Earlier this year the blogosphere was abuzz with rumors that David Brooks, renowned social critic and New York Times columnist might be converting from Judaism to Christianity. In an interview with the Washington Post, he went on the record declaring the Christian theologian and writer “Augustine the smartest human being I’ve ever encountered in any form.” And in his new book, The Road to Character, Brooks draws heavily on Christian figures throughout history that he posits are essential to know and to learn from if one desires to craft an interior life of moral depth. Conversion might be premature, but his recognition that building character is best done with the aid of the Christian creed is significant.
In discussing his motivation for this book, Brooks admits in the introduction that “I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul.” He begins with the distinction of the resume virtues versus the eulogy virtues. Most of us go about our lives thinking primarily of the former: how are we to best achieve success in our workplace and to be recognized for making valuable contributions in some professional, external capacity. Few people spend more time thinking about how they might be remembered at their funeral—how their friends or family might summarize their relationships, their personal care and attention, and their integrity. But, as we all know, it’s only the latter virtues that count beyond the grave.
Once upon a time there was “an older moral ecology.” According to Brooks, this tradition “emphasized our own brokenness” and men and women of character spent time, contemplation, and care trying to improve upon their fallen condition. Some might even say, it was an awareness of sin in one’s own life that served as both conviction and motivation to seek out moral improvement.
Take Augustine for example. It’s well known that Augustine spent much of his life struggling with lust and ambition. As he wrote in his Confessions, “What I needed most was to love to be loved.” When the emptiness of failed relationships left him in despair, he looked within and as Brooks notes, his “first step was to undertake an almost scientific expedition into his own mind. It’s hard to think of another character in Western history up to that time who did such a thorough excavation of his own psyche.”
Among his chief tasks of reform was to rid himself of pride—something that in many places today is considered to be a virtue. Key to being able to doing this was his realization—and acceptance—of grace. Pride, lust, greed, and ambition, all of the things he prized most, required more than just personal efforts to restrain and control. They required acceptance that grace is ultimately what allows us to become the creatures we were created to be. The existence of grace is what allows inner transformation to occur.
A similar discovery was made by Dorothy Day—another figure profiled by Brooks who stumbled her way into the same conclusion as Augustine after working for years in various radical social causes, having an abortion, and abandoned by her long time boyfriend when she decided to convert to Christianity. She would later go on to remark that “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.”
But Day did more than talk about God—she lived out the Christian faith in one of the most remarkable and humble witnesses imaginable. Her life became one of service and solidarity with the poor where she lived in community, fed the hungry of New York on a daily basis, and spent her life championing their causes. Despite her outward living, her interior life was her first priority, spending hours in prayer each day. She was a small woman, but a giant of the faith, and thanks to Brooks, her legacy is becoming better known.
Different in style, but drawing off the same substance, these two figures—along with many others profiled in The Road to Character—remind us that if we’re truly interested in changing ourselves, we must first look beyond ourselves to realize that our own selves matter least. Even though it’s not explicitly a religious book, what’s apparent is one’s own need for a savior. You can’t awaken individuals to the reality of sin, without also pointing a way for redemption. Ultimately, The Road to Character is not traveled for one’s own sake. Or as another book reminds us, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”