A Brooksian Christmas Story


I have been away from my blog for several weeks. I claim overwork. I am writing an essay for the Great Transition Initiative, and finishing plans for a course I am delivering at my learning at retirement institute. The subject of the course is “Authenticity” or a look at the notion of self through the ages. It’s a chance to put some of my current thinking on self, being, and authenticity into a historical context. But I have been buried. So when I read David Brooks’ op-ed piece today, as it so often happens, a little voice inside said I would have to respond and not let him get away with it without some comment. As I re-read it, some turned to be a lot.

I found the article so full of errors and misstatements that I am having trouble not to write a dissertation about it. But let me begin with calling attention the important words in the article: faith, belief, spirituality religion, and rationality. Although this will not be a vocabulary lesson, I will try to capture meanings I have gleaned for many places. The quotes sections are all from his piece. Faith is the belief in something that you can’t explain through reason or rational arguments based on scientific theories or facts.

He begins with, “With Hanukkah coming to an end, Christmas days away, and people taking time off work, we are in a season of quickened faith.” I don’t think that faith, itself quickens, especially in this season. The cynics among us attribute the activities around this season more to the institutions of economics than to those of organized religion. It is true that holidays tend to call the slackers like me back to the houses of religion, but, in my case and, as I read, that of most Christians in the US, the draw is from other obligations than the tenets of faith itself.

A few lines later he says, “You’d think faith would be a simple holding of belief, or a confidence in things unseen, but, in real life, faith is unpredictable and ever-changing.” Wrong, David. The notion of faith connotes something to be held until it can no longer be. That was the struggle of Job, and similar cases through Christian history. Brooks and the sources he quotes confuse spiritual experiences and their impacts on our beliefs with faith. A very bad error. We may have such experiences often during our lives and they may then have a profound influence on some of our beliefs. In particular, they may cause us to question other beliefs we are holding that have become rooted through reason or other expressions of faith inculcated by religious affiliations. These comments are all from only the first 3 lines of the article.

Then, he quotes a Yale colleague (no elitism here), who says,

When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?” (My emphasis)

Another confusion between religious experiences and spiritual ones! Humans have had spiritual experiences long before they were institutionalized into religious contexts by those who saw power in invoking god as the cause of these inexplicable, mysterious phenomena, on the basis of what was known about how the world worked at the time. Knowledge by our present standards was in very short supply.

Such “glittering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith.” Half right. Faith refers to the beliefs behind the experiences. If powerful enough, they may lead the experiencing individual to hold beliefs created from scratch to explain what happened. No religion here yet, as Wiman’s, his Yale colleague then argues, but “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward.”

Wow, he completely misses the point that religions are selling a particular set of spiritualistic ideas to those who have never experienced them. How many even true believers have seen a burning bush or experienced the mystery of the Eucharist. Religions have done a disservice to the idea of spirituality, an individual experience by institutionalizing and killing the spirit, so to say.

Next Brooks writes (I apologize for using so much of his piece, but I find it compelling),

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

This is pure gobbledygook. Spiritual moments may do lots of things but not flash images of ethical perfection and merciful love. Phenomenological, they are conscious experiences that we cannot explain. Given this, they cannot flash such images. We can bring them forth later if we try to describe and explain (or rationalize that as based on reason) them. I do argue in my work that that may make us conscious of being connected to whatever appears in these moments. The feeling invoked by watching a beautiful scene may bring forth a sense of connection missing in the hurly-burly of much of life, but where is perfection and love. If a longing, as he pictures it does arise, that is not faith. It is a longing that may cause the seeker to look for other beliefs that help him enrich life beyond what the rationalized belief of modernity can offer. More about this in a moment.

Then he writes, “It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget.” Sure they do, but they are certain to have that forgetfulness reinforced if they seek to find it in religion, for religion will offer a set of faith-based beliefs as substitutes for whatever was there in his or her moment.

I’ll divert from the exegesis of Brooks’ piece for a moment and talk about spirituality. I believe strongly that spirituality is a central part on what it is to be human and make this argument in all of my writings. We are meaning-seeking creatures and cannot live without it in our civilized, cultural settings. Meaning entails the explanations we give to everything we directly and vicariously experience through stories from all sorts. The medium of meaning is language. It is the medium by which we embody meaning in our brains and extract it from there. We can place language in four distinct domains that completely encompass human conscious experience. These are experiences involving ourselves, other human beings, all the rest of animate and inanimate material world, and an important fourth origin, those with the transcendent origin. These are the spiritual experiences. They are as much a part of the history of our species as are those with material causes. Our language confronts with them every day. We still encounter them long after science has come to be the rational source of almost everything we are conscious of.

Religion is not the same. Religion is an institution that evolved to organize the spiritual experiences of few. Western religions are largely based on a concept of god as the primary source for all spiritual experiences, and still may be invoked as what brought me that gorgeous sunset that gave me shivers. I obviously do not believe this as my writing indicates, but hopefully is not letting my personal beliefs get in the way of this critique.

Then comes.

The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.

I don’t get the first part of this, but was startled by the last sentence, “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.” It seems to me that reason, whether conceived by the Greeks, who more or less invented it or by modern philosophers, always refers to a process of argument based or experience and rational or logical derivations of that experience. He has badly confused faith and reason, making a category error. Faith is a form of belief. Belief is the key concept. Beliefs are those truths on which human agency is based as justified. Faith is a kind of belief without reasoned grounds. It is true because I say so. Now this is not a pejorative statement. The “I” may be a single believer who is completely justified in holding any beliefs until they contravene societal mores and norms. That’s the argument William James made in his famous piece, “The Will to Believe.”

The “I” may be the “Books” on which the great Abrahamic religions are based. I will note that faith is involved in even our rational system of beliefs, but I don’t think that is what Brooks meant. Accepting that science and rationality produce the correct model of the world on which to base our culture is a matter of faith, in fact, one of the key articles of faith of Modernity. In fact, science, like religion, is merely another story we tell about our beliefs about the world out there. Modernity changed their priority. What matters is the meaning we draw from these stories and act on.

Then he throws a Talmudic scholar, Joseph Soloveitchik, at us. I am far from a Jewish scholar such as Soloveitchik, but I did go and read the entire “footnote” from which this extract is taken. Here it is the part Brooks quotes:

The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.

Since my immediate reading was that the Rabbi has it completely backward, I thought I might understand his point by reading the whole piece cited. No such luck. I believe religions and science exist in two separate and distinct domains, much like C. P. Snow argues in his famous essay, “The Two Cultures,” which separated intellectual life into science and the humanities. If the humanities are seen as the place from which meaning and its moral consequences come, I might include religions there. Science always needs another distinct domain of intellectual activity to give meaning the knowledge it produces. Soloveitchik is railing against the nihilism that has been attributed by many to philosophers ranging from Nietzsche to Heidegger. But to see objective thought as the perpetrator of all the evil we have seen in our times on earth is, I find, preposterous. Rationality and objectivity are amoral, but do produce the material forces that are and have been utilized by moral arguments far from its reach. If we are to focus on faith in this column, bringing in rationality as a component further fuzzes the picture.

I know I am running on, but can’t stop now. Next we have:

Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”

What are these “claims of reason”? It seems to me that reason make claims only in the sense that we take it to be the appropriate basis for action until we find more reasons to change our beliefs. It is true that we debate which is the more legitimate basis for action in the world: reason-based beliefs or faith-based beliefs, but that debate was won with the enlightenment and the evolution of modernity. Should we abandon what science and reason tell us about climate change and give in to arguments based on faith? Should we abandon a pretty good story about how humans got here is place of a story can only survive on a completely faith-based explanation. We have a claim on reason, not vice versa. So with religion. It is our choice to invoke one of these stories to win our arguments.


All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

This seems to be about religion. That’s where creators live. Look, I am not dumping on religion. I am trying to unpack Brooks’ article and make sense out of it because some of what is here is very important. If he means that those of religious faith are bound by the ethical and moral tenets that have become attached to the religion, I strongly agree. Most, if not all, of the important moral guidance we need for living fully, comes from theologians and philosophers, as the interpreters of what we experience in the world. But it takes more than faith to be attentive to every moment. Faith cannot guide us through the real world without the objective knowledge science provides us. Again look at the case of climate change.

Almost done:

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

The process of life is inherently “complex and arduous.” Spiritual dilemmas are no different from existential ones. That’s the real point here, I believe. Science has reveals an awe-inducing amount of knowledge about the world, but which is not very useful in helping individuals make choices in life or explain why this or that happened to me. When faith tries to provide answers to such questions, it is not very good either, because, like science it finds its answers in categories and generalities, like “God’s ways are mysterious, so stop asking that question.”

Finally the last paragraph:

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

I don’t follow most of this paragraph, but found in the last line the zinger I was hoping to find. He, I will guess, is pointing to existentialism without meaning to, as a philosophical argument for making the most about what humans are and can experience during a lifetime on Earth. Existentialists, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, whom Soloveitchik rails against as being evil (my interpretation of these passages) also wrote this just before the part Brooks cited:

First, the entire Romantic aspiration to escape from the domain of knowledge, the rebellion against the authority of objective, scientific cognition which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and antiscientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity, the lavishing of extravagant praise on the Faustian type and the Dionysian personality, etc., etc., have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world.

The existentialist credo, if such a credo exists, is that individuals are unique; there is no way to put them into the categories of science or religion. To be human is to live one’s finite existence on earth, faced with the constant terror of knowing that there is no ultimate source to call on to guide the next act and get find an excuse for whatever what was done. Science and religion are just stories that may be useful in this regard, but lack relevance in real life, itself, in its everydayness. I will finish with a brief statement that makes a quite different case.

Spirituality, not religion, is what is truly important because it is a basic part of the humanity of our species. Much of the inhumanity of modern life can be attributed to spirituality’s loss to modern categories of knowledge. Science has separated us from the world’s mystery by its reductionist methodologies that separate humans from the world, and weaken the sense of connectedness to it. Love comes naturally from that sense of connectedness, not from some moral statement that merely recognized love as a basic human emotion. Love is a special form of caring; one in which the other is acknowledged as having an equivalent right to exist as the giver. But love like any form of caring is essentially action across some connection. More reason to always focus on spirituality, not religion. One is existential; the other is a reduced institution structure that has substituted dogma for raw human experience.

Descartes turned us into mere objects to be understood just like rocks. The concreteness inherent to the existentialist view of the human being is also important to our view of the world. Science gives us abstract rules to describe its parts, but cannot tell us how the whole organic, complex world is working at any moment or where it will be in the next. Whitehead wrote famously of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We are forever mistaking the menu for the meal. Perfection is a consciousness of the wholeness and interconnectedness of the cosmos; absolutely unavailable in the machine that science brings us. Both science and religion have squeezed out spirituality from a normal practice in our modern world.

Neither rationally based nor faith-based beliefs (I should really say religiously-based because that is what goes for faith today) can provide the basis for achieving our human potential, either as individuals or societies. I have called that achievement, flourishing. It can only exist upon a model of human being that is different from one that faith, religious or otherwise, or science can provide.

If this season is to be a time to celebrate our humanity, religion, IMHO, is not the way to do it. We should be learning more about its teachings, rather than its preachings, for there is the place to find invaluable wisdom. Science can do nothing here. I wonder how it got into article. It is very important to avoid confusing categories of belief, as we seek more of what we can become. Beliefs are the foundation for our individual and social actions. We can see them both in our personal habits and the routines of norms of societies. Neither science nor faith has gotten us far enough and seems to be leading us farther from the vision of existential flourishing. But these form the social paradigm that dominates the West. If we truly want to find flourishing and the full expression our unique humanity, we must find our way into a new paradigm. If we are to do that, understanding the words we use is critical. Words carry the meanings we use to build and legitimate the institutions that drive our culture. They underpin the ways we act and feel. Writers, like Brooks have a responsibility to clarify, not obfuscate, them. Thanks again, David, for so much, maybe too much grist, for my mill.