A friend passes along this transcript of a recent speech David Brooks gave to a Christian gathering. It’s really something. It’s so wide-ranging that I can’t decide where to begin with it. Brooks, a Times columnist who also teaches at Yale, speaks to them as an ambassador from the secular culture. Excerpt:
And so this is an achievement culture. A culture of people striving and trying to win success. The way I express this contrast, this hunger for success is by two sets of virtues, which you could call the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. And the résumé virtues are the things you bring to the marketplace which you put on a résumé. And the eulogy virtues are the things you get expressed in your eulogy. And these are non-overlapping categories. So the eulogy virtues are to give courage, to give honor, what kind of relationships do you build, did you love.
And in my secular culture, we all know the eulogy virtues are more important, but we spend more time on the résumé virtues. Another way to think about this is the book Joseph Soloveitchik, the great rabbi, wrote in 1965 called “Lonely Man of Faith.” He said we have two sides to nurture, which he called Adam One and Adam Two, which correlate to the versions of creation in Genesis.
Adam One is the external résumé. Career-oriented. Ambitious. External.
Adam Two is the internal Adam. Adam Two wants to embody certain moral qualities to have a serene, inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong, not only to do good but to be good, to sacrifice to others, to be obedient to a transcendent truth, to have an inner soul that honors God, creation and our possibilities.
Adam One wants to conquer the world. Adam Two wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam One asks. “How things work?” Adam Two asks, “Why things exist and what we’re her for?”
Adam One wants to venture forth. Adam Two wants to return to roots.
Adam One’s motto is “Success.”
Adam Two’s motto is “Charity. Love. Redemption.”
So the secular world is a world that nurtures Adam One, and leaves Adam Two inarticulate.
The competition to succeed in the Adam One world is so intense, there’s often very little time for anything else. Noise and fast, shallow communication makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from our depths.
We live in a culture that teaches us to be assertive, to brand ourselves to get likes on Facebook, and it’s hard to have that humility and inner confrontation which is necessary for a healthy Adam Two life.
And the problem is that I have learned over the course of my life that if you’re only Adam One, you turn into a shrewd animal whose adept at playing games and begins to treat life as a game.
You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to a moral purpose that gives life worth. You settle into a sort-of self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you. You approve of yourself as long as people seem to like you. And you end up slowly turning the core piece of yourself into something less desirable than what you wanted. And you notice this humiliating gap between your actual self and your desired self.
So this secular world may look like Kim Kardashian and vulgarity, but I am telling you it is a river of spiritual longing. Of people who are aware of their shortcomings and lack of direction and in this realm.
They don’t have categories, they don’t have vocabularies, but they know the gap.
They know the gap because none of us gets through life very long without being knocked to our knees either in joy or in pain. And a bunch of activities expose the inadequacies of an Adam One life.
Brooks says that Christians have a lot to offer to people adrift in this river of spiritual longing. But then he offers a critique highlighting the ways they fail to offer a lifeline to these lost seculars. Excerpt:
Everyone’s on a walk to Chartres. On a walk toward something transcendent, even if they don’t know what it is. Are you building ramps on the way to Chartres or are you building walls?
Now I spend a lot of time in the Christian world, and I am going to try to describe things I have observed, both walls and ramps. The first part, I‘m going to try and describe some walls that I think the Christian culture has erected for the secular culture. This part is going to be a little harsh. I’m trying to live up to Susan’s words this morning in trying to be a “holy friend,’ which involves some criticism.
I want you to know I am for you and I love you.
So the first wall is the wall of withdrawal. Many of my Christian friends perceive a growing difference between the secular world and the Christian world, the difference between Jay-Z and Hillsong and the Jesus culture. The difference between Quentin Tarantino and Eugene Peterson, Richard Dawkins and Henri Nouwen, Columbia College and Calvin College. Many of my friends fear they are being written out of polite society because they believe in the Gospel. With that comes a psychology of an embattled minority. With that comes a defensiveness and a withdrawal, a fear, and a withdrawal into sub-culture. I certainly have friends how live in a sub-culture, work in a sub-culture, Christian in the sub-culture, socialize in the sub-culture, and if you live in a broader society, that is governed by the spiritual longing that doesn’t know how to express itself, is withdrawing into your own separate sub-culture really the right thing to do.
I think that’s being governed by fear and not love.
More on this in a second. One more wall Christians put up, despite themselves:
The third wall is the wall of bad listening. In my experience, I have had amazing diversity of quality of listening among my friends who are in the Christian community. Some are amazing. Ask great questions. Allow each individual experience to express itself and be known.
But I have certainly known others who have come to each conversation armed with a set of maxims, teaching and truths and may apply off-the-shelf truths and maxims without learning the uniqueness of each situation. Emerson said that souls are not saved in bundles and yet sometimes there is great haste to apply these ready-made maxims regardless of circumstances.
Then Brooks talks about the “ramps” that Christians offer to the secular culture. For example:
And so when I’m talking about ramps, what I am really talking about is ways of seeing, ways of perceiving vantage points. It seems to me the secular world has one vantage point, which is an economic profit-and-loss vantage point. Built around happiness.
The Christian world, the Jewish world, the Muslim world has a different vantage point, a totally different mentality, a counter-culture that compliments and completes the shallower one.
Humility is the core of it. Humility is a form of awareness. It’s not really a virtue, it’s a form of awareness. My favorite definition…some people think humility is thinking lowly of yourself. My favorite definition is “Humility is self-awareness from the context of other-centeredness.”
Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature. It’s having an accurate assessment of your own place in the cosmos. It’s an awareness that you’re an underdog in the struggle against your own sins. It’s an awareness that individual talents are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. It’s understanding yourself in the context of a greater divine order. Knowing you’re not the center of the universe and you need redemptive assistance to complete your tasks.
That all runs counter to Facebook by the way.
Read the whole thing. I promise you that you will not be sorry you did.
About the withdrawal thing, I know many of you will understandably want to know what I think of that in light of the Benedict Option. The answer is that I’m not sure that Brooks and I would disagree as much as you might think. I could be wrong. My idea of the Benedict Option is not a head-for-the-hills kind of withdrawal. Rather, it is a general stepping-back from the mainstream for the sake of fortifying one’s faith and identity in community. A Christian individual, family, church, or school that doesn’t have a strong sense of roots is going to be swept away by the same fast-moving cultural river that produces so much spiritual longing within those adrift in it.
I think about the community around the Orthodox cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. All those people work in the secular world. But they have a strong church community, and many of them live on the same long street. These are not separatists. But they have a rock to stand firm on in the middle of the raging rapids. There are Catholic versions of the same thing (I heard about one while I was in Italy, by the way), and I am certain there are Protestant forms too. I agree that this idea needs to be much better developed, to identify “good” engagement with the world, and “bad” engagement with the world. For example, is homeschooling a form of the Benedict Option? Yes, I’d say so. But if you are doing it solely to keep your children from being polluted by the outside world, I’d say that could be a problem. If you are doing it to protect your kids from the toxic mainstream culture (teen sexting, for example), and to give them the moral, spiritual, and intellectual formation that will help them succeed as men and women of faith and virtue in the world, well, that is a positive example of the Benedict Option.
I hope that once my Dante book is behind me, I can start working on a book about the Benedict Option — what it can be, what it should be, and what it should not be.
Anyway, I agree with almost everything David Brooks says in that remarkable address, and I really hope you’ll read it. He gave me a lot to think about, actually. Especially this:
There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ. People who just live that life are just awesome, and I don’t care what you believe.
I thought the same thing as I was leaving Norcia, having spent only a small amount of time with some of the Benedictine monks there, but having been profoundly impressed by them. I thought, “What if I lived like this, for Jesus Christ, just not caring what people thought, and not thinking so much about myself?” I’m not a monk, of course, but I can think of ways I could be living more like those men. If I did, I would have more light in my face, like they do, and more peace in my heart.
Too much fear, not enough love, maybe? Maybe. But then, when I explained the Benedict Option concept to one of the monks, he said that it made sense to him, and that he believed that Christians who didn’t work out some form of that kind of countercultural commitment and live it in their families and communities were going to be carried away by the secularist tide. So our love, it seems, must be guided by prudence to some degree, and that means the establishment of habits and forms that give that love stability and grounding.
That said, read the Brooks speech. You’ll be glad you did. Except you, Uncle Chuckie.