second such online conversation that we’ve hosted since the pandemic struck back in March. We started with just a couple of hundred people, and it has grown to the point [where] we now have well over thirty thousand people who’ve joined us from nearly seventy different countries. We just so appreciate your presence, your participation, and your support through all of this. I’d like to particularly thank our sponsors, Laura Grace Alexander and the Georgia Center for Opportunity, ably led by Randy Hicks, as well as to welcome our over four hundred and thirty first-time guests who are joining us today, as well as guests from more than thirty different countries and including several newcomers from the Cayman Islands, Romania, and the Ukraine. So, a special welcome to all of you. If you are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to engage the great questions of life in the context of faith and to come to better know the author of the answers. And if one had to pick a patron saint of wrestling with the big questions of life, it would be hard to come up with a more qualified candidate than St. Augustine, the subject of much of our discussion today. This fourth century North African rhetoric teacher, Christian convert, priest, and later bishop shaped the thought and theories of political philosophers and theologians ranging from Aquinas to Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr to Friedrich Nietzsche, Kierkegaard to Martin Luther King Jr. His work is also intensely, sometimes embarrassingly, personal and provocative, such that time spent immersed with Augustine may well wind up, as our guest today has said, as a quote, “spelunking expedition in the caves of your soul.” So, if this sounds intriguing, well, buckle up, because our guest today extends just such an invitation to us in his recent and fascinating book On the Road with St. Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. And it’s hard to imagine a better guide not just to the extraordinary works and thought of St. Augustine, but also to the profound questions he poses as to the power of our habits, the longing for home, or the mysteries of the human heart than our guest today, philosopher James K. A. Smith. Jamie Smith, as he is perhaps best known and has been one of the most requested guests on our online conversation series, is a philosopher and professor at Calvin College, the editor in chief of the renowned Image Journal, and the award winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, Desiring the Kingdom, The Devil Reads Derrida, You are What You Love, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, as well as his excellent and most recent book, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. His popular writings have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Books and Culture, First Things, and many others’ publications. And last but certainly not least, I am very proud to claim him as a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. So, Jamie, welcome. It’s great to have you.
James K. A. Smith: Oh, it’s always great to talk to you Cherie, even in this strange socially distance way. It’s great to connect.
Cherie Harder: It’s really fun to have you here. So, let me ask you about your own journey leading up to your road trip with Augustine. How does a working-class kid from Canada wind up an Augustinian scholar and philosopher?
James K. A. Smith: Not by plan. Yeah, it’s an interesting—so I don’t want to bore people by going back too far. I wasn’t raised in the church. I became a Christian the day after my eighteenth birthday. I experienced that as a pretty radical sort of conversion, and like many I think, I thought that meant I was supposed to be a pastor. So, I immediately changed my plans. I was always planning to be an architect. I ended up on the road to studying for pastoral ministry in theology. And while I was an undergraduate, I had some first encounters with St. Augustine, who is this looming giant in theology, in the Western tradition. But I’ll say it didn’t really take I guess. I met him as kind of a stodgy, dusty, scholastic kind of theologian. In other words, the people who are introducing me to Augustine introduced me to someone else. But then, when I started grad school in philosophy, I experienced what I sense was a call not to pastoral ministry but to this more academic vocation, so I headed into grad school in philosophy. The very first semester I had a teacher who had me read Augustine again. And at that point, I met somebody who saw through me I would say. I met this kind of existential co-pilgrim who wasn’t just talking about objective theological ideas. He was like taking stock of his own human heart. And I’ll be honest, it was also kind of unsettling because it started to force me to have to take stock of my heart. I was very comfortable living up in the realm of ideas where I thought I could be smart. It was riskier to start digging down into the realm of my longings, and that’s exactly what Augustine propelled me to do. Then the sort of the crowning, the icing on the cake so to speak, in God’s providence and humor is that when I went on to do my Ph.D. in French and German philosophy at Villanova University in Philadelphia—just up the road from you—I went there to study French phenomenology. But it turns out that Villanova was an Augustinian Catholic university run by the Augustinian order. There were Augustine scholars all over the place and the philosopher I went to study, it turns out, had this entire back story of an encounter with Augustine. So, I really feel like God gave me the gift of this ancient friend who is also somebody I could never come to the end of in that way. It’s been a great gift, I would say.
Cherie Harder: Your description of Augustine in your book On the Road with St. Augustine is unusual for an Augustinian philosopher. It’s not an academic book at all. I think at one point, you refer to him as an AA sponsor in terms of his kind of being a Sherpa to one’s soul. And I’m just curious, you know, you’re recommending to your readers that they essentially take a road trip with Augustine. What did you learn on your road trip with Augustine?
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, and I have to say, this is part of what I love about Augustine is. He is one of the great intellectual giants of Christianity and the Western cultural tradition, but the reason to read Augustine is not just theory. It’s because he is this psychologist of the human heart. I would think that would be one way to describe [him]. The reason the AA sponsor line is— It’s like Augustine has tried everything we have tried to make ourselves happy and also learned that most of them don’t work. And so, he in that respect— it’s remarkable how this fourth century North African reads like a contemporary for us in the twenty-first century. It’s almost like the perennial longings and hungers of the human heart haven’t changed. There’s nothing new under the sun. And so, I think that’s probably what I learned from Augustine. Augustine was maybe also kind of one of the therapists in my life who kept trying to get me to ask myself, “When you were chasing this, what are you really looking for?” Like when you want to win, when you want to be noticed, when you want to be envied, when you are propelled and driven to do all these things, what’s really going on under the surface there? And the reason why Augustine isn’t just pointing the finger at me, it’s actually he points the finger at himself. He does this soul work in his own life. And then you’re like, oh, these are uncomfortable questions. I need to grapple with them. But Augustine holds out a gracious hand to walk with you along the way.
Cherie Harder: You know, the questions that you have talked about Augustine posing in many of your works, not just your most recent, but your others as well. You’ve said repeatedly that the question that Augustine always says is the most important is rarely the one we ask. It’s not what do you do? Where are you from? Who are your folks? It’s the question: What do you love? Why is this the most important question?
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, there’s this great line. Lots of people who haven’t read Augustine have nonetheless probably heard this line from the very first paragraph of the Confessions where he says he’s praying to God and he says, “You have made us for yourself, [Oh Lord], and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” And in a way, almost everything about Augustine’s insight about our loves is caught there because what he’s saying is what really drives us, propels us, defines us, moves us, is not just what we think, or what we know, or even what we believe. It’s this energy of the heart. It comes down to: What are we longing for? What are we looking for? What do we love? And in that sense, under the surface of all kinds of claims that we make about ourselves, there can be a dissonance because we actually might be loving something other than what we’re saying. A lot of what Augustine testifies to in his life in the Confessions is this sense of dissonance in his life. He almost feels like he’s two people. He uses all these metaphors of feeling fragmented, and torn, and turbulent. I think a lot of us can identify with that because we experience this gap between maybe what we think we are about, and what we see in the corners, dark corners of our heart, we sometimes realize we might really be about. It’s that dynamic that I think is so insightful. And maybe I’ll just say this. Maybe that’s especially important and challenging for those of us who live in vocations, that our intellectual vocations too. Do you know what I mean? Like, we basically think we can think our way out of a problem, and we subtly probably fall into the trap of imagining we can think our way into salvation. And Augustine sort of upends that and testifies to that.
Cherie Harder: Well, let me ask you about that dissonance that you mentioned. I’m sure Augustine was probably more self-aware than many of us. But, you know, most of us have had the experience of having conflicted motives and priorities. And it’s a struggle to know what we ourselves want at times. How did Augustine and how did you on your road trip with Augustine kind of delve down into actually seeing clearly what you truly want, what you truly love?
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, we should say, I mean, it is important that for Augustine, this is not just self-help, because there is a sense in which what you’re really trying to do is open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable to the Spirit helping you see this about yourself. And I don’t mean that in any overly pious way. I just mean we actually can’t do this work on our own. And there’s a beautiful sense in which for Augustine getting to the point of hope, helplessness, is sort of the beginning. Like getting to the point of realizing you can’t fix yourself is the beginning of opening yourself up to Grace. There’s a great line from Augustine where he says the desire for grace is the beginning of grace which I think is really beautiful. Now, I think what Augustine would say is, by the grace of God, he’s able to undertake this. As you said, the metaphor before, one is he sort of buries down into the caverns of his soul, and God gives him the grace to start being honest with himself and realizing, Well, I thought I wanted to be this. I wanted to work in the emperor’s palace as a speechwriter. That was Augustine’s story. He thought if he could achieve that, he would achieve his end because he would get notoriety, and fame, and power, and things like that. And it turns out when he got all of those things, it didn’t work. So in some ways, it was the disappointment of getting exactly what he was chasing that opens him up to saying, I guess I didn’t want what I thought, and I was hoping for something else from that. I would say that was my own experience. That started to resonate with me again in really uncomfortable ways. This journey with Augustine is not always a party because he asks you unsettling questions. And I guess through my own life, I started to realize, let’s say you imagined you experienced different levels of success and achievement. You actually accomplish all these things you’re trying to get to. Then you get onto the top and you look around and you’re like, “That’s it? Why do I still feel sad? Why is this not sort of working?” And I think Augustine gave me permission to then ask myself, “What did I really want? What was behind this quest for accomplishment, this desire for success, this lust for attention?” And [he] helped me to see, well actually at the end of the day, it’s because I thought something finite and created could satisfy what only the Creator could. Now I’m talking too long Cherie, but I want to add just one or two more sentences to that, which is this. I will say the other liberating thing about journeying with Augustine in this respect is he is saying, Look, this didn’t just characterize me when I wasn’t a Christian. In other words, he’s very, very honest that this is still a besetting dynamic of the Christian life. I guess I find that honesty very inspiring because here is a bishop. Here’s a giant of the church’s spiritual tradition who will tell you he still has mixed motives. He still has a conflicted heart. And so, the goal isn’t us achieving our purity. It’s us confessing our dependence on the grace of God in the midst of that.
Cherie Harder: So, I am betting that we have a lot of people watching who are already intrigued with the idea of road tripping with Augustine. And I imagine we also have a few people who are feeling some internal pushback in that Augustine was not immune from the errors of his time. And one of the most obvious, and glaring, and off-putting was his view of women. He questioned whether women had souls, questioned whether they are, or just men were, made in the image of God. And so, what would you say to other women such as myself, who may have some reticence about entrusting their soul to a guide, to a guy who doesn’t believe they have one?
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, absolutely. You should bring that and put it right in Augustine’s face. One of the things I try to say in the book is, in a sense to be a faithful co-pilgrim with Augustine is not to just parrot Augustine, but it is in many ways to read Augustine against himself. And within the course of his lifetime, I would say he was trying to do that himself. And so, it’s interesting to follow the arc of his thinking across a lifetime and how much he has to undo of his own stuff, but he clearly never got there. The other thing, the theme I press in the book, too, is I don’t think he ever really comes around to what I would consider a biblical creation affirming view of sex, for example. And it tells you a lot about Augustine, which is, man, that’s the idol that stayed close. That’s one of the idols that stayed close. And so, the only way he could imagine avoiding it, was to stay a million miles away from even touching it. When it comes to his view of women, it’s very, very disheartening and unsurprising at the same time, given a lot of what was happening in the tradition. But then you can read Augustine, and you can sort of see the seeds of deconstructing him on this regard. This I would say is the biggest lesson I learned writing the book. The role that Monica, Augustine’s mother, plays in his story is ginormous. I mean, it’s just like Monica is almost a close second to God in this sort of agency of grace that she plays in his life. And that’s kind of the thread that I would pull to sort of unravel his own take on women to say actually embedded in what is a biblical vision and affirmation. You can see the seeds of it in how he portrays Monica.
Cherie Harder: So, I want to ask you a little bit about cultural liturgies. And then one of the things I love both about this book and your earlier book, You Are What You Love, is the element of how what we actually love is both reflected in but formed by what we repeatedly do. Our actions largely form our loves. You know, we’re in a time where people are actually sort of starting to form new habits, thinking about it. And at one point you propose—it’s a very interesting idea—doing a liturgical audit. What is a liturgical audit? Why should we think about them, and what does it reveal about who we are and what we love?
James K. A. Smith: You got the connection there exactly right. That the hypothesis here, the intuition, is that it’s not because of what we love, that we choose to do certain things. There are very, very significant ways in which what we love is the fruit of what we’ve been doing. Our loves, our forms, as habits that are ingrained on us because of the rhythms, and rituals, and routines that we give ourselves over to in our lives. So we have to take stock of that, and that’s what I mean by the liturgical audit where what you try to do is you hit the pause button on your everyday immersion, try to get some distance on your own everyday life, and to see the things you do as doing something to you. And you start to ask yourself, “Okay, what story is carried in this rhythm and ritual? What vision of the good life is tacitly enacted when I’m doing this over and over and over again?” You can do this, you can do a liturgical analysis of our shopping habits, our media consumption habits, and so on and so forth. The point isn’t withdrawal and like, stop doing that. It’s actually to give us eyes to see and to realize what’s at stake in our immersion. Then of course, part of Augustine’s answer, part of my own, would be and also to become much more intentional about adopting and deepening rhythms, rituals, liturgies in our lives that index us to God and God’s kingdom. This is why the church to me is the incubator for recalibrating the heart. In that sense, I think Augustine was really a progenitor for me in thinking about this way. When he analyzes the Roman Empire in his book The City of God, what he’s doing is he’s analyzing the rituals, not the statements, and I think that seems like a very good exercise for us today. It is interesting. I still think there’s a lot of work to be done on the ways are rhythms and rituals have changed in the pandemic. It’s funny, like just to take what seems like a trite example, but I would say as somebody who spends a lot of time traveling on airplanes in airports, I would say the rhythms and rituals of air of ‘frequent flyerdom’ are not neutral. There’s all kinds of loaded dynamics. And as you fly enough, and you start getting upgrades and all these kinds, and suddenly what I would realize is, these rituals are kind of teaching me that I’m important. I’m very important. I sit at the front, and it’s amazing. That is not good for the soul. It’s not good for my soul. You could probably withstand it. And so, there’s probably been a certain grace in that like for the last eight months, the devil hasn’t been able to reinforce that narrative in my life. Not that I don’t have all kinds of occasions for pride, but it is interesting to then think about what rituals can we be adopting in the seasons to be positive countermeasures.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’d love to hear you say more about exactly how it is that what we do affects what we love. You know, many of us may harbor pretensions that it really doesn’t matter. I do one thing. My mind is elsewhere. I am not affected by these things. How is it that we come to love what we habitually do, whether we choose it or not?
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, so think of our loves as habits, and as habits, they are these dispositions that are sort of inscribed in us at a largely unconscious level. It’s not that Augustine is a Freudian, but he actually has a deep, deep sense of the kind of unconscious power of the things we’re not thinking about. In that sense, what that would mean is, if I am sort of giving myself over and over again, say to a stadium ritual, let’s risk offending somebody— If I give myself over to a stadium ritual over and over and over again on Friday nights and Sundays and so on, and that enacts a powerful, visual, visceral story of like national power and military might. You can understand how we become nationalists, not because somebody convinced us of an ideology but because we have, in effect, habituated our loves by the ritual that we didn’t even know was a liturgy. Does that make sense? I also think this would be a conversation for another time, but I also think this is exactly how to think about the dynamics of racism, that racism isn’t just a set of beliefs and an ideology of views that we hold. It’s actually a set of litanies and liturgies and rituals that we—I would say white people—have subtly been immersed in that have trained us, that we are the center of the world, and you have to take stock of racism on that register, not just a set of beliefs.
Cherie Harder: Well, we’d love to have you back for that conversation because I think there’s a lot to unpack there. But before too long, we’re going to turn this over to audience questions. But the implications of what you’re saying is very interesting and that if we as individuals are affected by what we repeatedly do, presumably we as a people are also affected and shaped, informed by what we repeatedly do. I’m curious what political or civic liturgies you see as being particularly formative to twenty-first century American Christians.
James K. A. Smith: So, by the way, Augustine completely agrees with this. We’ve kind of been talking about the Confessions a lot, but in his later work, The City of God— which isn’t there a Trinity Forum reading from The City of God too that Eric Gregory did?
Cherie Harder: Yes, it was by Eric Gregory.
James K. A. Smith: I think it’s from book nineteen. And in book nineteen, Augustine says the definition of a people, a republic, a civitas is a multitude of rational agents united by the common objects of their loves. So, if you want to know the state of a political entity, a body politic, you also have to ask what they love. He says, how does a people come to love? By the rituals of the empire, by the rituals of that republic. And I think, where to start, right? I’m an immigrant to the United States, a citizen now for two years. I can’t do the mail-in because I really want the liturgical experience of my first vote for president in person. But, I’ll say many, I think outsiders, would come to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and would have an experience a bit like St. Paul on Mars Hill, where you go up to this Temple Mount, so to speak, and you look around and you say, “I see that you are very religious people.” The United States’ politics is fraught with a kind of religious fervor. And then I would say the disheartening and increasingly debilitating liturgies that we’ve built around this have been a polarization into our tribes, which have allowed us to silo into sort of tribal rhythms and rituals rather than common rhythms and rituals. It seems to me the loss of that, the possibility of more commonality—it’s one thing to criticize nationalism. That’s not the same as—I’m lamenting the loss of litanies that unite us in common. We have a lot of work to do, it seems, in that regard.
Cherie Harder: I want to ask one final question. I mean, we are cruising into a nasty election season, and it’s also the nineteenth anniversary of 9/11 when we saw the result of long stoked fires of hate. One of the terms that Augustine used that you talked quite a bit about in various books to describe disordered loves that often manifest themselves in a political or civic manner was libido dominandi, the desire to dominate. That’s certainly something you see increasingly in our own rhetoric. We talk about ‘owning the libs’ or the right. We talk about triggering our opposition. I mean, it’s language that’s very explicitly about either subjugation or causing distress. That language both reflects and presumably helps form what our future political and civic language would be. So as an Augustinian, what cure or at least mitigation do you see for the libido dominandi which seems to be distorting and corrupting our current civic practices?
James K. A. Smith: Such an important question. My thought is this: it’s interesting for Augustine. The most powerful antithesis to love for Augustine is not hate. It’s fear. You’ll often see him set up this antithesis between love. Perfect love casts out fear. I wonder if we would get a little further in understanding the disorder of our political life if we got past the surface symptom manifestation of hate, dug down into the fear, and asked where is that coming from? I think at that point, Augustine would say, maybe one of the things that’s happening is we are over-expecting from politics, per se. That is, I think Augustine, one of Augustine’s counsels to us is politics isn’t everything. It can never be the final thing, and the healthiest politics will come from recognizing its pen-ultimacy rather than treating it as ultimate. What I worry is, to be honest, in some ways, the more secularized our political life becomes, the more we are prone to imagine politics is all we’ve got, and then we over-expect and overinvest in it. Augustine would ask us to have hope beyond what we think we could achieve politically. Faith, hope, and love are all the great antidotes to fear, and that could be our prayer perhaps.
Cherie Harder: That’s a great note to end on. So, with the next half hour, we’re going to actually take questions from our viewers. I see that we have a bunch that have come in. And just as a reminder to our viewers, not only can you ask a question, you can also like a question, and that helps us give an indication of how popular a question will be. So, Jamie, this first question comes from Doug Bratt, who asked—
James K. A. Smith: Hey Doug! I know Doug.
Cherie Harder: —And Doug asked whether you think this pandemic is uncovering any new loves we might not have earlier recognized?
James K. A. Smith: What a fascinating question. I wonder how many people find—If there’s a certain dynamic of absence makes the heart grow fonder, I wonder if any of us have come to realize how much we love and long for community in ways that we probably took for granted. Of course, there’s all kinds of reasons. Talk about rampant individualism, but I wonder if this pandemic has been a season in which we have learned actually how much we are part of webs of relationship, and I would add embodied community. But I don’t know about you, and I really miss touch. I really miss hugging my friends, the holy kiss of church. There’s something very dehumanizing about not being able to do that, and I wonder if it’s made us more incarnate in that sense. It is a really interesting question to think about.
Cherie Harder: Elena Forsythe from Chicago asked, “Dr. Smith. I work for an architecture firm that designs churches. So, I’m curious, what would you say about how our environment, architecture, artifacts, etc. shape our loves? Does that kind of passive culture have as much of an impact on our discipleship as someone like me would like to think?”
James K. A. Smith: Absolutely, absolutely. We didn’t get to talk about this, but I would say the way to the heart is always through the body. That’s why the stories and liturgies that most affect us have this kind of visceral, kinetic quality about them. And so material environments do a lot to us which is, by the way, one reason to not build churches like malls. Okay, I said it, but because when people are in that material environment, they have been primed for consumption, which is not the way to encounter God. I do think there are multiple possibilities for how material environments can form us. So, it doesn’t turn into a narrow nostalgia for Gothic architecture, although my heart is strangely warmed in such spaces. But I just think it calls from us a kind of intentionality about creating our spaces. And I’ll even say for church planters who are meeting in school gymnasiums, that doesn’t mean you’re backed into a corner; you can’t do anything. I’ve seen people do really, really great creative things with the arts to create a wallpaper of worship experience that speaks to that formation. So, yes, that’s honoring our embodiment to take material environment seriously. That’s great.
Cherie Harder: So, Richard Miles asks, “Iconoclasm is in the air for many of us in today’s public square. How do we make the case for Augustine when the very concept of Western thought and culture is in jeopardy?”
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, so I think one of the ways I try to do this in On the Road with St. Augustine is to show the surprising way that someone like Augustine is actually under the surface of all kinds of twentieth century thinkers that people think au courant, do you know what I mean? So, Camus existentialism, Jacques Derrida, these kinds of—It’s so interesting when you scratch the surface of twentieth century questions, it turns out the people asking those questions were encountering Augustine. I guess that’s my one way of doing it. I don’t want to do it nostalgically. I don’t say to people, “You should read Augustine because he’s one of the great books,” which of course you can do. I just don’t want to make the case in that way. I want to say here is somebody who has read your postmodern mail, and he’s got enough distance on our culture that he might give us fresh eyes to see who we are. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why they still read Augustine as part of the curriculum at Columbia University. You know, there is an enduring perennialness. Look for openings like that.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So, Josh Kluth poses this question, “If the church is an incubator of our loves, what are Jaimie’s concern for a time when many of us are engaging in virtual church? And he does he have any recommendations for us at this time?”
James K. A. Smith: It’s hard, right? Can we all just be honest how hard it is, especially for someone like me who has a very strong sacramental theology in that I think God meets us in the stuff of the sacraments, and we have largely been reduced to being spectators of something in pandemic worship. That said, I think constructively there are still ways that even socially distanced worship can be intentional about pulling together communities, that we are still a communal gathering and that the rhythms of what we are doing when we are remotely connected to this thing can still be enacting the story of the gospel in a way that takes us through the disciplines of confession and assurance of pardon, that brings us the prayers of God’s people as a practice of lifting up the world and tuning our own eyes to be concerned about our neighbors. I do think that there’s a lot of the rhythm, the formative rhythms of Christian worship, that we can still try to enact. I’ll just be honest, I don’t know how others have found it, but there’s an exhaustion to it. There’s a certain Zoom fatigue to worshiping in this way, and I think we pray for a real grace and looking for more intimate communities to kind of sustain us in the meantime.
Cherie Harder: So, the next question comes from Scott Crosby. And he asks, “Our longings, i.e. the human heart, both for Christians and non-Christians, lead us to great discontent over things that are not as they ought to be, and we see that manifested today. What are the habits and practices we should cultivate as Christians in order to step into culture in redemptive ways, not for my benefit, but for general flourishing?”
James K. A. Smith: Good question Scott. Hi, Scott. Yes, I’m not sure if I’m on the same wavelength, but for me, the one practice that comes to mind is absolutely crucial is lament. Lament is one of those practices that the church’s hymn book called The Psalms teaches us. And what is lament? Lament is this paradoxical blend of naming what’s not supposed to be to God as if God is accountable for that, right? There’s an anger and a protest that characterizes lament that I think especially maybe those in evangelicalism have been a bit timid, like that’s inappropriate to say to God, in which case they obviously have not read the Psalms. If you read the Psalms, you’ll learn part of a faithful response is that anger and lament. And I think the church lamenting publicly can be a gift to wider society because here’s the difference. But lament isn’t just anger. It’s anger that then always has this cadence of hope that’s echoing in the back of it, and we act out of the hope. So, we lament, and protest, and work against the way it’s not supposed to be. And we work, and act, and build policy and build institutions with the hope of foretaste, of Shalom. I think pulling those things together, and I know Scott knows this, I will say I think the arts are a particularly powerful arena that holds those things together in certain ways.
Cherie Harder: If I remember correctly, I think you once lamented that there was not more lament in Augustine.
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, that’s true. It is the one piece of Augustine, another piece of Augustine that I find slightly frustrating is he has a little bit of a tendency to treat the problem of evil like philosophers do which is how can we figure this out? It’s in his sermons, however, when you see him pastorally caring for people who are facing this. You will see him enact the lament of the Psalms and the Cross as really the only possible way to give any sort of account of evil and injustice that both names the justice and hopes otherwise. So, yeah, that’s another place to deconstruct Augustine a little.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So, the next question comes from Mickey Jordan, and Mickey asks, “I have a worry about Augustine’s point about nothing finite can satisfy us when we are created for the infinite. If this is the case, what roles do relationships, enjoying God’s creation, traveling, reading fiction, etc. play? Are these things only meant to satisfy us insofar as they point to God, or can they satisfy us in and of themselves?”
James K. A. Smith: Great question. So yes, this is very important. It’s a dance for Augustine. The difference is—see now I want to go into teaching mode, and I want a chalkboard— but it’s not that things are bad. It’s not that finite objects are the problem, and you have to get past them. It’s if you cling onto them as if they are the only thing, the ultimate thing. So instead of grasping them and holding on to them and saying this finally will make me happy, what you do is you receive it open handedly as the good gift the Creator made it to be. And when you receive it open handedly, it’s not an idol. In fact, it becomes an icon through which we are pulled to enjoy God. And I think that dance is very, very important. It’s why Augustine is not like hate the world in order to love God. It’s if you love God, you can actually receive the gift of the world and all the gifts it includes for what it is and not the idol that sometimes we make it out to be. Yeah, that’s an inadequate answer. But in our time, that will have to do.
Cherie Harder: Michael Hall asks, he says, “I lead training efforts for youth ministry leaders. What general counsel would you offer to help youth ministry leaders, help parents in the church nurture or raise the next generation in a new way, not how it’s been stereotypically done over the last fifty years?”
James K. A. Smith: Somebody might be trying to bait me here, so I’ll say this, the first thing is multigenerational worship. Multigenerational worship. What I mean is one of the—trying to think of a kind adjective—One of the bad ideas of the last 30 years was the segmentation of the churches by age. Research, by the way, by Christian Smith at Notre Dame shows this too, that that is a debilitating strategy for building faith, enduring faith in young people. What they need to do is be immersed in a multigenerational community where they are seeing and needing mentors who are further down the road, and they see a sincere faith. Second thing I’ll say is this. Don’t be scared of young people’s questions. Don’t be scared to give them room to doubt because if you are, they know you’ve got something to hide. I think it’s really, really important to realize God is not scared of our questions. The Psalms are full of such questions. God takes that doubt and then responds in gracious ways. The last thing I’ll say is this instead of entertaining youth to try to keep them in the building, treat them seriously enough to invite them into the spiritual disciplines of the Christian tradition so that you’re not just making it fun. You’re not just entertaining them. You’re actually ingraining practices and disciplines, and they won’t like it. They don’t have to be excited about it. But don’t underestimate how much formation is going on even in resistance. And I say that as a parent too.
Cherie Harder: Great. So Fritz Heinzen asks, “What are your favorite writers on Augustine?”
James K. A. Smith: This is going to be a bit strange, but one of the people who really broke open Augustine for me was not a Christian commentator. It was Hannah Arendt, the great German émigré scholar who came out of Germany in the ’30s. And when she did her dissertation, surprisingly, this great analyst of totalitarianism and so on, she actually did her dissertation on St. Augustine and it was called Love in St. Augustine. And that reading of Augustine really broke open Augustine for me. I also want to make a plug for a friend named Gregory Lee, who’s working at Wheaton College right now, who’s doing some fascinating reading of Augustine on things like mass incarceration and things like that. Greg is also reading as this engaged intellectual who’s involved in the life of the church and the life of the world. So just a couple of suggestions.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So, the next question comes from Mariana Ciocca Alves Passos, and I hope I have not mangled your name Mariana. “What habits and rituals should Christians build to keep the Christian identity during a time like this when churches are restricted?”
James K. A. Smith: This is where, as I think I’ve told you before, I think the future of the faith is ancient. I think one of the most important moves for faithful Christianity in the twenty-first century is for us to remember the disciplines, habits, and practices that we forgot in modernity. So in that sense, if the difficulty of gathered worship feels like we’re losing that, I think something like the Liturgy of the Hours, the ancient spiritual disciplines that have been laid out by folks like Dallas Willard, and Richard Foster, and others. I think those are places to go as long as they don’t just turn into an individualist project. Look for little communities to be able to do that and to realize we don’t we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We mostly just have to remember practices that we’ve sort of forgotten, especially as Protestants, I would say.
Cherie Harder: It appears we have several questions wanting to pick up on your statements about cultural liturgies and racism. And so, I’ll sort of combine a question from Nick Buckner and Dan Abebayehu, and Dan asked, “Jamie, could you expand on your point on cultural liturgies as it relates to racism? What are those formative rituals or habits? What is the disordered love, and how does it speak to ongoing conversations about systemic racism?”
James K. A. Smith: So, you can think of this on different levels and different registers, so George Yancy, a philosopher who has done a lot of work on this has a book called Black Bodies White Gazes in which he, he is a phenomenologist like I am, and he has these really powerful analyses of the very subtle, unexplicit but tacit rhythms and rituals that characterize intimate spaces where white people have sort of learned that they own the room, if you know what I mean. I’m not doing a very good job. He has this one or he talks about an effect that he calls the elevator effect. Where he’ll say, I’m a black man, and I’m on an elevator by myself. And a white woman gets on with me. I see her clutch her purse. I see just the hint of movement in her shoulders of tension. And I realize if you ask, “Am I racist?” Of course, she’s going to say no, but the question is: has she been tacitly trained to have these perceptions of her neighbor? That’s part of the job. That’s not adequate, but it gives you some hint. If we thought of this on a macro scale of like policy level, now something like redlining and segregation in real estate or just even since redlining is quote unquote technically illegal now. I know my city is terribly segregated so that three blocks that way and four blocks that way, it’s another world. We just need to realize that to move and inhabit spaces in which our environments are still largely dictated by race and racial realities is doing something to me, whether or not I affirm it, accept it, believe it, but that’s almost irrelevant. The question is, what does it mean for me to move through these rituals and absorb it? Media portrayals of black Americans, right? What stories have I absorbed for fifty years based on media consumption? It’s that kind of level that I think we need to do a better job of taking stock of. Not that that will solve it. I just think that’s the beginning of people realizing if you only think of racism as an ideology, you can kind of comfort yourself and say, well, I don’t think that. And I’ll believe you. I’m sure that’s true. It doesn’t mean you haven’t absorbed a story on this unconscious level that you were living out in subtle ways that we haven’t taken stock of yet. Certainly, that’s what I know I need to grapple with in my own life.
Cherie Harder: Sadly, our time is rapidly ticking by, but we’ve had a lot of questions interested in some of your own personal cultural liturgies. So, I’m going to combine two different questions, one from Mariam Bell, who asked, “What new liturgies have you developed during COVID?” And one from Debby Comer who asked, “How have your personal habits changed since studying and writing about Augustine?”
James K. A. Smith: Let’s see. The one habit that’s probably happened during COVID is, I don’t want to brag about it, which is probably it’s happy hour more often which is not good. I’ll say I think one practice I’ve been thinking about a lot this year is Diana, my wife, Diana and I who you know, have a garden, an urban garden plot at a big community garden in the center of town. And this year because we can’t travel anywhere, it has been immaculate. And for us, gardening it is a liturgy, like it’s a practice because—and I would say it’s a practice of being attuned to the Creator because I’m subject to the creation in different ways. It’s an interestingly decentering experience because I know that I am not the sovereign Lord based on all the things I have to fight at the garden. Do you know what I mean? But it’s also been a great gift for us in terms of being a contemplative space and a shared space. It’s something we do together which has been important, but it’s also this beautiful cross-cultural section of our city where we are shaped, I think, in significant ways.
Cherie Harder: We’ll ask one more question from our viewers, this comes from an anonymous attendee who asks, “How does social media play into the love of unindividuated masses of humanity versus the person sitting across from us?” We can’t close out the session without discussing social media.
James K. A. Smith: I mean, isn’t it interesting the way we’ve had to grapple with technology in the pandemic? On the one hand, this is possible, and so we’re having meaningful conversations. I think part of what Augustine would analyze in the liturgies of social media is the way anonymity functions to allow us to ‘other’ human beings. Do you know what I mean? Like, there’s something about it, and then it creates a weird confidence in us that I think is almost always misplaced. So, that would be part of the analysis of it. The trick is how to learn to both love my neighbors who are approximate but realize that I’m embedded in webs of systems and structures that also make me obligated to people around the world. And that’s part of what we’re still working through, I think.
Cherie Harder: Jamie, thank you. This has been fascinating as well as thoroughly enjoyable. And in just a minute, I want to give Jamie the last word, but I also want to thank everybody for participating and to let you know that immediately after the conclusion of this online conversation, we’ll be sending you an online feedback form. And we’ll be grateful for your thoughts, your input. We use this to try to continually enhance and improve these online conversations to make them ever more richer and valuable to you. And, as a small token of our appreciation for your input and feedback with that feedback form, we will give you a free Trinity Forum reading download which you can use for the Trinity Forum reading of your choice. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not particularly recommend our Trinity Forum reading featuring selections from Augustine’s Confessions with an introduction by none other than our guest today, Jamie Smith. Jaimie’s mentioned several other readings that may be of interest as well, including Augustine’s selections from City of God, as well as Hannah Arendt selections from On Totalitarianism, so we hope that you will do that. In addition, for those of you who signed up to participate in our post-event discussion groups after this webinar is over, you can just exit the webinar as you normally would, and then click on the link sent to you this morning as a login to the new meeting. We’ll give everyone just a few minutes to gather before those discussions will get underway. We’ll also be sending around a video link tomorrow with the video from today’s online conversation, as well as some additional recommended readings and resources to help you go deeper to some of the topics discussed. We’d love for you to share this video with your friends and family members and to start discussions about some of the big questions raised here. I really hope that you will kind of spread the conversation, spread the love. Finally, we’d love for you to get involved and be a member of the Trinity Forum Society. Your membership in the Trinity Forum Society helps make events like this possible. There’s also a whole variety of benefits involved with being a member as well, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum readings, our daily list of curated reading recommendations, which we call, “What We are Reading”. And as a special bonus to anyone who joins today, the Trinity Forum Society, we will send you a signed copy of Jamie’s book On the Road with St. Augustine, so sign up. We would love to have you join us and love to have you be part of the community that makes these kind of conversations and reflection possible. Later this month, we will be hosting a fascinating and quite timely conversation with bestselling author, former AEI CEO and current Harvard Business School professor Arthur Brooks based on his book, Love Your Enemies, on the topic of redeeming a culture of contempt, certainly most timely. You won’t want to miss, and registration information should be available now in the chat function, where you can just go to that directly. Finally, I’d love to give the last word to Jamie to close us out.
James K. A. Smith: Yeah, let’s let Augustine have the last word. This is a marvelous picture from the end of Book Six of the Confessions. This is from Sarah Ruden’s new translation which is quite wonderful. “Oh, the twisted roads I walked. Woe to my outrageous soul that hoped for something better if it withdrew from you. The soul rolls back and forth onto its back, onto one side and then another, onto its stomach, and every surface is hard. And you are the only rest. But look, he says to God, You’re here 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.” That’s a grace-filled picture we can take with us. Godspeed, everyone.
Cherie Harder: It is indeed. Jamie, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you to all of you who have joined us today. Have a great weekend.