David Brooks and Religious Hostility: Tasting Goodness

In his column for the New York Times called Alone, Yet Not Alone, David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the Biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.

So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the undeserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se. It results from the part of being human that makes legalism such a temptation for both the religious and secular alike. For it is just as likely that a secular or atheist or spiritual-but-not-religious person can engage in the wall building exercise too, dividing the world up into the good and bad, the right and the wrong, always and forever finding that – what luck! – I am on the right side of things. Certainty, it seems, can masquerade as doubt when doubt becomes the dividing line we build our walls upon.

The temptation to build legalistic definitions of who we are is rooted in our desire to belong, a desire so fundamental to human nature that we must feed it or die. Legalism is the fast food of this desire, a quick fix that reassures us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we know who we are, that who we are is good, and that God loves us. This way of defining ourselves is unfortunately an endless buffet of empty calories, for despite repeated trips to the buffet our hunger returns sometimes stronger than ever. That’s when we madly try to reinforce the boundaries of identity by exaggerating our claims of goodness and the wickedness of others. What the Bible knows about us is how dependent we are on this way of building identity and how bad it is for us. The Biblical term for it is idolatry and it’s an understatement to say that the Scriptures oppose it!

What Scripture teaches us is not that there is a choice between worshipping God or not worshipping at all. Human beings will always worship something, it’s just who we are. Worship is how human beings create a sense of belonging and goodness. We cannot accomplish this on our own. We are not born knowing who we are and to whom we belong. We must be taught these things, we must be given these things from those who love and nurture us into being. Religious people call that being who loves the ones who love us so that we can love ourselves and others, who is the source and ground of all being, God. By rejecting the antiquated and delusion practices of religion, the secularist believes he is entirely freed from worship but all he accomplishes is to give idolatry a new disguise. What for the religious person is conscious and intentional, goes underground for the anti-religious. If you deny your need for worship, that need will not go away. It will simply hide out of conscious view.

This, of course, is not religious talk, not really. The reality of worship is basic anthropology and the social and neuro-sciences offer us their non-religious language for talking about it. Family systems theory is a wonderful example in which the therapist no longer treats people in isolation from their network of relationships. In the brain sciences, mirror neurons are offering evidence that we are wired to imitate the intentions of others. In other words, we are built with the ability to learn what to desire from others, an ability that may be the foundation for worship in all its forms. The great theorist of anthropology and the origins of human culture, René Girard, has taken as the basis for all his work the simple fact of human mimeticism: that we are intimately intertwined with one another down to the level of desire and identity formation.

Which is why the religious and secular alike are prone to grasping after cheap, fast-food identities – we cannot know who we are without help from a friend. Or an enemy lurking just outside the wall. Brooks offers singer/ songwriter Audrey Assad as one example of the “silent majority” whose faith has led them to a sense of self and belonging that less and less makes use of walls, “who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.” Her lyric from I Shall Not Want, a song Brooks invites us to listen to, expresses exactly what I have been trying to say about legalism as an example of false worship or idolatry. She sings:

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God
Deliver me O God

And I shall not want, I shall not want
when I taste Your goodness I shall not want
when I taste Your goodness I shall not want

Audrey is singing the truth that it is our need to be understood and accepted, our desperate fear of loneliness that causes us to grasp onto the nearest bit of cheap identity like a drowning man thrashing for a lifeline. To put that need on hold a little while, we need the faith of child that our needs will be met by one who is waiting for us, who is reaching out for us if only we can stop thrashing long enough to see.

As Brooks quotes Augustine as saying,

There is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.

Our need to be understood and accepted longs for a good meal. At whose table will you feast today?

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