Evening Conversation with David Brooks
With Baylor University in Washington, we hosted an Evening Conversation on “The Second Mountain,” with New York Times columnist and author David Brooks. Brooks offers the fascinating argument that we are, paradoxically, most fulfilled, and even most ourselves, in the context of commitment to community, family, vocation, and faith. The Second Mountain is an examination of how putting commitment-making at the center of our lives can repair the social fabric of our communities and ourselves.
Transcript of our Evening Conversation with David Brooks
Cherie Harder: It’s often said that the big questions of life can essentially be distilled down to three: What is a good person? What is the good life? And what is a just society? And I think I can say that in all the Evening Conversations we have hosted, it is hard to think of a work that more directly or unflinchingly wrestles with that second point as to what makes a good life than the work that we have gathered here tonight to discuss.
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life makes the provocative claim that our public conversation is both muddled and misguided in its definition of the good life. In a society that prizes achievement, acquisition, attainment, and self-expression, our increasingly ingrained, if often unexamined, assumption [is] that a good life lies in individual self-fulfillment.
Ultimately it is a deeply counter-cultural, hopeful, and inspiring argument, and it’s hard to imagine a writer or thinker who can make it with the wisdom, winsomness, or wry wit as our speaker this evening, David Brooks. While David needs no introduction, he will get one anyway. David serves as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, and he leads the new Weave Initiative at the Aspen Institute, which is focused on reducing civic fragmentation and building community, as well as serving as a commentator on the PBS News Hour, NPR’s All Things Considered, and NBC’s Meet the Press. He previously served as a police reporter for the City News Bureau, a writer for the Washington Times, and a book review editor, reporter, and occasional movie critic and later op-ed editor at the Wall Street Journal, as well as a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a contributing editor for Atlantic.
In addition to this frenzied writing schedule, David Brooks also teaches at Yale University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. David, welcome.
David Brooks: Thank you, Cherie. It’s good to be here. It’s good to be home here. This is one of my homes, and it’s good to be here with every book and even between books. Now, this book came out in early April and I’ve been speaking about it almost every night. And I have an awesome book speech that if you heard it, you would love it; I guarantee you. You’re not going to hear it though, because I’m not going to give you my normal speech. I want to give a speech that’s really dovetailed to the Trinity Forum. So this will be a little more ragged, but hopefully at least a little raw and hopefully meaningful. Normally I talk about sociology and where our country is and a bit about moral formation, but I thought I’d talk tonight about spiritual formation.
And I’m going to talk about the person I know best, which is me. But I hope I’ll read enough quotes and enough bits of wisdom from other people that I hope it’ll be generalizable and useful for everyone. One of my favorite quotes about writers is “we are beggars who tell other beggars where we found bread.” And so I found some bread in some books and I’m sharing it with you. And so I’m going to quote from a lot of people.
Now what’s interesting about spiritual formation is how it differs from our public life sometimes. And I’ll first tell you the very familiar story I often tell about my public life and what that looked like. And then I’m going to tell you the story about the spiritual life. So the public life is very quick and easy to tell, and it’s a very simple story. It’s a story of unbelievable luck and trajectory.
When I was seven, I read a book called Paddington the Bear, and I decided I wanted to become a writer. And then in high school I wanted to date a woman named Bernice. She didn’t want to date me. She wanted to date some other guy. And I remember thinking, “What is she thinking? I write way better than that guy.” So those were my values.
And then when I was 18, the admissions officers at Columbia, Wesleyan, and Brown decided I should go to the University of Chicago. And that was also writerly, very neck-up kind of place. My favorite thing about Chicago: it’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas. So that was my school. I worked hard; I was cerebral at Chicago. I was a double major in history and celibacy while I was there. And then I had the big break happen to me. It was senior year. I wrote a mean parody of William F. Buckley. He came to campus; it was like Yale Buckley formed two magazines, one called the National Buckley, one called the Buckley Review, which he merged to form the Buckley Buckley. It was that kind of thing. And he came to campus and he gave a speech to the student body, and at the end of it, he said, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I want to give you a job.” And that was the big break of my career.
Now, sadly I wasn’t in the audience. And I was literally out— I had been hired by PBS to debate Milton Friedman on PBS, and it was “Milton talks to college students.” And I was a socialist. And if you YouTube “David Brooks, Milton Friedman” you’ll see a 21-year-old me with this big Jew-fro and these 1980s, gigantic glasses, which were apparently on loan from the Mount Palomar Lunar Observatory. And I’m debating him and he is decimating me. And so most of the debate is me sitting with my mouth hanging open and trying to think of something to say. But I later called up Buckley. He served as my mentor. He sent me off to the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I got to work for the first time with Midwesterners, and as a New York Jew this was uncomfortable for me because they were very comfortable with silence. And so they would sit there staring at the wall, these farm boys from Indiana, Ohio. It was like going to an open-casket funeral with 12 bodies. And as the New York Jew, I would sit there and say, “I will not break this silence, I will not break this.” Then I get a job at the New York Times, succeeding Bill Sapphire as a conservative columnist there.
And my joke is that being a conservative columnist at the time, it was like being the chief rabbi in Mecca. It’s not a lot of company there. And then I get this job at the New Hour with Mark Shields and Jim Lehrer. And I often say we catered to a certain seasoned youth, a certain demographic. So if a 93-year-old lady comes up to me in the airport, I know what she’s going to say: “I don’t watch your show, but my mother loves it.” And so that’s one part of my life.
And then I have this other life where I write books, and as I read a lot of books and I write a lot of books, my tastes have gotten more sensitive, a little more feminine, as I’ve gotten older. I’m the only American man who finished that book Eat, Pray, Love, if you remember that book. And then I wrote this book on character called The Road to Character. And I learned writing a book on character doesn’t give you good character. Even reading a book on character, doesn’t give you good character, but buying a book on character does give you character; I’d recommend that.
So that’s the external life and it’s pretty straightforward. And I tell it all the time and it’s very familiar. The internal and spiritual life is very different and much more complicated. So, as I mentioned, I grew up in a Jewish home in New York. And if you grew up in a Jewish home, you’re raised on a story. And all of us are raised in stories. Alistair Macintyre wrote, “What am I to do if I cannot answer the prior question of what story do I find myself a part?” And if you’re a Jew, you’re part of a story. And that story is the Exodus story. And Jews have been telling this story for thousands of years. And, in fact, God commands Moses to enact the Exodus in order to be told; it’s a thing that was done in order to be told. And then Jews living into the story, both in Jerusalem, fleeing Jerusalem, coming to America, and then going back to Israel, they lived out the Exodus story.
Rabbi Cook, when Israel was founded, said, “With a penetrating consciousness, we come to realize the essential events of the Exodus is one that never ceases at all. Jews make it true by living it out as true.” And it’s a story of spiritual formation. Rabbi Sacks points out that in Genesis, the creation of the universe is covered in nine verses. In Exodus, the creation of the tabernacle is like 300 verses. Why is there so much more time to the tabernacle than the universe? It’s because the community is a group of people who build something together. The Israelites needed to be taught how to build something together, to render them into a people. And so he needed a people capable of upholding his covenant. And so he had to create that. This was the people who wanted to crawl back into slavery. This was a leader, Moses, who wants to deny the fact that he could be a leader. It’s interesting that, at the exact moment that Moses descends from Sinai, the people are acting like children and worshiping a golden calf.
And Avivah Zornberg, who’s a very brilliant writer, says, “That’s a reminder that the passage into adulthood and the leap of faith doesn’t happen when you’re ready to make it. It happens when you’re not quite ready. The leap is made by one who was hurried, troubled, a little nervous, but still ecstatic and overwhelmed.” And so it’s a lesson to rush into things.
And so I was raised in that tradition. My ancestors fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe. And they came to America. My grandfather opened up a kosher butcher shop, and we were a story of typical upward mobility. My grandfather, a lawyer, my mom and dad, professors. And I’m the first downward slide. But my grandfather spent his day in a law firm in lower Manhattan writing letters to the editor of the New York Times dreaming to get published in there. And he didn’t [live to] see me get published there, but he would have been the first call. And so that was part of our story, that we were Exodus.
And so that was one story rattling around in my head, and it captures the core of the Jewish experience, which is movement toward formation, toward the land of milk and honey, but also achievement. It’s moving up and it’s being aggressive. My classic, my favorite, Jewish experience is the Shabbat dinner table. I often say every church service I go to is more spiritual than every synagogue service, but most Shabbat dinners are more spiritual than most church services. And the great thing I love about a Shabbat dinner table, it’s 18 people sitting around a table, all of them talking, and all of them also listening to the 17 wrong things that have just been said by other people and correcting them.
So that was one story I grew up with. But I weirdly grew up with another story. And that was the story of Jesus. There was a way to get into American society if you were a Jew [and] that was to become extremely Anglophilic. That seemed classy. And so the phrase in my culture was “Think Yiddish, act British.” And so all these Jewish families gave their boys English names, so nobody would ever know they were Jewish, and they were names like Sydney, Norman, Irving, Milton. And within 30 years, people just thought they were Jewish names, so it didn’t work.
But I grew up in that culture. My parents were scholars of Victorian England, and they sent me to my preschool was St George’s. My elementary school was Grace Church school. The camp where I went for 15 years was Incarnation Camp, all Episcopalian. And so I grew up with a different sense. And sitting in that church every morning, singing in the choir at Grace—it’s a beautiful church near The Strand Bookstore at 10th and Broadway. It’s a beautiful Gothic; the Lord announces himself on the facade. Then you walk through and you see the chapels and the mysteries come at you. And then you’re up in the apse and the transept and sort of illumination floods you in. You’re living a fairytale when you’re a kid in a Gothic church.
And I sang in the choir and in my memory—this may not be true, but I tell it as a joke—that the choir, we were about 40% Jewish in the choir. It’s New York. And so to square with our religion, we wouldn’t sing the word Jesus. And so the volume would sort of drop down and then come back up.
And the Jesus story is also a story, if you’re a kid, it’s a pretty familiar story. The city is riven by disagreement. There’s only one way to purge the anger and that’s to find a scapegoat, and the different, weird thing about the Jesus story is that he actually volunteers for the job and redeems the sins of those doing the sin, which is an interesting twist on the story, but it’s a familiar story.
And so I grew up with that story. And so two stories [were] rattling in my brain as a child. The Jewish story is very familiar to me. The Catholic or Christian story had an ability to shock. Because we were immigrants, we’re Exodus, we’re moving. In the Christian story, the poor are closer to God, the meek are blessed, the leper, the wounded, those who bear pain, are closer. And that’s an inverse logic that was not in my culture and not in American culture. It’s super radical. Jesus bows down in order to rise up. He died, so others might live. Christians are not saved by works, but mostly by faith.
And what I was confronted with was not only two stories, but two versions of goodness. The Jewish form of goodness that surrounded me was hased, was lovingkindness, a Bubby bringing people into our home, the way in Israel all of Israel pivots, no matter their divisions, when one is killed, and they all feel part of one thing. And that’s hased, lovingkindness. The Christian story of serenity and grace had the ability to shock me.
At this camp, there was a guy named Wes Wuebbenhorst who was my counselor and colleague, who was a man later in life who’d become an Episcopal priest and worked with the poor in Honduras and victims of domestic violence. He was a holy child. His voice was all intonation and pop and whistles, and he was excited about everything. His voice somehow never grew up, no matter how deep the sadness that he sometimes inherited was. And he was just a man for others. And always forgiving, always grateful, always good. And so there was a cheerful, pure overflowing joy that came out of the gift of love that flew out of Wes and it had the power to inspire as it has the power to inspire others.
And so I was used to Jewish good. Christian good surprised me. As Dorothy Day once said, “Christians are commanded to live in a way that doesn’t make sense unless God exists.” And so it is shocking. And it’s shocking today, even now. We were all mourning the passing of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities. I was told that he could be difficult to be around because he was so good. And because he really appreciated the power of weakness, he wrote, “Weakness carries within it a secret power. The care and the trust that flow from weakness can open up the heart. The one who is weaker can call forth powerful love of the one who is stronger.” If you saw that Fred Rogers musical, Rogers meets this boy in a wheelchair and asks the boy to pray for him, and a writer who’s with him says that was so clever, you asked the boy to pray for you when normally you would pray for him. And Rogers told the writer, “No, what he suffered, he’s much closer to God than I am. I need his intercession.” And so there’s that capacity to shock.
I am thinking of L’Arche. I was thinking about my favorite Henri Nouwen story. After Nouwen was at L’Arche he came to speak, [was] invited to speak around the country. And one day he was invited to speak at Crystal City here in northern Virginia. And when he would come, he would bring one of the men from the community who were mentally disabled. And this time he brought a guy named Bill. And when Nouwen mounted the stage to give his speech, Bill also mounted the stage. And when Nouwen did a familiar part of his speech, Bill would tell the audience, “I’ve heard that before.” And when Nouwen was done, he got a standing ovation, and then Bill said, “I would also like to speak,” and a bit of panic crept across Nouwen’s mind. What is Bill going to say? And so what Bill said is this: “Last time when Henri went to Boston, he took John Smelter with him. This time he wanted me to come with him to Washington. I am very glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.” And that was it. And he got a standing ovation. And then Bill went after the speech and worked the room, shaking everybody’s hands, you know, pressing the flesh with everybody. And then the next morning in the breakfast room, where the conference was, Bill walked around and said goodbye to everybody. And as they were leaving, they were flying home, Bill asked Nouwen if he liked the trip. And Nouwen said, “Oh yes, it was a wonderful trip. I’m so glad you came here with me.” And Bill said, “And we did it together, didn’t we?” And at those words Nouwen thought of Jesus’ words: “Where two or three meet in my name, I am among them.” That’s a beauty.
And so I lived with these two stories and these two forms of goodness rattling around in my mind. And I became what a lot of our friend, a guy named Mako Fujimura, calls a border stalker. Richard Rohr has this great concept: “on the edge of inside.” People are within a group, but sort of on the edge. And so I guess I was a border stalker between these two things, which didn’t really matter because I didn’t believe in God anyway, so it was just like two rival philosophies. And so I went through that through adulthood.
Occasionally— And I kept a kosher home. I lived organizationally Jewish, but not faithfully. But occasionally Christianity would come into life. So Michael Cromartie— I overheard the name at some event, this name “John Stott.” And I never heard of the guy before, so I called up Cromartie, and I said, who’s this guy, John Stott? And Cromartie told me, well, if evangelicals had a Pope, it would be Stott. And so I did a little Google search in the New York Times. Stott’s name had not been mentioned in New York Times since 1954 or just one of a list. So I wrote a column called “Who is John Stott?”, and I just read his book and—his many books—and the bluntness with which he confronted Jesus was sort of shocking and powerful.
At one point, he wrote, “I’m here because of you.” And this is Jesus speaking. “It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying. No thing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross, all of us who have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we visit a place called Calvary.”
And so I found him a very attractive person. And I wrote this column and it had a little effect, and he came to Washington years later, or maybe months later, and he invited me out to lunch, and I’ve since learned from a friend, Mark Labberton, that he thought a lot about this lunch. And I of course was going thinking we’ll talk about John Stott, but he just hammered me with, where am I in my faith journey? What are you doing? And these were questions I could not answer and did not want to answer and was not able to answer. So that was a crack.
And then we wrote a book, The Road to Character, and Saint Augustine appears, this magical character, the most brilliant mind I’ve ever encountered in any form. And then we wrote about Dorothy Day, and Dorothy Day had a devotion to her faith that lived out in poverty, which is simply inspiring. I assigned her book, The Long Loneliness, to my class at Yale. And at the end of the class, I told [them] you can pick any of the 14 books I’ve read and write about it and apply it to your own life. Very secular Yale class, 24 kids. Nineteen of them chose Dorothy Day’s Long Loneliness. Because her life is such a model and there are moments of beauty that sort of seep in. At the end of her life, she was asked by Harvard’s Robert Coles, “Did you ever think of writing a memoir?” She’s a beautiful writer; it would’ve made sense. And she said, yeah, I did. I sat down one day and I got a blank piece of paper and I wrote on the top of it “a life remembered.” And then she said, “I just sat there and thought of our Lord and his visit to us all those centuries ago. And I said to myself that my great, good luck was I’ve had him on my mind for all that time.” And she didn’t need to write anything. And there’s a tranquility in that, which is very alluring and very arresting.
And so I would say in those days, by then, by the 2000s, I was like a typical neo-con. I supported faith for other people. I thought it was good for society. And my heroes were, you know, [inaudible] and Kristol and [inaudible] is definitely in that camp.
Then life sort of kicks you in the rear. And I went through a dark time in 2013. And my marriage had ended, my kids were leaving home. Some of you are conservatives, but my kind of conservatism was not the prevailing kind of conservatism anymore. I sort of just drifted out of those circles.
And so there was a time of great loneliness, and I did what any idiot does faced with a spiritual or emotional problem. He tries to work through it just by covering it over with workaholism. And so if you went to my apartment on Wisconsin Avenue and you pulled the drawer where there should have been silverware, there was just post-it notes. And where there should have been plates, there were stationary. And I was just trying to work my way through the problem. And then, Jesus floated through the wall of my apartment and said, “Come follow me.” No, I’m kidding that never happened. But the world did become a little more porous.
There was one—I was on the subway at Penn station on 33rd street in New York, the most spiritually uplifting spot on the face of the earth. And suddenly I had a sensation, which I’ve since read in another person’s book whose name I’ve now forgotten, that the realization that all the people trudging through these tunnels around me had souls. And that they were souls degrading or lifting. They souls were striving, yearning, sick souls. And I thought, well, my job is to write about people. I’m not going to spend my life writing about people if they’re just sacks of genetic material. It only makes sense to think of them as souls. And now I say to my audiences, you don’t have to believe in God to believe in soul. I just ask you to believe that there’s some piece of you that has no size, shape, color, or weight. It is of infinite value and dignity. And that we all have that.
Our souls give us our moral responsibility. A tiger’s not morally responsible, but we’re morally responsible. A soul gives us our equality. We’re not equal in brain power. We’re not equal in income. We’re not equal in strength, but our souls are all equal and that’s why human beings are equal. And souls explain our yearning, our yearning for goodness, which all human beings have. And so I began to see that there’s not only the play that we cover in the newspaper, but there’s sort of an underplay, and there’s a different way of seeing the world. Rabbi Heschel says that awe is not an emotion. It’s a way of understanding. He writes, “Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.” And so when you think of souls, you’re naturally struck with awe.
And then, a few months after that, I had an experience in Aspen, where I go to get in touch with America. And I had walked up to this lake, this mountain lake, and I had brought a bunch of Puritan prayers, and I got to this lake and I started reading them. And the first prayer I came on in the book was called “The Valley of Vision.” The first line is “Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly.” And so I looked around at [the] majestic beauty of the mountain peaks, and then a little brown, like, badger-type creature crawled right up to my sneakers.
So I thought, “Oh, high and holy, meek and lowly. Thou hast brought me into the Valley of Vision.” And I was in a bowl shape by the mountain top. “Where I live in the depths, but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin, I behold thy glory.” And then the poem goes on with the whole series of inversions. The broken heart is the healed heart. The contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit. The repenting soul is the victorious soul. Life in my death, joy in my sorrow, grace in my sins, riches in my poverty, glory in my valley. And I just had a sensation of things clicking into place like the closing of a Mercedes door. Like, it’s just like a nice click. And it was not a sensation that necessarily one religion or another, but a sensation that we live in a created world, and there’s a moral order to it.
And I sort of now study these transcendental experiences. Mine was extremely meager, but the one that resonates most is in Jaber Crow, the Wendell Berry novel. The guy, the hero, is walking through basically a hurricane across a bridge. And the earth is a torrent and he writes, “And I knew that the spirit that had gone forth to shape the world and make it live was still alive in it. I just had no doubt. I could see that I lived in a created world that was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it, sometimes lying at rest, sometimes standing up and shaking itself, like a muddy horse, and letting the pieces fly.” And so I began to study and learn about mystical experiences, the times when life seems a little porous.
And there’s a great one—I don’t have time to read it—from Vaclav Havel, Anwar Sadat, all these people, a lot in prison. Victor Frankel, also in prison. When it gets sense that the angels are singing with glory. And a lot of my atheist friends have never had that sense. About 75% of Americans say they’ve had a sense of touching something transcendent. But a lot of my friends say, no, this is the world right here. And Chris Wyman, my friend the poet, says to them, “Really? You’ve never felt overwhelmed by, and in some sense inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in your life staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through the words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made up of these moments. Religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than a merely radical intrusion, so foreign and perhaps even fearsome to you that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterwards. Religion is what you do with these moments of overmastery in your life.”
And so one of my struggles through faith was thinking that you had to believe all the time. And reading Wyman was permission to not believe all the time. I’ll get back to that. He says the odd thing about these moments, this is Wyman: “It is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we’d not perceived before, but it is as if we ourselves are being perceived.” And so that’s a shift and a shift in mentality. And I would not say it was a religious conversion. Didn’t feel like that. It felt like a religious deepening, the stories suddenly coming into life.
And suddenly being real stories, and both stories becoming real stories. And maybe the soul story, the soul underneath, is the real story and not the first surface story we tell. And of course that is more awe. Rabbi Heschel writes, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of religious man’s attitude toward humanity and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted.” And so I was sort of overstruck by awe, by just deeper levels of reality.
That’s still reasonably unformed. I didn’t take this journey alone. I threw myself on a lot of people. I came to Trinity Forum events. A lot of people— there’s a friend of ours, Jerry Root, who flew in from Chicago. Christians were all over me. I got about 300 or 400 books given to me in this period. Only about 250 were different copies of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. And one of the people was Anne. And we were working on Road to Character, we were sending these memos, and I was trying to understand Dorothy Day and St. Augustine. And the thing I couldn’t understand was grace. Sometimes I think I experienced grace before God, but it was still, it was very challenging because growing up in American culture, we earn it. We earn everything we get, and people like us because we’re successful. It was hard to understand that and hard to give away agency, and it remains hard to me now. And I was— we were writing these memos and I was like, writing Dan, “You know, I think I will have participatory grace where God meets me and then I meet him halfway.” Which is sort of not unrelated to the Jewish notion of co-creation that people and God co-create the world.
And I was still struggling with that. And Anne wrote me a bunch of emails and texts and memos for this book and sort of giving me the radical notions that were all unfamiliar to me. One of her emails was, “I want to reiterate that, yes, grace is the central thing. Christ offers. But that is the doorway and it is to know him. I see lots of emphasis on striving in your note, and I appreciate its antidote to cheap grace. But the foundational fact is you cannot earn your way into a state of grace. This denies grace’s power and subverts its very definition. Grace must reach out to the broken and the undeserving. It must reach out to those recognizing plainly, vulnerably, their own need and emptiness. It can only find welcoming those sitting still.” And that is kind of a radical notion if you’ve grown up in the meritocracy, which I had.
And so all these things sort of happened over a period of months. Anne moved away to Houston because she thought it was so beautiful, apparently, lived there for three or four years. And gradually things happened. And there was never a blinding moment where I said, “Oh, I’m a believer.” The metaphor I use—and I think I got it from somebody, but I don’t remember where I got it—this was over 2013, 2014, 2015— is imagine you’re sitting in a train and you’re staring at your phone. There are people sitting next to you. There’s people across and everything seems normal. Nothing seems to be moving. You’re just all there together. And you look out the window and it occurs to you with no great surprise, but simply an obvious recognition of what’s obvious, that you’ve traveled a long way and that you’ve crossed over some invisible border between being an atheist and a secular person to being a believer. And what strikes you is not what’s up ahead, which is a complete mystery, but how much ground there is behind and that you can’t go back there and you’re not going to go back there.
And so I sort of had that realization of crossing over the border, and I now feel more Jewish than I ever did in my life because the Exodus story is actually a covenantal story. But I can’t unread Matthew. My favorite quote about Matthew is from the Catholic intellectual Romano Guardini: “In the Beatitudes, something of the celestial grandeur breaks through. There are no mere formulas for superior ethics, but tidings of a sacred and supreme reality’s entry into the world.” And if there’s a God of love, then that seems to me the purest expression of it.
And the final thing is to get permission to acknowledge the change. And I admit that a lot of time in the Catholic and the Christian world, I feel I don’t resonate with the way it’s at least described. It’s like people say, you know, “I spoke to God about what I should get: the cheeseburger or the sandwich. He wanted me to get the salmon.” And I’ve become an admirer just of a few people who acknowledge the change and the differences of it. One of them is Wyman. One of them is Fred Buechner. He says, “Faith is change. It’s here one moment, gone the next.” It’s exactly for the time and space that I would describe faith as. Faith is change.
And I don’t want to use my doubt as a badge of honor to show I’m more sophisticated. But I do think it’s comfortable for me to be around people like that. Wyman again, “Lord, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world, directly, immediately, yet I want nothing more. Indeed so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flowers mourners make beside a grave. I do not know. In the bare abundance of a winter tree every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that scene.”
And so it’s people who acknowledge the mystery. One of my favorite quotes is from Buechner. He says, you should wake up every morning and say, can I believe it all again today? And especially if you wait, he says, read the New York Times and then say, can I believe it all again today? And I think he meant it, like, should I see the day’s news? But as somebody who works for the New York Times, it was like, if anything is going to cause you doubt. And then he says, “If your answer to that question of belief is Yes, every single day, then you probably don’t know what believing in God really means. At least five times out of ten, the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and great laughter.”
And so commitment to faith is persistence in faith in doubt, through suffering and anxiety and through disillusion. Richard Rohr says, “The church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore and frequent bride.” And so I think that’s how inner transformation happens. It happens as a slow surrender to something and a slow sense of being overwhelmed. A sense of astonished reverence that just won’t go away.
So I wrote this in the book and it’s been interesting over the last few weeks to sort of go public with it. And I was always nervous about it. And I have to say my Jewish friends have been great. They probably think it’s a temporary madness that will pass. Some people have been hostile, but that’s fine. You know, atheist religion, you’re sort of used to that argument. The hardest part has been people who may be sympathetic, but treat it like it’s politics. The expression of faith is so internal and so mysterious and so changeable and so awe-some that it has to be handled with a certain spirituality and depth.
And occasionally— Well, one time I gave an interview to the Washington Post, to be honest, a religion writer there. And I was ready to really talk about it because I thought she would have some background though—to induce a certain humility. But it was treated as if it was— the interview was just— made me clam up and made me feel intensely uncomfortable because she was treating it like I’d switched from being a Republican to being a Democrat. And I felt that was not true to the experience and the true mystery and depth of the experience. And then, frankly, her article reflected that too. And that was sort of the worst to not— It’s okay to be opposed. It’s hard to be superficialized.
And so you know that—I can talk forever; I’ll stop in a second, believe me— but I think the Christian world has sometimes been magnificent, but sometimes it’s like, there’s intrusive care. It’s like that “God put it on my heart to invade your privacy and talk about you.” But then there are just moments of grace and God’s presence. I have a friend and colleague with this Weave program named Emily Esfahani Smith who got into an argument with her husband, a really bad one. And they made up afterwards and they went out to run some errands together and they stopped by a CVS and she was still feeling very teary and worn out and sort of traumatized by the fight they’d had. And as they’re checking out, the guy at the checkout counter starts talking to them about their lives. And he says to them, you know, you two, you two are really good together. And she says, well, maybe there are angels. And maybe there’s angelic in all of us.
And then final, I’ll end with the mystery of faith itself, which is the mystery of God, which is so beyond our understanding. Muslims have a saying: “whatever you think God is, he’s not that.” And I go back to where this started, or one of the places this started, one of the sources, which was Saint Augustine, who is really one of the most magnetic human beings ever. He’s as cerebral as it’s possible to be. And yet every third page of the Confessions, he’s got tears washing down his face. And there’s a poetry to his writing, which has always been inspiring and touching of the beauty of God.
And one of my favorite poems, which I’ll end with is “What do I love when I love my God?”, a prayer of his. He writes, “It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory, nor the brightness of light, so dear to earthly eyes; nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs; nor the gentle odor of flowers and the ointments and perfumes; nor manna or honey; nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh. It’s not these things I love when I love my God. Yet, there is a light I love and a food and a kind of embrace when I love my God; a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man; where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain; where there is a sound that time cannot seize; where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses; where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen; where there is a bond of love that no satiating can part. That is what I love when I love my God. “
And he points us to just an ultimate and serene beauty that will never cease on this earth, but was out there loving us. Thank you.