One of the games people play in the world of religion and theological education is, "Where have all the Reinhold Niebuhrs gone?" Or sometimes it's "the Paul Tillichs" or, in Catholic circles, "the John Courtney Murrays." All three were well-known lecturers and writers popular in the mid-20th century.
Their influence extended beyond the church or seminary to politicians, academics in many fields, and civic leaders. They regularly contributed to and influenced public discourse and debate.
They were public theologians. They were able to bring the insights of theological teaching and wisdom to bear on public life and they were able to speak to a wide audience. So where are such figures today? Do they exist? Who are they?
Now when this game is played, some names that often come up include the Jewish novelist and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel; the Princeton professor Cornel West (his newest book is a memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud); or the social justice evangelical, Jim Wallis, author of (among others) God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.
My own nominee would be none of the above but the New York Times op-ed columnist and essayist, David Brooks. Brooks is not, of course, a professional theologian or religious leader. But he does bring theological perspective and insight to bear on American life and politics.
Sometimes, though not very often, he does this in explicit ways as a Dec. 14, 2009 column headed, "Obama's Christian Realism." More often the theological themes tend to be more subtle, as in his recent column on the firing of General Stanley McChrystal, "The Culture of Exposure," (June 24, 2010) with its references to flawed human nature.
I note three or four regular theological themes or perspectives at work in Brooks's columns and essays. One is what theologians call a sense of finitude. Human beings are finite (God is infinite). Therefore, humans are limited in wisdom and understanding.
This leads Brooks to be cautious about huge government programs and/or promised technological panaceas. In a recent column (July 5, 2010) debating the wisdom of a new economic stimulus plan ("A Little Economic Realism"), Brooks concluded with these words:
But the overall message (to the administration) is: Don’t be arrogant. This year, don’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that don’t enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do. You don’t have the ability to play the economy like a fiddle. You do have the ability to lay some foundations for long-term growth and stability.
This sense of finitude also leads Brooks to chide Americans who expect or demand too much of government. In the aftermath of last December’s attempted terrorist bombing of an airplane and amid outraged cries for government to make us completely safe and totally secure, Brooks comments, "In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, "Listen, we're doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.' But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways." Brooks argues that our expectations are unrealistic, that we're demanding a level of security that is neither wise nor possible. We're limited, finite creatures living in an imperfect world.
A second and related theme that regularly pops up is the classic Christian notion that all human beings are sinners, fallen people. Knowing this we need temper our own claims to absolute virtue and cut others some slack. This came to the fore, recently, in the Brooks' column on McCrystal where he argued that "a culture of restraint" has been overtaken by "a culture of exposure." He wrote:
During World War II and the years just after a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.
Another way that this second theme of the ubiquity of human frailty comes across in Brooks' work is his suspicion of us-them thinking. In a Jan. 26, 2010 piece, “The Populist Addiction,” Brooks argued that, "Populism and elitism seem different, but they"re really mirror images of one another. They both assume a country fundamentally divided. They both describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers."
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