David Brooks On Creating ‘Ramps’
In last week’s post, instead of sharing my own reflections on this or that, I shared a few thoughts from a talk given by New York Times columnist David Brooks about how not to engage the secular world as Christians. This week, I would like to share another excerpt from Brooks’ same speech, but that looks at the same thing from a different angle. This time, the focus will be on what Brooks calls ‘ramps’ or access points that Christians can, and should be, creating to foster relationship and meaningful dialog with friends, neighbors, and colleagues who are from a more secular point of view.
Next week I will return to writing the full post out of my own brain. But for now, here is the second excerpt from David Brooks, whose brain holds more stuff than mine.
Excerpt from David Brooks on ‘ramps’ that Christians can create:
Now let me turn to the happier ramps that I have found, just to encourage what I’ve seen. The ramps all have a common root too, and Mike Gerson had mentioned it today in the Francis discussion. There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ. People who just live that life are just awesome, and I don’t care what you believe.
So the first ramp is simply the ramp of the Christian example. I was writing a column about how hard it is to teach morality in a classroom, and I got an email from a guy named Dave Jolly, who’s a veterinarian out in Oregon. He wrote to me, “The heart cannot be taught in a classroom, or by a luncheon speaker. And then he wrote “What a wise person says is the least of what they give. It is in the little habits of life, the daily acts of kindness and courage that were handed down to that person by a mentor a generation ago which were handed down by a mentor before – and stretched back into the dimness of time. And then he said “Never forget. The message is the person.”
And those two sentences leapt out at me and have stayed with me. “What a wise person says is the least of what they give. The message is the person.”
Those two phrases explain Francis by the way.
And so one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to the culture is simply the example of Christian joy lived out in a natural way. I have a friend named Father Ray. Monsignor Ray of a charismatic Catholic Church in Anacostia, and when you see him hold up the Eucharist with a look of pure joy, nothing could be more persuasive than that.
The second ramp is the ramp of spiritual consciousness. We have tried in my business to cure poverty by throwing money at it. We’ve spent trillions of dollars trying to do that. But poverty is rarely about just money. It’s part money but not just money. It’s about behavior, character, self-control, security. It’s about a child having a brain not stressed with fear so they can perceive the world accurately. Who can form their secure attachments so they can attach to teachers, who can reform behavior because people have talked to them in the language or morality and the language of “ought.”
In education, we rearrange all the boxes, and we have charter schools, vouchers, but education is elementarily about the love between a teacher and a student. And if you mention the word, “love” at a Congressional hearing they look at you like you’re Oprah. But the Christian community, the religious community speaks naturally in that language and gets to the core of things. And if you want to learn the truth about bad attachments, bad love, I found only the Christian community can give you the language to understand those problems.
And it seems to me the challenge of Christian philanthropy with this spiritual mentality is taking money and using it to nurture spirit, which is a difficult task for philanthropy.
So that spiritual consciousness is just a great gift to the country.
The Language of Good and Evil
The third is the language of good and evil. This language has become absent in the secular world. The word “sin” is now mostly used in reference to desserts. But if you want to talk about the deepest affairs of the heart, only words like sin, soul, redemption really work. And if you don’t have those words you’re losing the tools.
People don’t change because they decide to be better. If that happened, then New Year’s Resolutions would work. People decide to change because they elevate their loves. And as St. Augustine said, “You become what you love.”
But if you can’t talk about the struggle of sin, if you can’t talk about why some loves are higher than other loves, and ordered versus disordered loves, you don’t have the moral vocabulary, the mental toolkit to think about how to be better.
And the Christian tradition gives us that.
The fourth ramp is inverse logic. Secular society works by an economic logic. Effort leads to reward. Input leads to output. Investment leads to profit. You worship a Savior who teaches an inverse logic, which is a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain the strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desires to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself you have to lose yourself.
That inverse logic is the moral logic. There is no other.
And that’s also a great gift.
And so when I’m talking about ramps, what I am really talking about is ways of seeing, ways of perceiving vantage points. It seems to me the secular world has one vantage point, which is an economic profit-and-loss vantage point. Built around happiness.
The Christian world, the Jewish world, the Muslim world has a different vantage point, a totally different mentality, a counter-culture that compliments and completes the shallower one.
Humility as the Core
Humility is the core of it. Humility is a form of awareness. It’s not really a virtue, it’s a form of awareness. My favorite definition…some people think humility is thinking lowly of yourself. My favorite definition is “Humility is self-awareness from the context of other-centeredness.”
Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature. It’s having an accurate assessment of your own place in the cosmos. It’s an awareness that you’re an underdog in the struggle against your own sins. It’s an awareness that individual talents are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. It’s understanding yourself in the context of a greater divine order. Knowing you’re not the center of the universe and you need redemptive assistance to complete your tasks.
That all runs counter to Facebook by the way.
And so the final ramp the Christian world has offered America is simply the example of tranquility. One of my Yale students, and this was out of the mouths of babes, said, “You know we all work so hard for success but we all know success doesn’t lead to peace.”
And that turns out to be very aptly put and true. And very briefly put. But occasionally you do see peace. I quoted Dorothy Day earlier. At the end of her life – she was a great writer all of her life – at the end of her life it would have been natural for her to write her memoirs. And a guy named Robert Coles who is at Harvard asked her, “Did you ever try to write your memoirs?”
And she said, “Well, you know, I did. I sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote on the top, ‘A Life Remembered.’ And then I sat there trying to think how to start my memoirs. I sat there and I sat there, and I thought of the Lord and his visit to us those centuries ago. And I was just grateful to have had him on my mind.”
And she said, “I didn’t really feel the need to write anything else.” And that is peace.
To me the ultimate example of peace, again, to return to my hero Augustine. He’s traveling back to Africa from Italy, and he’s with his mom, Monica. And those of you who I’m sure know the story know that Monica was the worst helicopter mom in the history of helicopter moms.
But at the end of their lives, her life, they reconciled. She was 56. She was on the verge of death, and they were in a garden. And they just started talking, and they knew her death was coming.
And Augustine writes, “They experienced the very highest delight of the earthly senses, and the very purest material light in respect to the sweetness of that light, and their conversation did by degrees pass through all things bodily, even the very heaven when the sun and the moon and the stars shine upon the earth.”
So he’s going from the material things up to the spiritual.
And then he has a sentence I have read 500 million times which I can’t understand. It’s a really long sentence, but there’s a word that recurs in the course of that sentence. And that word is “hushed.”
He says, “The tumult of the flesh was hushed. The water in the air was hushed. All dreams and shallow visions were hushed. The tongues were hushed. Everything that passes away was hushed. Self was hushed. And they moved into a sort of silence.”
And that’s a beautiful description of tranquility, which I think we hunger for.
When I was at Frederick, Maryland, a few months ago now, I was with some women who teach immigrants to read, and sometimes for an adult immigrant, it takes seven years to teach them to read. And I was struck by the tone of tranquility in the small community of five or seven women. They were calm and settled and rooted. They weren’t blown off-course by setbacks. Their minds were consistent. They didn’t have the blooming virtues that my young students have. But they had the ripening virtues that are built over a lifetime.
Sometimes you don’t notice these people because they seem kind and cheerful, but they are a little reserved. They had voices that were quiet and steady. In one rabbi’s words, “They answer softly when challenged harshly. Silent when verbally abused. Dignified when other try to humiliate them. Restrained when others try to provoke them. They do get things done.”
Albert Schweitzer said he only hired people to work in his African hospitals if they regarded the work as if it were as everyday as doing the dishes because if they thought they were trying to be heroic, they would just give up. He said, “There are no heroes of action. There are only heroes of renunciation.”
And I saw that tranquility lived out in Frederick, Maryland. And it’s a reminder of the final offering, which is a life of purpose, as Rick Warren would say. Or as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. Therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history. Therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do however virtuous can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we must be saved by love. NO virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
Thanks for your attention.