David Brooks, “How to be Religious in the Public Square”
Luncheon Speaker at The Gathering 2014
Introduction by Michael Cromartie, Vice President of the Ethics And Public Policy Center and Director of the Faith Angle Forum for Journalists
Gentlemen and ladies, ladies and gentlemen, gentlemen and ladies. The moment you have been waiting for. My introduction.
I worked on this introduction for about a week and my wife reminded me, “Remember they’re not coming to hear your introduction.”
I said, “Yeah, but it’s David Brooks.”
I’m just going to be totally honest with you…it’s a great privilege and a great honor to introduce somebody whose work you admire so much. To introduce one of your favorite people in the world in front of some of your favorite friends in the world.
I mean really. I think I’ll just stay up here for a little while.
No, this is a great privilege. Something I have looked forward to for a long time because I‘m a huge fan of David’s and had the privilege over the last 15 years through my work at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and our Faith Angle Forum program for journalists to get to know him personally, so I thank you for this opportunity, Fred.
David Brooks writes an op-ed column twice a week for The New York Times and he appears every Friday night on the Newshour on PBS. In fact he was on there last night. He’s the author of three books, and his next book is coming out next April. It’s a book on humility.
Now you’ve seen David’s biography in your program, and you’re here for lunch obviously because you know his great work. I just wanted to take an occasion to highlight why so many of us admire David, his work, and read everything that he writes.
As you know there are many writers and columnists today who are skilled at writing largely on one or two issues very well, subjects like foreign policy or economics or constitutional or legal questions. Or welfare or social programs. Or politics in general.
What we admire about David’s work, it’s his ability to write perceptively on all these topics and to do so with great depth and insight. But also he writes about the human dimensions of life. About suffering. About friendship and what true friendship is. He writes about the purpose and meaning in life.
And if you are like me and you read him regularly, you will also notice that he possesses a wonderful sense of humor. In fact, his first book that he wrote was called, “Bobos in Paradise.” Bobos standing for Bourgeois Bohemians. He called it a work of comic sociology. And I warmly commend it to you.
But more recently, many of us have come to appreciate and admire David’s work when he tackles religious and theological themes. What sets him apart from other writers, especially in the pages of The New York Times, is his unique ability to understand what religious believers believe, why they believe it, why it makes a difference in their lives and their families, and in their work, in their calling and vocations.
He has recently quoted in his columns St. Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, a former Gathering speaker – Tim Keller, and he recently wrote about another Gathering speaker, Gary Haugen, in the pages of The New York Times.
In May of 2005, after attending one of my Faith Angle Forum conferences for journalists, David wrote about another former Gathering speaker – Pastor Rick Warren. Here are a few lines from his column:
“Recently I listened to Pastor Rick Warren at a conference in Florida. Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church, the country’s largest megachurch where 20,000 people or so attend worship each Sunday. He’s also the author of the book, ‘The Purpose-Driven Life,’ which has sold more than 25 million copies in English alone. Upon hearing this, I thought, ‘Why don’t my books sell 25 million copies?’ I thought about writing a book called, ‘The Blinking Flat Purpose-Driven Tipping Point that Got Left Behind,’ which I thought would do quite well.”
But my all-time favorite column when David touched on theological themes was a column he wrote about the late Anglican scholar and pastor, Reverend John W. Stott from London. The column was published 10 years ago and it was called, “Who is John Stott?” If you’ve never read it, Google the phrase “Who is John Stott?” I warmly commend it to you.
There’s a backstory to this. One day in November 2004, I received a phone call from David. David said he just returned from a conference in Florida and several businessmen had relayed to him the writings of a minister named John Stott and that John Stott had enormous influence on their personal lives. Ironically, one of those businessmen is the chairman of the board of The Gathering, Steve Beck. And Steve is here, I hope.
Steve, he came back from the conference not having totally trusted what you said by calling me up and David said, “I want to ask you a question. Is this man, John Stott, important?” I said, “Well, let me put it to you this way, David. If Evangelical Protestants believed in a pope, the man they would pick is John Stott.”
And David said, “Good. I’m going to write a column about him.”
I said, “Well, wait a minute. If you are going to write a column about a person who has encouraged evangelicals’ involvement in politics and culture, then you’re going to want to write about Francis Schaeffer.”
He said, “That’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about them as people. I recently have spoken at three or four evangelical Christian college campuses, and each time I have come away impressed by two things. Number one, how smart the professors are. And number two, how smart the students are. At the New York Times we have a caricatured perception of them, and I am going to use the life and work of John Stott to disabuse our readers of that impression.”
So two days later, two days later, I get an email from David that says, “Could you have a look at this column and see if I got Reverend Stott right?”
I read it. I was almost moved to tears. And I called him back and said, “David, it’s like you’ve known him all your life,” whereupon he replied, “Well, I read nine of his books.”
I said, “In two days?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Name them.”
And he started naming them. Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ, Your Mind Matters…he was naming them. I thought, “You got it just right.”
So I just want to read to you from that column. He said, “When you read John Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that a certain moment all airline pilots come to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel wasn’t exact, but over the years, I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like John Stott. It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble, and it’s self-critical. It’s also confident, joyful and optimistic.”
Ladies and gentleman, I am keenly aware of how busy our speaker is and the very high demands on his time, so therefore I would like you to join me in welcoming David Brooks to The Gathering.
We’ve just witnessed the most heroic thing you will see this weekend because the biggest challenge in Mike’s life is leaving a podium.
Wow. His fingerprints are actually – the nails – are still dug in here.
I had forgotten about that purpose-driven, the Rick Warren column. Actually, having spent a couple days, few hours with you. I’m going to do not a purpose-driven life, but the chauffeured-driven life, which I think…I knew that one wouldn’t work. Wouldn’t work as well.
First of all, it’s a great pleasure. Mike is one of my dear friends. Our relationship started when I would go to the Philadelphia Spectrum, where Mike was the mascot for the Philadelphia 76ers, and that is literally true. He was the guy inside the costume. And it developed at the Faith Angle Forum where Mike really took on the job of educating journalists in religion. And if there’s any institution I’ve seen that has had a huge leverage point in American culture, it’s the Faith Angle Forum. We started 10-15 years ago, and the level of conversation from that first conference…”Where’s Rome? What is God?” We were at ground zero, and now we’re up at least in nursery school level. So, it’s just an amazing product.
I’ll try to be brief. I know I’ve spoken with a lot of you already and I know you didn’t come here to hear me speak. You came here to hear yourselves speak. So…I’ll try not to get in the way of that.
And what I thought I’d want to talk about is how to be religious in the public square. What does the culture need from you? At least in my opinion.
Now I grew up in a slightly different atmosphere than a lot of people in this room. I work at what I think of as the greatest newspaper in the world, but being a conservative, religious person at The New York Times is a bit like being the chief rabbi in Mecca. There’s not a lot of company there some days.
I grew up in a very left-wing household in Greenwich Village in New York. Nonetheless I went to Grace Church School. I was part of the all-Jewish boys’ davening choir at Grace. We sang the hymns, but to square with our religion we didn’t sing the word, “Jesus,” so the volume would drop down and then come back up.
I went to the University of Chicago, which we called the Wheaton of the Southside. The best line about Chicago: it’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas.
I’ve lived much of my life in the secular culture. And it’s an achievement-oriented culture. If you go to the elementary schools in my local neighborhood in Washington, DC, you see the kids coming out at three in the afternoon, they’ve got those 80-pound backpacks on. If the wind tips them over, they’re like beetles, sort of stuck there on the ground. Lines of luxury cars come up, usually Saabs, Audis and Volvos because in my progressive neighborhood, it’s socially acceptable to have a luxury car so long as it comes from a country hostile to US foreign policy.
These creatures come out, I’ve written about in one of my books, called “Über-moms” who are highly successful career women who have taken time off to make sure all their kids get into Harvard. And you can usually tell the Über-moms because they actually weigh less than their own children.
They’ve got little yoga mats stapled to their hips, you know in the moment of conception they’re doing little butt exercises to stay fit and trim. During pregnancy, they’re taking so many soy-based nutritional formulas that the babies plop out, these gigantic 14-pound toothless defensive lineman, just boom.
Über-moms cutting the umbilical cord, flashing little Mandarin flash cards at the things, getting ready for Harvard. They have their spiritual yearnings which they express mostly through food. So they go through Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, the progressive grocery stores that all the cashiers look like they are on loan from Amnesty International.
And my favorite section is the snack food section because they couldn’t have pretzels and potato chips…that would not be spiritual. So they have these seaweed-based snacks. We had bought veggie booty with kale, which is for kids who come home and say, “Mom, Mom I want a snack that will help prevent colorectal cancer.”
And these kids turn into the junior workaholics of America. I teach them at Yale. I only teach at schools that I couldn’t have gotten into. And by the time they’ve applied to schools, they’ve started six companies, cured three formerly fatal diseases, played obscure sports like Frisbee golf. When I ask my students what you are doing spring break, it’s like “You know I am unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.” That sort of thing.
They have tremendous faith in themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” And at that point 12 percent said yes. They asked the same question in 2005 and 80 percent said, “Yes, I am a very important person.”
Americans score 25th in the world in math, but if you ask Americans, “Are you really good in math?” We are number-one in the world at thinking we are really good at math.
Time magazine asked Americans, “Are you in the top one percent of earners?” Nineteen percent of Americans are in the top 1 percent of earners. So they have a lot of self-confidence. And the great desire for fame. Fame used to be low on a value. Now fame is the second-most desired thing in young people.
They did a study, “Would you rather be president of Harvard or Justin Bieber’s personal assistant, a celebrity’s personal assistant?” And of course by 3 to 1 people would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant. Though to be fair I asked the president of Harvard, and she would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.
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 here 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 who is 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.
The first is falling in love. When people fall in love, something opens up in them. A great passage I read about falling in love was written by a guy named Douglas Hofstadter, who is a mathematician at Indiana University. He was on sabbatical many years ago now with his wife, Carol, and their two kids who were then 5 and 3. And all at once Carol suffered a brain aneurysm and died. He kept her picture on the bureau of his room and he must have looked at it every day, but one day he looked at it with special attention and here’s what he wrote about seeing her face:
“I looked at her face, and I looked so deeply I felt I was behind her eyes. And all at once I found myself saying as tears flowed, that’s me, that’s me. And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity. About the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children. About the notion that those hopes are not separate or distinct hopes, but were just one hope. One clear thing that defined us both. That welded us into a unit. The kind of unit I would dimly imagine before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all. But that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”
So the first thing love does is it humbles us. It reminds us we are not even in control of ourselves. It’s like an invading army that reorganizes your sleep patterns, your thoughts, your emotions, and is the kind of invading army you welcome and you want to be invaded by.
The second thing it does is it decenters the self. The Adam One world your centered on yourself. But a person in love finds the center of his or her life is not inside oneself. It is outside in the soul of the beloved. The ultimate riches are outside and not inside.
Many writers have noted that love illuminates the distinction between giving and receiving. Montaigne had a passage which I think C.S. Lewis sort of stole…where he said, “The person who allows a friend to give a favor is doing the most favor by giving the friend the pleasure of being able to give that favor.”
Because the souls are merged.
The third thing love does, is that it opens up ground. Love is like a plow opening up hard ground and allowing many other loves to grow.
Self-control is a muscle. If you use it a lot, you use it up. Love is the reverse. The more you love, the more you are capable of loving. And so many people fall in love and through that love discover other loves.
And finally, love leads to holiness. One of my heroes is a woman named Dorothy Day, who wrote a great book called, “The Long Loneliness,” in which she describes giving birth to her daughter. And one of the things she said in that book after she described childbirth very grossly, but vividly. And she said, “If I had painted the greatest painting, if I had sculpted the greatest sculpture or written the greatest symphony, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than when I did when they placed my child in my arms. And with that came a need to worship and to adore.”
And so it was with the birth of her daughter that her eye turns heavenward. That’s the motion of love. First, decentered. First, humbled. Down to the bottom, you can’t even control yourself. And then upward, heavenly. It’s down and up. And that’s what love does.
It’s also the shape of suffering. The second activity. When people think about their future, they’re often thinking about happiness. What can I do that will make me happy? But when you look in the past, and think about the things that formed you, it’s rarely the happy moments, it’s the moments of suffering. So we shoot for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.
Now it should be said there’s nothing intrinsically noble about suffering. If it’s not connected to any larger transcendent purpose, it just dehumanizes people and shrinks them. But if it’s connected to some greater design, people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of Franklin Roosevelt when he got polio. A shallow guy who became a much deeper and greater person after the polio.
The big thing suffering does is that it drags you deeper into yourself. Paul Tillich, the great theologian, wrote that people who endure suffering are taken between the routine busyness of life and forced to confront the fact that they are not who they believed themselves to be. The pain of suffering, whether it’s in composing a work or losing a loved one, smashes through the bottom floor of what they thought was their soul, revealing a cavity, and then it smashes through the floor of that, revealing another cavity and down and down and down.
So it digs you out. And opens up space. It shatters the illusions of self-mastery and when you’re suffering, you can’t control your suffering, you can’t even control yourself. And when you heal, that also feels magical. Like nothing that you did.
Suffering teaches gratitude. When you’re on top of the world, you think that people love you, well, you deserve it. But when you are suffering, you realize that love is unearned.
Suffering also, like love, points to holiness. People have suffered often and almost always have this sense of calling. When people lose a child, say, they don’t say, “Well, I had two years where I had low pleasure. I should compensate by going to a lot of parties so I can get high pleasure and balance off my hedonic account.” They do not say that. They want to turn the suffering into holiness, so they create a foundation. Or they transform their lives. People don’t heal from suffering. They come out changed. So it’s the same u-shaped curve. What Soloveitchik called “advance retreating advance.”
The third thing everyone I think in the secular world also experiences is grace. Now in this world, in this room, you may think how can a secular person experience grace? But I am telling you, everyone does. It may have different words, it may have less discreet meaning but everyone has the feeling sometimes that they get better than they deserve. You get a stroke, and people are there to care for you. You get fired and the community rallies around you. You suffer trauma and unexpected strangers are there for you. And you feel – you may not feel if you are secular – salvation sanctity, but you feel accepted.
Tillich again has a great essay on this. “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being. Our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year after year the longing for perfection of life does not appear. When old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades. When despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into your darkness and it is through, it is though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted. Accepted by that which is greater than you, and in the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now. Perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now. Perhaps you will do much later. Do not seek for anything. Do not perform for anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before. We may not believe more than before, but everything is transformed. Nothing is demanded of this experience. No religious or moral intellectual presupposition. Nothing but acceptance.”
Again, the mind jumps heavenward.
We may sit around at gyms. We may watch Kim Kardashian. But human beings were born and blessed with moral imagination, a great longing for ideal holy. All human beings. We all have a longing to lead a good life. A life of transcendence. Some people may not have the categories on how to do that, but they do have a sense that the world, the material world, is incomplete and that they want to surpass the world.
One long passage I am going to read, the final quote I’m going to read because it’s the most beautiful expression of this shape. Of being in the world and rising up and surpassing the world. And it’s from my ultimate hero, St. Augustine.
And many of you know this, I just like reading it. It’s his meditation on what do I love when I love my God.
“It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these 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 innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is 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, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”
He starts out with the material, the odor, the voice. And then he goes into the spiritual. And everyone is born with that moral imagination. The heart flies upward, even if you don’t know the categories, even if you’ve never been to church, you’ve never read the Bible, and you don’t exactly know the forms of it. You feel the hunger. And so to me, that is what is out there in the secular culture. An unformed, inarticulated hunger. And so when I turn to the topic of what, how do you be religious in the public sector…in the public world, the question then turns into, “How does the Christian world engage the secular world?”
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 who 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.
The second wall is the wall of condescension. In a lot of the walls come from a unique psychology which I have observed. Which is a weird mixture of – this is going to sound a little rude – in the Christian culture a mixture of wanton intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex.
And the second wall is the wall of condescension. There is sometimes a belief among some people that those who have been with Christ a long time can adopt a paternal attitude toward those who have not been with Christ, or who have come to Christ recently. And this is a caring condescension. It’s people wanting to help. But it’s also a form of pride to know the route God has chosen for each of us. It’s a form of closed-mindedness. It’s off-putting. People who have come to Christ recently may not at all, may not have lived in the church for very long. But they have lived, and read and thought and they haven’t come back from these experiences with empty hands and they have as much to teach as to learn.
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.
The fourth wall is the wall of invasive care. The heart is a mysterious garden filled with delicate growths, privacy is always to be respected because trampling on that garden without permission destroys the growth. And again, out of care, I feel that sometimes no privacy, no boundaries can be respected.
And the final wall is this wall of intellectual insecurity. I teach at Yale. We are not nice to each other. We brutally attack each other. We are not good Christians.
But out of that comes a hardened appreciation of truth. And sometimes we are brutal to each other because we are brutal in pursuit of the truth and we don’t take…we take our ideas very seriously and we’re sometimes willing to hurt each other because the ideas are so serious. Sometimes we veer on the side of just nastiness. Sometimes in my experience in Bible Study, the desire to be nice, the desire to be affirming, softens all discussion. So the jewel of truth is not hardened. Vague words and ethereal words are tolerated because nobody wants to be too offensive.
And so these are some of the walls. Now let me turn to the happier ramps that I have found, just to encourage what I’ve seen.
The ramps all have a common root too, and Mike Gerson had mentioned it today in the Francis discussion. 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.
So the first ramp is simply the ramp of the Christian example. I was writing a column about how hard it is to teach morality in a classroom, and I got an email from a guy named Dave Jolly, who’s a veterinarian out in Oregon. He wrote to me, “The heart cannot be taught in a classroom, or by a luncheon speaker. And then he wrote, “What a wise person says is the least of what they give. It is in the little habits of life, the daily acts of kindness and courage that were handed down to that person by a mentor a generation ago which were handed down by a mentor before – and stretched back into the dimness of time. And then he said, “Never forget. The message is the person.”
And those two sentences leapt out at me and have stayed with me. “What a wise person says is the least of what they give. The message is the person.”
Those two phrases explain Francis by the way.
And so one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to the culture is simply the example of Christian joy lived out in a natural way. I have a friend named Father Ray. Monsignor Ray is of a charismatic Catholic Church in Anacostia, and when you see him hold up the Eucharist with a look of pure joy, nothing could be more persuasive than that.
The second ramp is the ramp of spiritual consciousness. We have tried in my business to cure poverty by throwing money at it. We’ve spent trillions of dollars trying to do that. But poverty is rarely about just money. It’s part money but not just money. It’s about behavior, character, self-control, security. It’s about a child having a brain not stressed with fear so they can perceive the world accurately. Who can form their secure attachments so they can attach to teachers, who can reform behavior because people have talked to them in the language or morality and the language of “ought.”
In education, we rearrange all the boxes, and we have charter schools, vouchers, but education is elementarily about the love between a teacher and a student. And if you mention the word “love” at a Congressional hearing they look at you like you’re Oprah. But the Christian community, the religious community speaks naturally in that language and gets to the core of things. And if you want to learn the truth about bad attachments, bad love, I found only the Christian community can give you the language to understand those problems.
And it seems to me the challenge of Christian philanthropy with this spiritual mentality is taking money and using it to nurture spirit, which is a difficult task for philanthropy.
So that spiritual consciousness is just a great gift to the country.
The third is the language of good and evil. This language has become absent in the secular world. The word “sin” is now mostly used in reference to desserts. But if you want to talk about the deepest affairs of the heart, only words like sin, soul, redemption really work. And if you don’t have those words you’re losing the tools.
People don’t change because they decide to be better. If that happened, then New Year’s Resolutions would work. People decide to change because they elevate their loves. And as St. Augustine said, “You become what you love.”
But if you can’t talk about the struggle of sin, if you can’t talk about why some loves are higher than other loves, and ordered versus disordered loves, you don’t have the moral vocabulary, the mental toolkit to think about how to be better.
And the Christian tradition gives us that.
The fourth ramp is inverse logic. Secular society works by an economic logic. Effort leads to reward. Input leads to output. Investment leads to profit.
You worship a Savior who teaches an inverse logic, which is a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain the strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desires to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself you have to lose yourself.
That inverse logic is the moral logic. There is no other.
And that’s also a great gift.
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 complements 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.
And so the final ramp the Christian world has offered America is simply the example of tranquility. One of my Yale students, and this was out of the mouths of babes, said, “You know we all work so hard for success but we all know success doesn’t lead to peace.”
And that turns out to be very aptly put and true. And very briefly put. But occasionally you do see peace. I quoted Dorothy Day earlier. At the end of her life – she was a great writer all of her life – at the end of her life it would have been natural for her to write her memoirs. And a guy named Robert Coles who is at Harvard asked her, “Did you ever try to write your memoirs?”
And she said, “Well, you know, I did. I sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote on the top, ‘A Life Remembered.’ And then I sat there trying to think how to start my memoirs. I sat there and I sat there, and I thought of the Lord and his visit to us those centuries ago. And I was just grateful to have had him on my mind.”
And she said, “I didn’t really feel the need to write anything else.” And that is peace.
To me the ultimate example of peace, again, to return to my hero Augustine. He’s traveling back to Africa from Italy, and he’s with his mom, Monica. And those of you who I’m sure know the story know that Monica was the worst helicopter mom in the history of helicopter moms.
But at the end of their lives, her life, they reconciled. She was 56. She was on the verge of death, and they were in a garden. And they just started talking, and they knew her death was coming.
And Augustine writes, “They experienced the very highest delight of the earthly senses, and the very purest material light in respect to the sweetness of that light, and their conversation did by degrees pass through all things bodily, even the very heaven when the sun and the moon and the stars shine upon the earth.”
So he’s going from the material things up to the spiritual.
And then he has a sentence I have read 500 million times which I can’t understand. It’s a really long sentence, but there’s a word that recurs in the course of that sentence. And that word is “hushed.”
He says, “The tumult of the flesh was hushed. The water in the air was hushed. All dreams and shallow visions were hushed. The tongues were hushed. Everything that passes away was hushed. Self was hushed. And they moved into a sort of silence.”
And that’s a beautiful description of tranquility, which I think we hunger for.
When I was at Frederick, Maryland, a few months ago now, I was with some women who teach immigrants to read, and sometimes for an adult immigrant, it takes seven years to teach them to read. And I was struck by the tone of tranquility in the small community of five or seven women. They were calm and settled and rooted. They weren’t blown off-course by setbacks. Their minds were consistent. They didn’t have the blooming virtues that my young students have. But they had the ripening virtues that are built over a lifetime.
Sometimes you don’t notice these people because they seem kind and cheerful, but they are a little reserved. They had voices that were quiet and steady. In one rabbi’s words, “They answer softly when challenged harshly. Silent when verbally abused. Dignified when other try to humiliate them. Restrained when others try to provoke them. They do get things done.”
Albert Schweitzer said he only hired people to work in his African hospitals if they regarded the work as if it were as everyday as doing the dishes because if they thought they were trying to be heroic, they would just give up. He said, “There are no heroes of action. There are only heroes of renunciation.”
And I saw that tranquility lived out in Frederick, Maryland. And it’s a reminder of the final offering, which is a life of purpose, as Rick Warren would say. Or as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. Therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history. Therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do however virtuous can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we must be saved by love. NO virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
Thanks for your attention.