Moving From Self-Centered to Other-Centered: Reflections from a “Wandering Jew and a Very Confused Christian”

In his insightful and provocative book The Second Mountain, David Brooks proposes that in searching for a “moral life,” one should move from climbing a “first mountain,” characterized by the phrase “I’m Free to be Myself,” to climbing a “second mountain” where life moves from self-centered to other-centered, as captured by the phrase “Where All in This Together.” He explores the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose on the second mountain: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Particularly provocative is his description of his own religious pilgrimage, ending with his assertion that he is a “wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.”

Although I do not have the competence to sort through the theological challenges of fully understanding the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, I will draw on the understanding of David Brooks (who is also not a theologian) as to central aspects of the “Jewish story” and the “Jesus story” and his comparison of these two stories. I will then conclude, perhaps provocatively, that he makes too much of the “differences” because of a “false choice” that he presents to the reader; which will lead me to conclude with reflections on how my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus does, or does not, fit with Brooks’ understanding.

I start with Brooks’ report on the “Jewish ethos” of his childhood.

This was the Jewish ethos of my childhood. Imagine a better future; build a better future. Don’t let them destroy us. Make it in the promised land. It was a worldly ethos, but it grew out of a deeper and more eternal one. We are commanded to co-create the world. We are commanded to finish what God has begun. Our common salvation comes through works and good deeds. Salvation though work. Survival through intelligence. Righteousness is something you achieve together, collectively as a people. And then you argue about it over a dinner table (p. 217).

Brooks first hints at the difference he sees between the Jewish and Christian stories in his description of Jesus as a “scapegoat.”

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 carries the sins of the world on his shoulders. He came precisely to bow down, to suffer, and to redeem the world (p. 219).

Based on these views of the Jewish and Jesus stories, Brooks suggests a stark difference regarding the role of “worldly accomplishment.”

In my semi-secular world of Jewish New York, we put peoplehood before faith. We were living in the shadow of the holocaust, so survival was not taken for granted. We celebrated effort, work, smarts, discipline, accomplishment, achievement. In the rabbinic tradition, the Messiah was associated with poverty, righteousness associated with the poor and the miserable. But that is not how Judaism is lived out in American culture. We were pointing toward accomplishment.

But the Jesus story was not about worldly accomplishment. It was nearly about its opposite. Jesus bowed down in order to rise up; he died so others might live. Christians are not saved by works but by faith. In fact, you can’t earn the prize of salvation, because it has already been given to you by grace (p. 219).

There is so much to unpack here. I have no reason to question Brooks’ description of the Jewish ethos and story. In fact, his descriptions of the Jewish focus on “accomplishment,” “works and good deeds” and “loving-kindness” comport well with my experience with my Jewish schoolmates in Brooklyn. But his “confusion” about those aspects of his faith informed by the Christian story may reflect a misunderstanding of the Christian story, at least as I have come to understand and embrace that story.

Although certain sectors of those committed to the Christian story create a bifurcation between “faith” and “works,” which informs Brooks’ understanding of Christianity, I reject that bifurcation based on the teaching in James 2:17 that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” I believe that Brooks presents us with a “false choice.”

“Faith” and “works” are two sides of the same coin. And the Christian story does not teach that we earn salvation by our works. Rather, it teaches that our “good works” (our “accomplishments.” If you please) are an expression of gratitude for the free “grace” that God has bestowed on us.

My understanding of the symbiotic relationship between “faith” and “good works” in the Christian story leaves room for a healthy focus on “accomplishments” that flow from Christian faith, here on earth, contrary to the view of some Christians that our faith is just other-worldly. As I often stated elsewhere, here is my understanding of the role of “accomplishments” in the Christian story.

Jesus did indeed inaugurate the “Kingdom of God” on earth, an inauguration that will only be fully consummated at the end times (in ways that go beyond my comprehension). In the meantime, those who claim to be followers of Jesus are called to “partner with God” by planting tiny “seeds of redemption” in their daily activities in this world (see Matthew 13:31-32). The harvest that results from such “tiny plantings” can indeed be viewed as important “accomplishments,” and this view comports well with Brooks’ understanding that God calls Jews (and Christians) to “finish what God has begun.”

But it is important to note that the “accomplishments” I refer to are not the “individualistic” attainments found at the top of Brook’s “first mountain,” such as autonomy and unencumbered freedom, which reflect the hyper-individualism of much of American culture. Rather, while not discounting the importance of the individual, the “second mountain” accomplishments that Brooks points us toward focus on being more “other-centered”; which comports well with the teaching of Jesus as to who will one day enter the “kingdom of heaven.”

Then the King will say to those at his right hand “Come, O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Matthew 25: 34-36).

But there is an important caution when talking about “accomplishments” in seeking to foster God’s Kingdom purposes on earth. Will our planting of tiny “seeds of redemption” yield any harvest at all? Will there be any such “accomplishments” in our broken world? At first glance, the story of Jesus is not promising; for his own work led to his crucifixion; he appeared to be an abject failure.

But, of course, that appearance of failure was illusory. Jesus climbed that second mountain like no one before or after him, being “other-centered” throughout his earthly ministry. And, despite many mis-steps, many followers of Jesus since his crucifixion have seen “redemptive harvests” emerge from their planting of tiny seeds of redemption (e.g., witness the “accomplishments” of Martin Luther King Jr., although that also led to his death).

But despite these many redemptive accomplishments, planting tiny seeds of redemption is, at best, an uphill battle in a world largely characterized by self-centeredness. Why should Christians and Jews keep trying? Because the message of the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Matthew 13: 31-32 is that Christians and Jews are called to be “faithful” in the planting of seeds of redemption. We can dare to entrust the issue of “success” to God.