Ambition is an arrow — and a wheel
Everyone’s life is an arrow on a taut string.
– Dr. James K.A. Smith
On Thursday October 3, 2019, Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work hosted theologian, philosopher, and author Dr. James K.A. Smith for an evening conversation on ambition and desire. Smith reminded attendees at his evening talk that we didn’t invent ambition. Long before we dreamed about who we wanted to be, he told the audience gathered in the auditorium of at Manhattan’s W83rd Street Ministry Center, before we began making moves to make our dreams real, before our failures confirmed our insecurities and our successes heightened them, there were people who sought to win at life, too. His point? We should learn from them.
“I want to commend to you a kind of axiom for the Christian life,” Smith opened. “As a general principle for spiritual growth and professional creativity, apprentice yourself to an ancient friend.” Why? “It debunks the snobbery that we are smarter than the ones who came before,” he explained. “To go back to these ancient sources who existed before CNN, before Trump, lets us know that we are on a continuum. It’s not about nostalgia, but about moving forward armed with the wisdom of the past.”
Having apprenticed himself to the titular subject of his newest book On the Road with Saint Augustine, Smith held up his 4th Century AD mentor as a way to understand what he called “the perennial challenge of ambition.” To do so he laid out the particulars of Augustine’s life.
Born to a Berber Christian mother and a Roman pagan father in a small province of the Roman Empire in what is present-day Algeria, Augustine had a personal experience with cultural hybridity. He attended university in Carthage, then took a job in Rome, and was later hired as a rhetor in the imperial court in Milan. “In other words,” Smith notes, “Augustine was a ‘Manhattanite’ fifteen centuries ago — he came to the city to make his mark.”
But at the height of his career, Augustine came to feel a cosmic “meh” about his achievements. If, as Augustine’s friend Pontitian (a fellow North African and officer in the imperial court) helped him to see, all of his labors had been about gaining friendship with the emperor, then the weight of his life’s work rested on the fragility and caprice of the emperor’s whim. Augustine began to question the point of his ambitions, specifically where, and to whom, they were pointing.
“I aspired to honors, money, marriage,” he wrote in his Confessions, “and you [God] laughed at me.”
The problem was not that Augustine was ambitious, Smith made clear.
“I’m not here to demonize ambition; I’m here to analyze it,” he said. “The opposite of ambition is not humility — it’s sloth, timidity, lack of courage. Playing it safe isn’t humble.” The direction of our ambition is the point, Smith emphasized.
If, as Smith paraphrased Augustine’s description, the point is to win and be seen winning, as Augustine put it, fulfillment will always elude us. Accolades and human attention weren’t built for eternity.
Smith recounted Augustine’s description of his existential crisis of ambition as the “bitterest difficulties,” adding, “This disappointment caused Augustine to set his sights on something eternal” — friendship with God. Augustine didn’t stop being ambitious, Smith makes clear, he changed the direction of his ambition.
“What is the arc of a life whose aspiration is to be a friend of God?” Smith asked.
“To be a friend of God is to attain something you can never lose.” He elaborated: “Human attention is both temporal and temperamental. God’s attention is not predicated on your performance. You don’t have to catch God’s notice with your display. God’s attention is a place where you can find rest.”
This said, Smith is careful to clarify that an ambition that points to God doesn’t mean instant divorce from the human desire to win the approval and attention of our emperors, personal and public. Nor does it mean abandonment of secular vocation for pastoral work unless you are specifically called to do so.
In theory, Christians know we are to humbly answer God’s call, but how do we actually do it? “What happened in Augustine’s life that enabled him to make this shift?” Pastor David Lee asked as he began the Q&A portion of the evening. Smith believes Augsustine’s answer would be “Learning to love God and pursue our vocations in this way takes practice.” He elaborated, “We have to embed ourselves in a community of practice because this isn’t just learning the right ideas or learning to think the right things about our work or our calling, it’s also about learning to love the right things and want the right things, and that’s really about the formation of spiritual habits.”
Emphasizing Augustine’s circle of mentors and peers, which included Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, Pontitian, the friend who helped Augustine question his aim for imperial praise, and Alipius, Augustine’s closest lifelong friend, Smith stressed, “Friendship is absolutely crucial and non-negotiable in Augustine’s vision of what a whole and full and meaningful life looks like.”
It’s also about confession, Smith asserts. “It’s important to not be afraid of the dark corners of your heart.”
He expounded, “In Augustine’s Confessions, Books I-IX are about his past; Book X, he is in the present, admitting his disordered loves, his ‘secular ambition.’ He admits ambition is still playing me because I want to be excellent. Excellence garners the praise of men. His conundrum, his Achilles heel, is the praise of men. He wants to do it for God, but he confesses, he’s doing it for both.”
So how do we navigate our fleshly ambition for human validation — especially in the age of “likes” — and our deeper desire for acceptance independent of our achievements or other calculations of social capital?
Smith thinks it’s about accepting the possibility of loss. “Faithful ambition is taking your gifts deadly serious — but open-handed so that loss doesn’t devastate you.”
“But how can we accept loss when we are called to be ‘deadly serious’ about our God-given gifts?” I asked when the Q&A opened up. “Augustine is not a prosperity preacher,” he answered, “In a broken and fallen world, we have to be prepared for the tragic. Learning to lament is vital to living in a world where the Kingdom is yet to come.”
The ambitions of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are powerful but not arrogant ... they are ambitious for us. Our friend Augustine would agree.
Our arrow may change direction, but God’s is always pointing at us.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a co-leader of the Redeemer CFW Writers Group
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