The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral LifeSecondMountain

I reviewed David Brooks’s book The Road to Character in the last Essentials. At the end of that review I mentioned that I was considering taking the chapter on Augustine to my Big Questions reading group, because of its attractive discussion of Augustine’s experience of God’s transforming grace. Well I did that, and my mostly non-Christian friends and I had a very good discussion there. Then when I picked up Brooks’s next book, The Second Mountain, it provided an illuminating personal backstory to the writing of The Road to Character, because as it turns out, Brooks has been on a spiritual journey, and during and since the writing of that previous book, he has embraced the Bible, the religious attitude to life, coming to faith in God, a Jewish-Christian identity, and even, almost—perhaps partially or waveringly—the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You come across this surprising story in chapter 21 of the book, entitled ‘A Most Unexpected Turn of Events’. But more of that a bit later.

Although it contains a chapter or so of spiritual memoir, the book is really a continuation of the project of his former book, about the spiritual impoverishment of our current culture’s moral ecology, and the possibilities inherent in discovering a better moral ecology. The term ‘moral ecology’ is a term for the systems of belief and behaviour that we live our lives in. These may be local, such as the culture of an organisation that rubs off on those in it, or they may be quite encompassing, such as the classical honour codes of the ancient world. As Brooks tells it, we have moved from an early-to-mid 20th century moral ecology he calls ‘We’re all in this together’, to a postwar, 60s-counterculture-influenced moral ecology he calls ‘I’m free to be myself ’. While this was an understandable shift, it has gone too far, and left us too self-focused. We live on what Brooks calls the first mountain, the mountain of life tasks: get an education, a job, a spouse; cultivate talents, reputation, success; seek personal happiness. But Brooks is convinced that we must see that there is a second mountain, and that mountain that is not about personal happiness but about moral joy; not about self, but about others, about communities. Our current moral ecology is too dominated by slogans like ‘You can do anything’, ‘Follow your dreams’ and ‘Make your own way there’. The problem is that at the outset we don’t know who we are or what ‘our own way’ might be. Nor do we have a dream to follow. We just don’t know what will deliver to us the life we seek. Freedom is not what we need, but rather we need a tried and tested road shown to us, and encouragement to walk it.

So Brooks wants to give a plan for life that is aimed at the moral joy that is the promise of life on the second mountain. The heart of the book discusses four commitments for a second mountain life. These are vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, and community. These four commitments become the arenas in which we build a life which goes to work on us. Making these commitments integrates us so that we escape the empty moral ecology of the Instagram life (individualistic, aesthetic and insecure) and discover the richer moral ecology of the relationalist life (interdependent, integrated, assured). Commitments don’t erode individual freedom (as the hyperindividualist fears). Rather, our commitments actually give us what we seek, namely: identity, purpose, freedom and moral character.

Brooks carried me along with his enthusiasm, his urgency, his marshalling of anecdote, quotation, research and story. He gives the wisdom of self-help: how to get a handle on your life. He seeks to update and re-recommend the best of an old set of convictions about the centrality of commitment and community, of forgetting and submerging yourself in something bigger than you (‘we’re all in this together’). It is encouraging, heart-warming, inspiring. I think there’s good advice here, and the basic Judeo-Christian ethic is expressed well in modern idiom. The right life is to love: to commit to others in a deep way seeking to serve their needs and weave a culture of mutual love, leading to deep joy. It occurred to me that my teenaged son could benefit from reading the chapters on vocation and marriage (so could my daughter, but she’s a bit young yet).

But when Brooks turned to the long, very personal account of his awakening to faith, I was really engaged, and I ended up quoting Brooks in my Good Friday sermon: ‘I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, how vast are my hopes.’ (p. 262). This book is influenced (strongly) by Christians and Christian ideas and convictions, and is written by a pretty famous Jewish New York journalist and writer who has discovered in Christians he encountered and the Christian perspectives he slowly grasped something unexpected, compelling, liberating and life-changing. His last chapter is an enthusiastic manifesto, bubbling and overflowing with newfound conviction about the importance of pursuing a different vision of the good life. Where his journey will take him is yet to be seen, but it is wonderfully interesting to watch him go.

It is also interesting to see Christians through his eyes, to hear what struck him, confused him, put him off or attracted him as he engaged with Christianity. Walls obstructed his progress. ‘I found that many of the walls in the Christian world were caused by the combination of an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex.’ (p. 256. He names evangelicals explicitly here). He sees these complexes building four walls that hinder. First is a siege mentality, ‘a sense of collective victimhood’ amongst some Christians, The second wall is ‘bad listening’, where in dialogue we just ‘unfurl the maxims regardless of circumstances’. The third wall is invasive care, where ‘people use the cover of faith to get into other people’s business when they have not been asked’. The fourth wall is intellectual mediocrity, where’ ‘vague words and mushy sentiments are tolerated because everyone wants to be kind’. By contrast, Yale professors are ‘brutal in search of excellence’. (pp256-7)

Read this book for a thoughtful take on our modern predicament, some ideas for a different approach, for a modern spiritual memoir and also for a few perspectives on how Christians can appear to outsiders coming into our orbit.