David Brooks wants you to be in a Bible study. You’ll get more out of it than you would at a dinner party, he says, if you find places where you can talk about pain and suffering. In preparation for his new book, “The Road to Character,” the New York Times columnist read many religious authors, including early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo. “I now consider Augustine the smartest human being I’ve ever encountered in any form,” he says. Brooks, who is Jewish, has admiration for many Christian authors, but he also explains how he struggles with theological tensions with Christianity. This interview has been edited for length.
Can you talk about the state of your faith?
I’m still not talking about it. I do think it is personal. The book has some self revelatory things. But I try to keep a limit on all aspects of my life. I only go so deep with no specifics because the book is a defense of privacy and reticence. I want to talk in general about my life but not in detail. Some things are so delicate in everybody’s lives, they should only be shared with people who you trust. You do some violence to private emotion and private thought when you reduce it to simplicities of public conversation. I was asked on NPR, and I said everything is so green and fresh, it’s particularly unsettled and particularly fragile.
You said that you wrote this book to “save my soul.” What does that mean?
I didn’t mean I was having some midlife crisis or that my life was falling apart. But I do think that the state of your soul, whether expressed religiously or secularly, is the primary concern in life. I had become not terrible but not the person I wanted to be. I’m not hurting anybody, I must be okay, but I wasn’t generating the inner light I’ve encountered in people I really admire. There’s a guy named Father Ray, a Catholic minister at a church called St. Theresa. I got to know him through these luncheons I do with [PBS analyst] Mark Shields. [Ray] is just joyful in the extreme.
I heard about somebody who led a life that wasn’t famous, but when she died, 1,500 people came to her funeral. I don’t think my funeral would generate 1,500 unless they thought they could get a column in The New York Times. I think we all have a responsibility to be better, to improve ourselves.
Is organized religion central to improving your character or can you do it on your own?
I’ve met some amazingly wonderful people who are atheists, and I’ve met some amazingly wonderful people who are orthodoxly faithful. My observation is that you don’t need God to be good. I do think you need the vocabulary that religion has offered us. If you’re going to think of your own eternal life, you need words like sin and soul and redemption. You need a vocabulary to talk about moral issues, and in our civilization, that vocabulary is religious vocabulary. For example, Abraham Lincoln was a profoundly good person, but it’s not clear what his faith was. That’s a matter for debate. He was raised with the King James Bible. He did have a deeply moral vocabulary which came out in the second inaugural.
You articulate central themes in Christianity — you mention sin 70 times in the book, humility, a need for something bigger than ourselves (maybe a savior). In some ways, your book feels more Christian than many Christian books I come across. Your book isn’t in the religion category, but how is faith incorporated in the larger theme of character?
There’s a moral wisdom in the Bible that stands in contrast to the conventional culture of today. I wouldn’t say it’s only Christian. I do think it’s Judaism, too, with Moses. In classical culture, there’s a certain model of a hero who’s this big, brass, courageous, boasting person who is interested in glory and honor. Along comes Moses, who is said to be the meekest man on earth, who doesn’t want to be the leader, who argues with God. That’s a radically different version of heroism. What I call the biblical metaphysic, what the Bible gives us of images of virtue that relies on meekness that is based on love rather than courage. It’s based on not doing good, heroic deeds, which was the classical value system, but the state internally of your soul. The book is a secular attempt to reintroduce this basic approach to life, which is based on humility.
Your book has several stories of important Christian authors, including Augustine and Dorothy Day. Were they new to you?
I was familiar with Augustine, but I had never really read in depth or read about him. I now consider Augustine the smartest human being I’ve ever encountered in any form. His observations about human psychology and memory are astounding, especially given the time. What’s even more amazing is he combines it with emotional storms. He’s at once intellectually unparalleled and emotionally so rich a character. I portray him as sort of an Ivy League grad. He portrays himself in “The Confessions” as this sexual libertine, but he wasn’t really that. He was just an ambitious and successful rhetorician and teacher who found that being a successful rhetorician was too shallow for him. He felt famished inside. I think his confession is a very brave renunciation of ambition.
With him what I found so attractive, and this is more a Christian concept, is the concept of grace, the concept of undeserved love. It helps to feel religious to experience grace. Even if you’re secular person, you can always have the feeling that people love you more than you deserve and that you’re accepted.
Frankly, the thing I struggle with in Christian thought in general is the tension between surrender and agency. Raised as a Jew, I believe that we control our lives, we take action. The Jewish tradition is, God created the earth but human beings complete it. It’s about you doing things and exercising agency. In Christian thought, there’s less emphasis on that. It’s more unique redemptive assistance from God. There’s more surrender. The line between agency and surrender, what we can do on our own and what we can’t is something I just don’t understand. I don’t have an answer to that.
How is technology habituating our moral horizons? Is it helping or hurting the formation of character?
I’m not a technophobe. I think it helps augments our friendships and keep in touch with people. I don’t think there’s evidence that Facebook makes us lonely. If you have friends, you use Facebook to build friendships. If you’re lonely, you use Facebook to mask friendship. It’s not the technology, it’s the self. There are two ways social media challenges us. The first is, the idea of broadcasting yourself all the time where we create an avatar of ourselves that is the fake person of ourselves. It’s the highlight reel we put on Instagram. That’s an act of propaganda. The fatal line of propaganda is, the only person it persuades is the author of propaganda. As we put fake images on Facebook and Instagram, we come to believe that’s who we are. The second is the distraction factor. I find it very hard to sit down and read books and read important things because I waste so much time answering e-mail and on Twitter. It’s like candy that’s always there, mental candy, and makes you shallower because you don’t carve out the time to read something that would make you spiritually enriched.
Do you have particular vices you’re trying to work on to build better character?
I think they’re a moving target. My vice is a tendency toward shallowness. I think I’m a little better at that. There’s still a tendency to want to be loved universally and therefore to want to avoid conflict, which is odd given my business. It’s tough to have hard conversations with people. And then there are sins we all share, the normal selfishness and self-centeredness.
You offer a 15-point humility code. What are some steps people can start taking to develop character?
That plan is more of a creed based on a view of humanity. I don’t have 7 tips for better character. I do think identifying your core sin, keeping a journal of how it manifests itself in your life, what behavior it leads to. I have a friend whose sin is hardness of heart. He sits down and reviews his interactions for the day and says, ‘Was I really present for that person?” and tries to do better the next day. I do think keeping a journal is very valuable, and one book going that is of a spiritual nature, a C.S. Lewis or Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Joshua Heschel or Kierkegaard. Just keep a voice of some wise person in your head. I’ve also been a believer in keeping pictures of dead people around you. This book has 10 dead friends, whether it’s Augustine or Dorothy Day or Francis Perkins.
It’s nice to have inspiring dead people in your life. I have pictures of them at home. I was at Monticello, and Thomas Jefferson did this. As he walked around his house, he had great philosophers, great scientists, great statesman. As he was doing something really rotten, he had John Locke looking down on him.
What criticisms of the book are you taking seriously?
Someone said I paint too individualistic a picture of how character building is done. It’s like sit alone and think about yourself. Yeah, I think that’s fair. I should’ve been more communal. I’m a believer in Bible study groups. There’s a communication in those formal groups that you don’t get at a dinner party. I think it’s worth getting together with friends regularly, and having a discussion on how can you turn suffering into honesty, how can you make sure love is a moral occasion for you. You talk about how do you deal with pain or failure.
Some say Rome’s decadence and immorality helped contribute to its decline. Is American moral fiber or character suited to position the country for the future?
I don’t think we’re a decadent country. I don’t have a machine to peer into the souls of people and decide how deep they are or how good they are. We have social indicators about behavior. I would say we’re in pretty good shape. Teenage pregnancy is down, teenagers are having fewer sex partners and starting later, violence is down, domestic abuse is down, divorce rates are down. In general, I think we’re in a period of social repair. I do think we have a problem with narcissism. I don’t think we are in decline.
We’re about to have an election. Hillary Clinton has the constant run of ethical scandals. I think she’s quite a competent person, but there’s always a lick of scandal throughout her career. Are we willing to tolerate this sort of scandal for the sake of competence? In a plumber, probably. In a national leader, obviously the moral fiber of the person radiates outward. It’s a harder question. The whole approach in my book is this view that we’re all broken, so we’re going to elect someone who’s broken, and you have to be realistic.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I have a book-ish nature. I understand faith the way C.S. Lewis did, which is that I like books that help explain the world to me. A lot of theology helps explain the world. I think reading theology is one of the most rewarding things I did in the course of researching this book. Some of it was by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. I read a lot of C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “On Becoming a Real Person.” Those books were amazingly useful and were a great education. I wish there were more theology and more religion in the public square for the faithful and those who are not faithful.