I am someone who follows the New York Times opinion pieces of David Brooks closely. His is an astute voice: wise, courageous, and careful. He is not alarmist or sensationalist, but he is more than prepared to speak his mind on issues of political and moral consequence.
In his latest book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, Brooks makes the case that as a culture we need to grow up and move from narcissism to maturity, from individualism to community, and from a life “for self” to a life lived in service to others. Most people, to adopt Brooks’s main metaphor, are busy ascending the “first mountain:” pursuing money, career goals, and personal fulfillment. But the ones we admire most aren’t satisfied when (or if) they reach the summit. And so they begin climbing the second mountain, moving beyond preoccupation with self to a higher, more other-centered mission in life.
After reading through the book, I was reminded of what is surely the greatest—and perhaps briefest—of all book reviews, the striking assessment of Samuel Johnson: “Your manuscript is good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” I hasten to add that this is not my assessment of The Second Mountain. In fact, I would suggest something like the inverse: What is original in Brooks’s book is superb, but what is not original is, while not all that weak, then at least not really all that good.
The Journey to Faith
What is original and worth the reading is the section beginning with “Intellectual Commitments,” which leads into a fine example of spiritual autobiography. Throughout these chapters, Brooks is in conversation with some of the great minds of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition. But the heartbeat of this section comes from the author’s story of his own spiritual journey.
Brooks takes stock of his Jewish heritage, reckoning with its strengths and limitations, while recounting a slow but certain movement to some measure of Christian identity and faith. He acknowledges his particular indebtedness in this journey to his former research assistant and colleague, Anne Snyder, who would eventually become his wife. (Recently, she was named editor-in-chief of Comment magazine.) But what makes this an especially unique contribution to the corpus of spiritual autobiographies—think Augustine, Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis, or Dorothy Day—is that Brooks’s story emerges from what is essentially a secular Jewish world. (More on this in a moment.)
And yet, once I moved past these autobiographical elements and came to Brooks’s explanation of the “second mountain” principle, I found myself somewhat perplexed. “Everybody says you should serve a cause larger than yourself,” he writes, “but nobody tells you how.” But surely this is an overstatement. This is clear from the fact that Brooks proceeds to describe this higher, other-directed life as a matter of generally accepted, age-old wisdom.
Brooks distills the second mountain into four great life commitments: to a vocation, a spouse and family, a philosophy of life or faith tradition, and a community. To spell out the nature of these commitments, he summons a series of quotations from poets, essayists, novelists, and spiritual writers. But although these remarks contain a great deal of wisdom, the sheer volume eventually makes them feel more like a string of clichés. As they’re stacked atop one another, the individual quotations lose something of their force. And in any event, they only serve to undermine Brooks’s assertion that we lack guidance on how to live out the commitments that form the second mountain. Clearly, this is the subject of longstanding conversation among the greatest minds of our civilization.
Another problem with the framework Brooks proposes is that it lacks an obvious underlying rationale. To be sure, no one would protest the worthiness of commitments to one’s vocation, family, faith, and community. But how do they fit together? How do they form an integrated whole?
I would question, for instance, whether it makes sense to regard a faith tradition or philosophy of life as one isolated commitment among many. After all, one’s faith (or secular equivalent) informs the whole of one’s life. Inevitably, any commitment to a particular vocation or spouse, for example, will be grounded in one’s deepest beliefs about God or the purpose of life. At times, Brooks may imply that faith is the conceptual glue holding the broader second mountain principle together, but if so, he ought to have been more explicit.
None of these reservations, however, should detract from the primary strength of this book: Brooks’s invaluable contribution to the genre of spiritual autobiography. He speaks highly of his early intellectual formation at the University of Chicago and his emerging religious awareness. We learn how his earlier religious upbringing—which combined the ethos of a semi-secular Jewish world with a veneer of Episcopalian church life—made Jesus seem more appealing. He was drawn to the idea of a God who died so that others might live. Brooks credits many intelligent, joyful Christians for influencing his spiritual journey: Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and John Stott, among others. He writes of having “decades of atheism” unsettled by the “magnetic pull” of the many Christians who entered his life in one way or another.
And yet he confesses that his pilgrimage toward faith might be better described as a “meander.” Brooks often struggled to understand the idea of grace, to surrender himself to God, and to relinquish his pride. But over time, he discovered something of the truth of Matthew 10:39, that “whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” In surrendering his will, he found it transformed.
Where Is the Church?
As Brooks makes clear, he has hardly abandoned his Jewish heritage. If anything, his Christian pilgrimage has only intensified his identification with Judaism. In other words, he has not become, as he phrases it, a Christian of “the Protestant evangelical variety.” Indeed, he sometimes faults evangelicals for nursing a disproportionate victim mentality and for living with an unfortunate hostility toward secular society. And yet, evangelicals have provided him important sources of encouragement and inspiration along the way. There is no reason, then, why Christians “of the Protestant evangelical variety” should not be moved by his story of moving toward faith.
I came away from that story, however, with one more lingering question: What about the church? It is notable that Brooks lists commitments both to a faith tradition and a community as markers of one’s progress up the second mountain. Which makes it somewhat surprising that the church, as a community of practicing believers, plays so negligible a role in his spiritual journey, either as a catalyst along the way or as a vital expression of his current faith identity.
All the same, The Second Mountain remains a splendid spiritual autobiography worthy of wide attention. In it, we see a profound depiction of the grace that seeks out those who might be seeking God.
Gordon T. Smith is president of Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta. His books include Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization (IVP Academic) and Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Sacramental: Why the Church Should Be All Three (IVP Academic).