WASHINGTON – On the outside, conservative commentator David Brooks seemed to have it all: New York Times columnist, TV political analyst, and best-selling author. Inside, however, something was missing. In 2013, after 30 years of marriage, divorce rocked his world. He also entered the "empty nester" phase of life. "One of the things I learned is that when you're in one of those hard moments, you can either be broken or broken open," Brooks told CBN News.
For Brooks, it led to soul searching and renewal that he writes about in his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.
"I think the first mountain is the mountain of career, the one society wants us to climb and people find it unsatisfying," says Brooks. "I've achieved way more career success than I thought I ever would but did I have an all-consuming purpose? Did I have a deep connection? No, I didn't. So, you go down the valley and then when you're in the valley you find your bigger, larger self basically and then you realize you're ready for a larger climb. If the first mountain is about acquisition, how do I get stuff for me, the second mountain is about contribution, how can I love others."
"I Had Two Stories Running Through My Head"
As a child, he had always heard about God's love. Brooks is Jewish but also had major Christian influences. "I had two stories running through my head," said Brooks. "The Jewish story which is an exodus story. We cross the wilderness, we escape oppression and we come to the land of milk and honey and then the Jesus story. I went to chapel every morning, sang in the choir and I had those two stories in my head during my early life."
The Gradual Process of Coming to Know God
After his divorce, an attempt at self-discovery led to a personal walk with God, in the most unusual place. Brooks remembers it perfectly. "I was walking around [New York City's] Penn Station and it's like the ugliest place on the face of the earth and I happened to be in one of those subway tunnels and it occurred to me that everyone around me has a soul and their soul is either getting sanctified or it's getting degraded." But Brooks saw even more meaning. "There's another understory which is how our souls are doing at any moment, how close or far we feel from God. So once I became aware of that hidden layer, then I realized I'm a faithful person and the way I want to describe it was that it was not some blinding revelation, there was no moment, like, 'Road to Damascus.' there was no epiphany. It was just a very gradual process."
The reading of the New Testament, especially the Book of Matthew, changed his spiritual outlook. "I feel more Jewish than I have ever felt before because I used to be culturally Jewish but now I think the covenant is real," Brooks said.
The Remarkable Divine Presence
"But then, I had grown up with this other story and as I wrote, I can't undo Matthew. And to me, The Beatitudes are, as one person I quote in the book, are where celestial grandeur breaks through. This person said that The Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, is not just a bunch of wise sayings. It's completely a remarkable miracle of Divine Presence and so I can't forget that part of the Bible, the Matthew part, the John part so I still have these two stories in my head and one seems to be a continuation of the other, to be honest."
'Wandering Jew' and 'Confused Christian'
Since publishing his book and revealing his spiritual story, headline writers have wondered: 'what religion is David Brooks, anyway?' When asked to describe himself, Brooks says, "My joke is that I'm a 'Wandering Jew' and a confused Christian. I have both the stories in my head but I think my Jewish friends would say I'm Christian. They say you can't believe in Matthew and still be Jewish, you've sort of crossed the line so I guess that's fair but I also say that if they want to get me out of Judaism, they're going to have to kick me out because I feel very devoted to those stories and those characters and to that culture."
Despite a spiritual awakening, don't put Brooks in the 'Evangelicals for Trump' camp. One of his most recent columns is titled, 'Donald Trump Hates America.' "I'm not a big fan of Donald Trump, yes, definitely not for his own character behavior reasons," said Brooks. "I don't think he exemplifies what I perceive to be the Christian values but I'm new to this." Yet he admits he got it wrong in 2016. "I was living in Washington. I was going up to New York, my favorite city, I was teaching at Yale. How could I get out of touch with America?" he said sarcastically.
President Trump doesn't take up any space in Brooks' new work. Rather, The Second Mountain explores a concept much bigger than Trump, which is, how do you lead a meaningful life in such a self-centered world?
"We've had 60 years of self, self, self. We've overdone it so we have to turn a cultural corner and find a better way to live," he said.
Brooks says, despite a culture spiraling out of control, he sees Evangelical Christians as part of the solution. "I go to Christian colleges a lot and I say you shouldn't feel besieged. You have what the country wants. The country is spiritually hungry."
Starving for Connection
And so was David Brooks: starving for connection with God and with others. "Only eight percent of Americans say they have an important conversation with their neighbors; 35 percent of Americans are chronically lonely; the teenage suicide rate has risen by 70 percent in the last decade or so. And that's just people being cut off from one another," Brooks said. "So I'm hoping that people on the local level will build connection so there will be less loneliness."
It's a heavy undertaking, no small task climbing that, 'second mountain.' When asked where Brooks is in the climbing process, he humbly laughs. "I'm in the foothills, maybe. I meet some people who radiate joy. I'm not quite there yet."
After all, all of us are works in progress.