David Brooks on Why He Has Become More Religiously Inclined

I’ve become much more religiously inclined. And that’s, I think, for three things.

First, for an awareness of one’s moral mediocrity. For example, you meet these people who radiate an inner light. And I was in Frederick, Maryland, I don’t know how many years ago, and I ran into these ladies. There were probably 30 of them, aged 50 to 80, who teach immigrants English and then how to read it. And I walk into the room, and they just radiate patience and goodness, Dorothy Day directness, just that calmness. They didn’t know me from Adam, but they made me feel funnier and smarter and special, and they just had that — they radiated that light. I remember thinking, “I’ve achieved way more career success than I ever thought I would, but I don’t have that.”

Second, would be the experience of grace. And the story I tell about that — these are just exemplar stories, but I have a million of them. I was driving home from the NewsHour about 10 years ago, and I pull into my driveway, and it’s 7:30 at night, but it’s summer, so it’s still light out. My kids, who are then 12, 9, and 4, were in the backyard kicking a supermarket ball up in the air. And they were running across the yard, chasing down this ball, tumbling all over each other, laughing, giggling, sort of shouting with joy. And I pull up into the driveway, and I see into the backyard. I get confronted with this tableau of perfect family happiness…..

…and so I just sit there staring at it through the windshield. And it’s one of those moments where reality sort of spills outside its boundaries, and time and life are sort of suspended, and you become aware of a happiness that you don’t deserve, which is grace. When that happens, your soul swells up a little, and you want to be worthy of that happiness. And it’s just a moment when the soul is swelling.

And then lately — one experience is love, deep love. And the nice thing — Christian Wiman, who is a poet I’ve quoted in your presence before says, “Love is always on the move. It’s never content to just love one thing.” So you want to love the person, you want to love — but then your flesh sort of gets opened up, exposing soft flesh below, and you realize your riches are not in yourself, and that sort of desire and even awareness of a fusion at that deep level sort of changes your view.

So when you go through these experiences, theology begins to make sense because it speaks spiritually, emotionally, and morally. So it’s not like I read it because I’m suddenly — well, it’s not an academic enterprise; it’s the way to see the world. And so it’s become an explanatory tool as much as anything else.

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