Published May 7, 2019
When David Brooks started writing his column in The New York Times more than a decade and a half ago, he became an instant star. Today, he’s one of America’s most influential columnists, insightful and elegant, able to catalyze debates on topics simply by writing about them. Yet anyone who has regularly read Brooks over the years—or, in my case, who knows and admires him—can see that his outlook has changed in some important ways.
It’s less Brooks’s politics that have changed—he still describes himself as a Burkean conservative—than his purpose as a writer. When he started out at the Times in 2003, Brooks told me recently, his primary goal was to “represent a Theodore Roosevelt, Whig Party Republicanism. It was a political purpose.” He still tries to do that, he says, but he believes our discussion is “over-politicized and under-moralized, and so we talk too much about every poll and not enough about how to feel gratitude, how to do forgiveness, how to do ritual. So I try to shift the public conversation a little over in the direction of moral and relational life.”
This shift in outlook is manifest most clearly in Brook’s new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. It’s not a book you might expect from the author of Bobos in Paradise. The book addresses the commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose, including family and spouse, vocation, and community. But I read it as, first and foremost, a memoir of a journey toward religious faith.
Brooks argues that life on the “first mountain”—the mountain of personal goals, worldly success, career ambitions, and traveling in the right social circles—is transitory and ultimately unsatisfying. Eventually, though, if you’re fortunate, you find yourself on the “second mountain,” one characterized by other-centeredness and self-giving. (Often, though not always, the path to the second mountain is marked by hardships and failures.)
Men and women who live on the first mountain may find happiness, but people living on the second mountain find something deeper—joy. (Brooks defines happiness as the victory and expansion of the self, while joy is found in transcending the self and serving others.) Brooks wrote this book not because he felt he had found joy, but because he wanted to study people who had. “I take the curriculum of other people’s knowledge and I pass it along,” he says in his introduction.
When he was young, according to Brooks, life was “a very intellectual thing, a material thing, and I just never had any sensation of anything that spiritual.” It was not that he was hostile to religion, he said, “but I grew up in a more or less secular world and its categories were my assumptions.”
As he got older, he experienced more of the vicissitudes of life. And the more attention he paid to people, the more he wrote about them, he realized “it didn’t make sense to me that they were just sacks of genetic material. It only made sense to me that they had souls. That some piece of them that had no material dimension, no size or shape but gave them infinite dignity, every single one of them. Once you start with the idea that each person has a soul, it’s an easy leap to [conclude] that there’s some connection there, there’s some flowing force.”
Once Brooks came to believe people had souls, “it definitely changed the human anthropology.” He began to see “various glimpses of another layer of life”—and among those layers he began to see and take seriously is religious faith.
When he was young, he told me, paraphrasing the poet and author Christian Wiman, “my mental categories were not adequate to reality as I experienced it.” But over time, his perspective shifted. “I went from a very clear nonbeliever to somebody who felt belief was good for others but it didn’t really particularly impact me and then, to a growing awareness which felt more like recognizing something that was latent in me, that I actually do have belief,” he said.
He describes his faith journey as “stories coming to truth.” He says “the Exodus story now seems like a true story, and I mean that in a spiritual way and not necessarily in a historical way.” He seems content to leave it to theologians to determine which genres apply to which Biblical accounts—historical narrative, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy and so forth. “But the formation of a people in the wilderness, that is a sort of elemental mythic pattern of life that seems to be woven into the universe.”
“Similarly,” he adds, “the scapegoat story [found in Leviticus 16] is woven into the fabric of reality. And then the scapegoat who forgives his tormentors and who dies for others”— represented in the person of Jesus—“it’s the best we can do to understand a moral reality of the universe.”
It strikes me that this is the quest Brooks is on: to better understand the moral reality of things and more fully align our lives to it. Religious faith is a way to help him and many of the rest of us do that, though even for the most faithful, their understanding of things is at best partial, their ability to see things limited, their perceptions colored by their experiences. We all see through a glass darkly.
Brooks’s own particular faith journey is what you might expect from a “border stalker,” a phrase the artist Makoto Fujimura uses to describe people who are perpetually on the line between different worlds. This disposition was undoubtedly reinforced by growing up in a secular Jewish home while attending an Episcopal school and, for many years, an Episcopal camp.
Brooks spent his childhood “in the crossroads between two great moral ecologies,” he writes. “But I didn’t grow up in a theology book; I grew up in the late-twentieth-century American version of Judaism, and the late-twentieth-century version of Christianity.” He adds, “I grew up either the most Christiany Jew on earth or the most Jewy Christian, a plight made survivable by the fact that I was certain God did not exist.”
Brooks describes himself these days as “a wandering Jew and a confused Christian.” He told me “Judaism seems more real to me than it ever did. On the other hand, celestial grandeur is found in the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes seem like a moral system that is pure goodness.” As he puts it in the book, “I can’t unread Matthew.”
When talking about what he hopes people will take away from his discussion of faith in the book, he said, “I guess to be open to this possibility.” Note well: to be open to the possibility of faith, not insistent on it. As he writes, “I don’t ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer, not a missionary. But I do ask you to believe you have a soul.”
“I wanted to make faith, and the journey towards faith, seem very ordinary,” Brooks told me. “There’s nothing super miraculous and there are no dramatic moments. There’s just a gradual suffusion, a gradual understanding.”
He says that, like a lot of people, he had to overcome thousands of years of institutional religion to get to where he is. He told me he was less persuaded by the people who were fervent believers than by the people who were periodic and doubting believers. (“Some people have really fervent conversion experiences and fervent present awareness of God,” he says. “That seems like a very genuine way to perceive God. It just doesn’t happen to be mine.”)
And, invoking the novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner, Brooks told me that “faith is change.” It’s here one moment and gone the next. “It’s ups and downs, and it’s always movements. It’s a continued journey of exploration.” And it’s a journey that has created in him new desires. “The temptations of worldliness are very strong,” Brooks acknowledged, “and I’m now glad I have another anchor.” Brooks added that in some respects he’s sadder than he was, in part because faith offers a much higher ideal that we’re sure to fall short of, and can make one more aware of the brokenness of the world and more attuned to the suffering and pain of others.
I concluded our interview by asking Brooks to describe grace, one of the most elusive theological concepts, and what it might have to offer the world. Grace is “unmerited love,” Brooks said. He then cited a passage from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.
Building on this sentiment, Brooks told me, “We have this amazing ability to care about each other and to love each other and love God in ways that are beyond any normal requirement. So we’re just made that way. And it is a gracious universe that gave us this capacity, and it seems to me it didn’t have to be that way.”
He’s realized over the years, Brooks told me, that as writers and conversationalists, “we don’t spend enough time on desire and where desire comes from.”
“We were implanted somehow with these very high and lofty desires,” Brooks said, “and across human history, those desires have almost always included the desire to meet God.” That, in a sense, is a form of grace. “The world is just much more enchanted than it needs to be,” he told me. “We’ve been given these gifts.”
And if the world was a more grace-filled place? “If you see other people as souls, it’s much harder to loathe groups of them. You realize we all stereotype to a degree, but you realize the wrongness of that.” He added, “In any encounter, if you treat the other person as an infinite soul, you’ll probably end up treating them the way you should be treating them.”
One of the striking things about The Second Mountain is how transparent Brooks is, sharing stories of people he’s encountered, his own struggles and doubts, his shifting perspectives, his time in the valley. In 2013, Brooks explains, his life was crashing; his marriage ended and he found himself “unplanted, lonely, humiliated, scattered.” In looking back, he says he prioritized time over people, productivity over relationships. Rather than keeping readers at a safe distance, he opens a door to his interior world.
Interestingly, he told me, “the first draft [of the book] didn’t have any of me in it.” But someone who was helping to research the book said, “You have to put yourself in this book.” Others made the same comment. “So I do it more than I anticipated,” he said. “In retrospect, it was the right call, because it’s a book about relationships and vulnerability, and if I’m not willing to be vulnerable as an author, there’s something hypocritical about it.”
“Of course I hesitated,” Brooks admitted to me, “because vulnerability is a painful thing to do in this culture, where there’s so much attack and counterattack, and you’re handing your enemies easy targets. But I figured I had no choice.”
Actually, Brooks did have a choice, which makes his decision to be transparent that much more impressive. Some of his critics have used his vulnerability against him, because cynics will do what cynics will do. For them, a person who decides to bring readers along on a translucent journey toward a more meaningful life—even one that is at times self-critical—is committing an unforgivable sin. So transparency doesn’t go over too well with everyone, especially when it is twinned to an authentic exploration of faith, including one that is unfolding and doesn’t fit into neat and tidy categories.
Certain orthodox Christians will be uneasy that Brooks voices doubt and is uncertain about the physical resurrection of Jesus. Certain people of the Jewish faith will be hurt because they believe he is leaving the Jewish fold. And certain progressives—particularly of the cynical and woke variety—won’t like the fact that he finds Jesus a more compelling figure than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
They each want Brooks to be more like them, to see the world just as they do. But Brooks will continue to politely decline. He has his own story to tell, his own life to live, his own experiences to share, his own heroes to introduce us to.
In reading this book, you have the sense you’re on a journey with a friend. The book speaks to deep human longings and to the particular challenges of our time—loneliness, alienation, social isolation, hyper-individualism. It helps that it does so with elegance, thoughtfulness, a personal touch and great integrity. And here’s my hunch: The Second Mountain will not only be widely read; it will change countless lives.