Almost fifty years ago, the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, wrote a short yet suggestive book, A Rumor of Angels. Berger traced paths to a rediscovery of “the supernatural” even in the midst of secular modernity. He spoke of “signals of transcendence.”
Berger’s book came to mind as I finished David Brooks’ The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, a generous sharing of his own journey towards an awareness and acceptance of the reality of God, in the world and in his life. He ponders the insufficiency of an individualist and materialist striving for fame, wealth, and power. He argues for the pressing need in contemporary America for a relational ethic, a renewed commitment to the common good.
Among the many from whom he draws inspiration for this enterprise are Martin Buber and Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Jean Vanier. But, for me, the heart of the book is not moralistic exhortation, but personal spiritual revelation. And this appears most explicitly in the book’s longest chapter entitled (with typical Brooksian whimsy) “A Most Unexpected Turn of Events.”
Every spiritual journey is, of course, unique, the fruit of history and relationships, incidents, even accidents that, in retrospect, prove providential. Raised in a loving, intellectually oriented Jewish family that “put peoplehood before faith,” Brooks’ early education was in Christian schools and, importantly, summer camps.
Looking back upon these formative years in New York, he confesses: “I grew up either the most Christiany Jew on earth or the most Jewy Christian, a plight made survivable by the fact that I was certain God did not exist, so the whole matter was of only theoretical importance.”
Now, in one of those paradoxes that so delighted G.K. Chesterton, the Greek word, “theoria,” embraces not only “speculation,” but “observation,” “consideration,” even “contemplation.”
And from an early age Brooks observed closely. He saw and was struck by the soaring architecture of Chartres. As a grown man he considered in awe the natural beauty of a mountain lake high in the Colorado Rockies and reveled in it.
And in a Thomas Merton-like epiphany, one day he emerged from the subway at Penn Station, New York “surrounded as always by thousands of people, silent, sullen, trudging to work.” But on this graced occasion he contemplated, not a nameless throng, but “living souls.”
He “became aware of an infinite depth” in each of them, and, with that realization, a sense of an intimate connectedness – “some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.”
Signals of transcendence, then, in art, in natural beauty, in the uniqueness of persons. And – especially in persons – perhaps even a rumor of angels. But even more than “angels?” An intimation of “God?” In that kairosmoment in Penn Station, Brooks considered “quite a wonderful thought”: “if there are souls, it’s a short leap to the belief that there is something that breathed souls into us through an act of care and of love.”
For Brooks, as for so many others, that short leap finally transpired during a prolonged period of bewilderment and suffering due to the disintegration of a marriage that had defined him for almost thirty years. There is in his personal narrative no romantic extolling of suffering, no facile sound-byte: “no pain no gain!” Yet he admits, in confessional mode, that suffering can “shatter the illusion of self-sufficiency” and open us to the realization of our radical dependence upon others. In a telling acknowledgement, he writes: “Sometimes when suffering can be connected to a larger narrative of change and redemption, we can suffer our way to wisdom.”
Brooks found that larger narrative of change and redemption in the Bible – appropriated now not merely as the founding “myth” of a people, but as the true “myth,” mediated by a historical people, of human spiritual liberation.
But what of that radically disruptive Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, whose name was silently passed over when he and other Jewish youngsters sang hymns in the Grace School chapel? What of that provocative coda to the Jewish Bible that Christians call the New Testament?
Brooks underscores that after his revelation and realization that “while God is still a big mystery, you don’t not believe in him,” he identifies not simply as culturally Jewish, but religiously Jewish as well. Yet in utter candor, he insists: “I can’t unread Matthew.” He refers explicitly to the Sermon on the Mount and most especially Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” In them he finds “the ultimate road map for our lives.”
Is Jesus then a spiritual guru, the last of Israel’s prophets? Brooks freely avows that (like all of us) he is still on the way. He still struggles, for example, with the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. But one senses that for him Jesus is much more than a sublime moral teacher. He quotes Romano Guardini on the Beatitudes: “They are no mere formulas for superior ethics, but tidings of sacred and supreme reality’s entry into the world.”
Then, in his own voice, he confesses: “Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like. He did not show mercy; he is mercy. He did not offer perfect love; he is perfect love.”
Does this betoken what one of Brooks’ favorite poets, T.S. Eliot, celebrates: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation?”
Amidst such gracious intimations and dim apprehensions David Brooks continues his journey of faith. In this book he has gifted us, his fellow pilgrims, with welcome witness to what Abraham Heschel called man’s search for God, and the prior and sustaining reality of God’s search for man.
So he leaves us, in good rabbinic fashion, with this stunning intellectual-contemplative exercise: “Consider the possibility that a creature of infinite love has made a promise to us. Consider the possibility that we are the ones committed to, the objects of an infinite commitment, and that the commitment is to redeem us and bring us home.”
And he sums up the present stage of his journey: “I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.”
*Photo [cropped] of Mr. Brooks by Melissa Golden/Redux