Many people, as I said, sent me books. But the wisest sent me back to the story. If you want to explore faith, read the Bible and pray. Religion is not theology, despite the tendency of bookish people to want to make it so. It is not sensation, despite the tendency of mystical people to want to make it so. It is betting your life that a myth is true. In its outline, the Jesus story is a pretty familiar myth, which probably recurs in all culture: The city is riven by fractures, by cycles of vengeance and counter-vengeance. The only way to purge the hatred and division is by piling the sins of the community onto a scapegoat. It is by casting out the scapegoat that the sins of the society can be externalized and expurgated. It is by killing the scapegoat that unity can be achieved. Jesus is the classic scapegoat, the innocent outsider that all the groups could rally around in their bloodlust and dump their hatreds on. The only thing that is different about the Jesus story—and it is a big difference—is that in this story Jesus came to earth precisely to be the scapegoat. He volunteered for this job, forgave those who executed him, and willingly carried the sins of the world on his shoulders. He came precisely to bow down, to suffer, and to redeem the world. He came not to be the awesome conquering Messiah that most of us would want, but to be the lamb, to submit, to love his enemies. He came not to be the victim of sin, but the solution. His strength was self-sacrificial, and his weapon love so that we might live.
Billions of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others have bet their whole lives on a supposition that a certain myth is true. It was necessary to return, again and again, to the biblical story. So I kept going back to the stories, wondering if they were true, or, more precisely, letting the stories gradually sink into this deeper layer inside that was suddenly accessible. Walker Percy says that good fiction tells us what we know but don’t quite know that we know. The Bible is like that, too.
A religious commitment—like other commitments—is more like responding to a summons than it is like choosing which can of soup to buy in the supermarket. It’s something you sort of control and sort of don’t control. Nobody catches faith simply by running after it, but nobody catches faith without running after it in some way. I know a lot of people who would prefer to have religious faith, but they just don’t. And I know others, no better and no worse, who do have faith, and perhaps sometimes wish they didn’t. The best way I’ve heard to describe my own moment of decision is this: Imagine you are riding in a train. You’re in your seat, reading a book or staring at your phone. There are people around you doing all the normal things. On the surface everything seems the same. But all the while you have been traveling across miles of country. Suddenly it occurs to you, with no great surprise but simply an obvious recognition, that you are very far from the station where you started. There’s a lot of ground behind you. Moreover, at some point in the journey, you crossed over a border. There was no customs officer and no great fanfare. You realize that while God is still a big mystery, you don’t not believe in him. You’re not an atheist. You’re not even an agnostic. You’re not going to live without the biblical metaphysic. You’ve crossed into a different country, and the myths feel true.
It’s fair to ask, Did I convert? Did leave Judaism and become a Christian? The first thing to say is that while these categories are very much opposites in the world, in history, and in the minds of pretty much everybody I know, they have never been big opposites in my life. I’ve had both stories running through my life since I was four, and nothing is different now. I feel more Jewish than ever before. I was always and will always be culturally Jewish, but now I feel religiously Jewish. God’s covenant with the Jewish people is a real thing. When I’m at Jewish events, as I often am, my heart swells and I feel at home. I love the faith more now than before. If Jews don’t want me as a Jew, they’re going to have to kick me out.
On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew. The beatitudes are the moral sublime, the source of awe, the moral purity that takes your breath away and toward which everything points. In the beatitudes we see the ultimate road map for our lives. There are a lot of miracles in the Bible, but the most astounding one is the existence of that short sermon. Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like. He did not show mercy; he is mercy. He did not offer perfect love; he is perfect love. As the Catholic intellectual Romano Guardini writes, “In the Beatitudes something of the celestial grandeur breaks through. They are no mere formulas for superior ethics, but tidings of sacred and supreme reality’s entry into the world.” Those accounts do feel like a completion to me. Which brings me to the crucial question: Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do I believe his body was gone from the tomb three days after the crucifixion? The simple, brutally honest answer is, It comes and goes. The border stalker in me is still strong.
The fuller answer is that the way I experience faith is not a block of concrete. Faith is change. Faith is here one moment gone the next, a stream that evaporates. At least for me. The novelist Frederick Buechner once observed that if he were asked what faith is:
“it’s exactly the journey through space and time I’d talk about, the ups and downs over the years, the dreams, the odd moment, the intuitions….Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.”
I have to confess I don’t really resonate with most religious people I meet. I don’t want to use my doubts as a badge of honor to make me seem more reasonable or sophisticated before the world. I fully acknowledge that these doubts probably grow out of my own insufficiency, the years of living life on the upper level of the play. I will just say I don’t experience faith the way some people do, for whom God is as real as the table in front of you. For them, faith is wholehearted. They are in it with all their soul, and there’s something beautiful in that singleness of heart. But I come at faith from a different angle, based on a different journey, in ways that are undoubtedly connected to my makeup and personality. I connect more with a smaller group of people who struggle with faith, who wrestle with all the ridiculous unlikelihood of faith. I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source. But I find that as long as there are five or ten people in your life whose faith seems gritty and real and like your own, that keeps the whole thing compelling.
David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and the bestselling author of The Road to Character and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. Excerpt from The Second Mountain: The Quest For The Moral Life by David Brooks, copyright © 2019 by David Brooks. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.