By Chip Prehn
David Brooks has taken his “conversion to faith” public. In The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019), his most autobiographical book to date, Brooks is movingly candid about his departing “atheism” for belief. In 2013, his marriage of twenty-seven years fell apart. The divorce sent Brooks wandering in a wilderness until God reached out to him by many different and sometimes unusual means. A beautiful story is unfolding. But this does not mean it will be the same old story.
A major theme of Second Mountain is that, while a person must suffer into wisdom, that suffering does not have to be borne alone. True enlightenment depends on human connections. Brooks’s “First Mountain” is our understandable drive to pursue professional and career needs, but, preoccupied with this first climb, we miss “the deeper and more elusive motivations that seek connection, fusion, service, and care” (298). Life on the First Mountain tends to make us selfish and, “by conceiving of ourselves mostly as autonomous selves, we’ve torn our society to shreds, opened up division and tribalism, come to worship individual status and self-sufficiency, and covered over what is most beautiful in each human heart and soul” (296). To help the republic toward “a cultural and relational revolution,” Brooks started an organization called “Weave” in 2018. Weave supports persons leading grassroots initiatives to increase community and cooperation in America. Brooks believes that no American should be forgotten.
Second Mountain shows that Brooks’s odyssey in faith will be complicated. But why shouldn’t a sincere conversion in twenty-first-century America be complicated or unconventional? We believers are confident that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, and that God has the power to bring good out of evil, but we must admit the Church in the western world is in crisis. Unchurched persons watching developments in the Church from the narthex, so to speak, are having their doubts about the integrity of Christianity itself. Feet-of-clay excuses for our failures, grotesque ecclesiastical exceptionalism, and the promise that most Christians are decent people don’t cut the mustard anymore. Not only Millennials but many other demographic groups find religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims, along with their religious institutions, suspect and often despicably out of touch with the good initiatives of rising influencers. So we can understand if a thoughtful American such as David Brooks refuses to take the easy leap into faith.
Another complication to Brooks’s conversion is that he has discovered Jesus and Judaism in the same moment of his life. He had an interesting childhood. Hailing from post-religious New York Jews who were yet proud of their ethnic heritage, David’s parents sent him to an Episcopal school and to an Episcopal summer camp in Connecticut. He spent fifteen summers at Incarnation Camp and was made a counselor when he was old enough. Brooks’s schooling was a process of Anglicization. His father was a professor of English literature and his mother loved Victorian England. The son writes of the Anglophilia in his family and among his kin.
The slogan was, “Think Yiddish, Act British.” Jews such as Isaiah Berlin, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Lionel Trilling glommed on to Dickens, Shakespeare, Burke, and Jane Austin. Jewish parents began giving their children English names in the hope that nobody would think their boys were Jewish: Norman, Irving, Milton, Sidney, and Lionel. It didn’t work; now everybody thinks those names are Jewish names (217).
Brooks writes that he is at once “more Jewish than ever before” (246) and a man who has truly experienced Christian grace (217, 232). Is it his calling to do something new and outrageous – to walk the borderland between Old and New Covenant communities and offer new insights about God, humanity, and the universe?
Brooks assumes that his own journey has been and should be arduous. He is determined not to fall prey to facile explanations of the spiritual, religious, and moral experiences he is having. His new-found faith cannot forsake reason or what he has learned through his education. He is happy to identify with those believers who yet struggle with their faith, who “wrestle with all the ridiculous unlikelihood of faith” (247). Hence Frederick Buechner is an important guide, along with St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, and the Orthodox rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993). Soloveitchik set out to bring very traditional Judaism into right relation with the best modern knowledge. This program Brooks can readily embrace.
It seems that the greatest influence on David Brooks is Anne Snyder, whom he married in 2017. Anne has an evangelical pedigree and a solid intellectual and academic background. She was prepared at Andover and earned the B.A. in philosophy from Wheaton in Illinois. While she is utterly charming and destined to be well liked as we get to know her, Anne Snyder is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. She is high energy and as circumspect as Penelope. Her Christian faith is critical and socially aware. She abhors triumphalism in the Church and believes the way the Church must seek partnerships to address massive challenges in our world. She neither hides nor excuses Christian hypocrisy or sanctimonious institutional meanness. She is a Beatrice to David Brooks’s Dante.
As Brooks gains more instruction in Christian faith and practice, his understanding of the great doctrines of sin, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and the Trinity will grow and deepen. The last doctrine will be useful to Brooks as he conceptualizes how human individuals can become one with others and an Other, without loss of personal identity. I look forward to seeing how Brooks will explain orthodox teachings to his public. His approach to the problem of the will is promising.
Faith and grace are not about losing agency. They are about strengthening and empowering agency while transforming it. When grace floods in, it gives us better things to desire and more power to desire them. When people talk about dying to self, they are really talking about dying to old desires and coming alive to a new and better set of desires (255).
I like David Brooks. I’ve been reading him for years. His conversion is important and interesting. As he progresses in his walk with the Lord, I don’t care too much if he changes his mind about some things. So did Churchill, Bush 41, and even Thomas Aquinas. Brooks is a thinker. Thinking about things means that you might change your view of a subject or an issue. Most true thinkers lose friends for their trouble, and Brooks has lost a lot of friends who associate religious faith with intellectual weakness. The political right wishes that Brooks would embrace their views more wholeheartedly. But Brooks has also gained many new friends, and we assume they will suffice.
Bishop Michael Marshall of Woolwich used to say that “the longest journey in the world is the one from the head to the heart.” Brooks is on this journey now, and what he has to say about it is important and fascinating. In his turning to God, Brooks appears to have discovered a doctrine that many long-time Christians should remember: that saving faith is not the result of a rational process but can be only a free gift of God’s Grace. I appreciate Brooks’s candor and admire his humility. I’m grateful for the way he’s taken old doctrines and given them new life. We should expect to find a theological solecism here and there. If in Second Mountain Brooks confesses that he’s having trouble with “the bodily resurrection” of Jesus, I only have to remember that “the Spirit listeth where it will.” St. Thomas doubted the resurrection before he could cry out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) And there is that important place in Matthew’s Gospel where St. Peter at last recognizes the true identity of Jesus. The Lord responds: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 16.17).
Chip Prehn is a director of the Living Church Foundation.