Thursday, February 5, 2015

Brooks vs. Secularists

I've been drawn into a bit of a fuss over David Brooks' column "Building Better Secularists" in Tuesday's New York Times:

Three professors and a Mennonite minister take issue with him in Thursday's op-ed pages:

To understand Brooks' vehemence against atheists, agnostics and people "without religious affiliation," I also read Wikipedia's summary about him and a series about him in New York Magazine by Christopher Beam in 2010.

I began with two questions: "What is David Brooks position on secularism?" and "Why does anyone care?" 

Yes, he's an influential columnist whose work I sometimes like, but it's important to remember that he is conservative (think Hoover Tower) and culturally Jewish.  He worked for The National Review for William F. Buckley.  He supports John McCain and Israel's military moves.  

When I put all this together, I stop caring about what he thinks about anything.  I am unlikely to agree with him.

Although Brooks takes a stand in this column as firmly inside the ranks of the religionists, Beam in New York Magazine in 2010 portrays him as not all that connected to his Judaism.  

1)  He was born into a Jewish family in Toronto and grew up in New York City. He attended the Über-liberal (except for its economics and law departments) University of Chicago. He grew up relatively irreligious.

2)   His wife is devoutly Jewish—she converted after they married and recently changed her name from Jane Hughes to the more biblical-sounding Sarah Brooks—but he rarely attends synagogue. For fun, he listens to Bruce Springsteen, his favorite musician since he was 15 years old.

Does he study Torah or read the Psalms?  Does he pray and feel close to God?  We don't know.

Perhaps this week's column sounds a bit mean to atheists, agnostics, and others because he's establishing a position for himself that is actually just inches away from where the secularists are.  We fight most with our siblings or with those of our own religion who don't think exactly as we do.  

His column probably started as a commentary on Phil Zuckerman's Living the Secular Life, which just came out from Penguin Press in late 2014.

Brooks read it and clearly felt superior to the secularists as defined by Zuckerman.  He makes bullet points on what secularists lack:
  • Moral philosophies that are ready-made (he has Judaism).
  • Community (but does he take part in his local Jewish community?)
  • Sabbath (does he actually observe Shabbat?)
  • Moral motivation (He's on weak ground here, as pointed out by the three professors whose rebuttals are printed in the NYT).
  • Complex view of humans (we're not just rational and autonomous as depicted by some secularists).  Brooks appeals to passion, emotion, agape love, and "a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and closeness that make the heart strings vibrate."
As Thursday's rebuttals point out, secularists actually lack none of these things.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman provides an excellent point against his argument about the need for emotion to motivate moral action.  Emotion, she says, also activates holy wars.

I am distanced from Brooks' arguments by his assumptions about "spokesmen" and the desire of religious people "to please Him."  His evocation of a male community and a male God would prevent me from taking him seriously if his political history had not already done that.

Brooks reminds me of Dennis Prager, a Jewish radio talk show host, on whose television show I had the opportunity to be a guest in 1994.  (Brooks is much smarter than Prager.)

Both of them are really big on morality and values, as well as being right-wing and in total support of Israel without much sympathy for Palestine.  (Perhaps I'm not being fair to Brooks here... I'm not sure.)

As a Christian, there's something I don't understand about Jews to whom Judaism is essentially the Torah (the Law and the Ten Commandments).  

The Progressive Jewish friends I hang out with are into "Ahavah" (love) and into Shabbat being the Bride whom we welcome, whom we love.  It's a day of joy focused on welcoming God's fuller presence into our lives, rather than a day to abstain from work because it's a mitzvah to observe the Sabbath.  

Their Judaism holds more mysticism and sense of mystery before God.  They focus more on these attitudes than on morality and values.

Brooks does edge in this direction, though, when he mentions "each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light." 

When he speaks, however, of "the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification," he sees that spiritual urge as connected to morality (purity, sanctification) rather than as a connection to God for its own sake. 

To give Brooks credit, maybe the word "transcendence" means looking to God, being in relationship with a Creator.

To discuss the moral actions of atheists, let's consider the film The Lives of Others (Die Leben der Andere), 2007, in which there's a theme and sonata about "Die Versuche Gut zu Sein"--the search to be good.  

This search leads the main character, Gerd Wiesler, to give up his position of spying on citizens for the Deutsche Demokratische Republik in order to help the persecuted playwright he's supposed to be reporting on.  His transformation is very moving and also a demonstration of the deep universal desire for goodness--to be good and to serve the good.

Brooks is trying to express this desire in the last sentence of his column, but he is wrong in saying that secularism needs to be "enchanted" to get there.  The Lives of Others, in a completely secular context, portrays nonbelievers as making stunningly moral choices.

To conclude I will fall back on Matthew 25, where Jesus describes a king and judge who's really not interested in the rationale of the people gathered before him.  He cares only about what they did.  

Therefore, I cannot claim that either religionists or secularists have the inside track.  The Creator sees only hearts and actions, regardless of our elaborate schemes of justification.

I agree with Brooks that for most of us there's an enormous gap between the "want to be a decent person" and the ability actually to "behave well."  Personally I'm well acquainted with my own tendency to be violent, vengeful, and selfish rather than loving.

Christian theology works well for me, in accepting that I am sinful, that a loving Creator nevertheless pursues me, and that the Creator in choosing to become close to us in the life and death of Jesus, did something powerful.  

I believe that recognizing God as one who suffers with us and thus cares deeply, can change us.  "We love because God first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

I can relate to this kind of "moral motivation," while still admiring the Werd Gieslers and Gandhis who get there from a different direction.

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