Mountains, Valley & Brooks' Quest for a Moral Life

“I am a wandering Jew and a confused Christian” [262]. This is how David Brooks, a high-profile New York Times writer and author, describes his faith journey [262]. His recent book is titled The Second Mountain [:] The Quest for a Moral Life (New York, NY: Random House, 2020).

Brooks talks about two mountains, which reflect two different worldviews. The first is “an individualist worldview, which puts the desires of the ego at the center” [296]. The second is a “relationalist worldview…which puts relation, commitment and the desires of the heart and soul at the center” [296].

He states that his “core argument has been that we have overdone it with the individualist worldview. By conceiving of ourselves mostly as autonomous selves, we’ve torn our society to shreds, opened up division and tribalism, come to worship individual status and self-sufficiency, and covered over what is most beautiful in each human heart and soul” [296].

He also ties in his approach with people finding meaning and purpose in their lives. He states, “There is another way to find meaning and purpose… It is through relationalism. It is by going deep into ourselves and finding there our illimitable ability to care, and then spreading outward in commitment to others” [297].

One of the first things you notice: he is a good writer. This is not surprisingly given his credentials as a New York Times columnist; it makes the book an easy read despite its deep content.

The notion of two mountains is superficially appealing, but the distinction is too sharp. The book might be better called, “Mountains & Valleys on the Path to a Moral Life.” Life may be more akin to a path through a mountain range with valleys, peaks, and rivers, changing with the seasons over the course of a long journey.

The book is very insightful at times but often glosses over fine points to suit the overall narrative. For example, he refers to suicide as a proxy for isolation. That’s not accurate. Suicide has many causes, but an overall narrative is not as fluid when embedded with nuances.

He spends too much time discussing how people make decisions, which is not central to the thrust of the book. Sometimes he seems like an academic (he is also an adjunct professor at Yale) as he is trying to cover many bases.

He covers marriage, but it should be more broadly on relationships. He has a chapter titled, “Vampire Problems,” which is a bad idea. Yet, the book has many intriguing bits that make the reading worthwhile.

One of the appealing features of this book is his quotes from many sources, a number which would be familiar to Christian readers: Tim Keller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eugene Petersen, CS Lewis, Karl Barth, Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Woodsworth. He also talks about biblical figures such as Naomi and Moses.

His discussion of the soul is unsatisfying. He doesn’t provide a proper definition of a “soul.” It sounds like joy or enthusiasm. Although later in the book he says, “The soul is the piece of use that give each person infinite dignity and worth” [302].

The structure of the book seems odd. The subtitle is “the quest for a moral life.” Half of the book seems relevant (vocation, and philosophy, and faith); the other half (marriage and community) doesn’t fit well despite his best efforts.

His good points include his discussion of hyper-individualism and the epidemic of loneliness. He is very insightful regarding the nature of vocation (which in his description is very close to the Christian concept of calling). He notes that “The summons to vocation is a very holy thing” [93].

 He talks about his “annunciation moment,” which is somewhat like an epiphany [94]. He provides a very good explanation of annunciation moments and how a person can find their calling. He advises people to go back through their lives and connect the dots of significant events [98-99].

 He makes a good point that a person shouldn’t want a world of possibilities, but rather a more limited range that fits individual gifting. He notes that “our commitments give us a sense of purpose” [57].

 He makes very insightful comments due to his unique vantage point as a Jew/Christian [256]. His experience is that there are “walls” making the faith journey harder into the Christian/evangelical community. He perceptively notes that there are walls in the Christian community and they are often caused “by a combination of an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex” [256].

 He describes the four consequences which are manifested in walls. First, this complex can lead to a “siege mentality.” When people use the bifurcation described, then they talk of the “culture,” and then they are trying to defend the tribe [256]. The second wall is “bad listening” [256] - no one listens to and tries to understand the other side. The third wall is “invasive care” [257]. In other words, nosiness masked as concern. The fourth wall is “intellectual mediocrity” [257]. This is not an appealing characteristic.

 There are “ramps.” One, there is the comfort of ritual and tradition. Second, there are displays of “unabashed faith” which are rarely seen elsewhere [257]. Third, there is the role of prayer [258]. Fourth, there is “spiritual consciousness” [259] – “religious communities naturally talk about the whole person, the heart and soul as much as the body and mind.” Fifth, there is the language of good and evil. Lastly, there is “the sheer shock of it” [259] – there are many people in the world “humbling” themselves for God—which is counter-cultural.

In short, the book has many insights, which would seldom be found elsewhere, such as his outsider/insider view of Christianity. At the same time, parts of the book are not as relevant, interesting or valuable. So, it is best to remember the wisdom of Francis Bacon: some books are to be tasted, swallowed, or digested--and some are to be read only in parts (see Blog Post on Bacon's Bits (Part I)