But the bots don’t always know how my life can change on a dime. It’s hard for them to calculate for real-time changes in the winds of fortune. They might not realize I’m not the person I was yesterday.
That’s when a real, live, human friend makes a difference.
Some friends and allies of President Trump — particularly some Christian friends of the president — might feel something in the air tonight, so to speak. A change in the wind. Vice President Pence might be suddenly interested in some reading he wouldn’t have guessed. What pastor Robert Jeffress needs to read tomorrow might not be a simple projection from his nightstand yesterday, stacked with “The Faith of Donald J. Trump” and Bible prophecies. Life comes at you fast.
I’m not talking about Paula White’s latest book, which several evangelical advisers to Trump, including Southern Baptist pastors and evangelist Franklin Graham, have been recently promoting. In the past, most of these men probably would never set foot in her church, which promotes a prosperity gospel that teaches faith can stimulate health and wealth. But the White House creates some strange algorithms.
Instead, I have simple a recommendation for all of these religious friends of the president. As the threads of Trump’s support are frayed by his self-preservation, they might find themselves newly interested in a classic: Saint Augustine’s “Confessions.”
Augustine, a fifth-century North African who went on to become of one of the giants of Western intellectual history and doctor of the church, once served as the emperor’s spin doctor. A provincial who climbed his way from Carthage to Rome, he finally caught the attention of the center of power (then located in Milan) who offered him the position he coveted: a post in the imperial court. In his “Confessions,” Pence and Jeffress might feel like he’s been reading their email. Like them, Augustine got a taste of that thrilling narcotic: proximity to political power.
But like all addictions, this drug offered diminishing returns. Doubts and worries start to plague Augustine, not least because he realized how fragile and fickle the emperor’s attention can be.
Around that time, like a divine algorithm, a friend from Africa visits Augustine, tells him a story and recommends a book. The story was about two other government officials who had been experiencing similar worries and doubts, wondering if their life’s ambition of proximity to power was all it was cracked up to be. Wandering in a garden outside the city walls, “when the emperor was detained by a circus spectacle” (shade thrown!), these friends came across a humble house that was home to some monks. On the shelf they discovered another classic, “The Life of Saint Anthony,” which painted the picture of a very different ambition. Augustine recounts the existential crisis that ensued. “What do we hope to achieve with all our labors?” they mused. “What is our aim in life? What is the motive of our service to the state? Can we hope for any higher office in the palace than to be Friends of the Emperor?”
In fact they had achieved that. But the realization dawns on them: “And in that position what is not fragile and full of dangers?” My hunch is the vice president and his court pastors might have an inkling of what they mean. Friendship with the emperor is fickle and fragile, especially when the emperor’s only thought is of himself. Let the reader understand.
But these imperial officials, who’ve achieved everything they hoped for, glimpsed a very different aspiration: “Whereas, if I wish to become God’s friend, in an instant I may become that now.”
The ambition of being friends of the emperor looks like the pinnacle of success — until the emperor looks elsewhere. To aspire to friendship with God, however, is an ambition for something you could never lose. It is to get attention from one who sees you and knows you — even your selfish ambition — and still loves you. It’s the exact opposite of fickle human attention, which is temporal and temperamental. It’s friendship with a king whose kingdom will never end.
The vice president and other Christian supporters of the president might want to put Augustine on the top of their to-read list. He might be one of the few friends left before long.
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. His latest book is “On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts” (Brazos, 2019).