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'êt be arrogant. This year, don'êt engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that don'êt enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do. You don'êt 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'ês 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, 'êThe Populist Addiction,'ê 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."
Again, classical theological thought tends to be suspicious of such easy divisions between the right-thinking and wrong-headed. All are fallen; no one is without sin. The line between good and evil does not run between the political parties, but passes right through every human heart. No one side has all the truth. So, in one column, he reminds us, "As you act to combat evil, you wouldn't want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting." With such words, Brooks is almost channeling Niebuhr.
Such an awareness of human fallibility, leads naturally in theological thought, and in Brooks's work, to a third theological theme, some notion of grace or the idea that we're not completely left to our devices here and we have some reason for hope and optimism.
Often Brooks expresses such a broader trust not so much in an explicit theological way but in a root confidence in American people and a certain American genius. Recently, this has led to argue for locally based input and solutions to the BP oil spill and not the wisdom of outside experts (who, one might argue, created the problem) alone.
This sense of confidence in the wisdom of citizens and local action also came out in his Dec. 31, 2009 column on the attempted airliner terrorist bombing. Commenting on massive federal and technological efforts to combat terrorism and people'ês expectations that government should provide them complete safety and security, Brooks observed: At some point, it's worth pointing out that it wasn't the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.
This tends to be Brooks'ê version of providence or grace: That unexpected people come through. That there are forces at work for renewal, which experts miss or underestimate. That the news isn't all bad, as in an April 5, 2010 column that contained these lines, "In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It's always excelled at de-centralized community building."
These core theological themes — human finitude, sin, grace and providence, and an optimism borne of the latter — tend to appear and re-appear in Brooks's work. Together they compose a kind of non-systematic public theology that shows this tradition still has considerable life in it.
So, why don't such contributions come forth from theologians or from religious leaders? As for professional theologians, they have largely lost the ability to address wider audiences and speak in ordinary language. Mimicking those in other academic and specialist sub-cultures, they have developed languages that either aren't accessible or even particularly interesting to people outside their guild.
Meanwhile, religious leaders have tended to mirror the polarization of the culture at-large, preferring to choose sides in the culture and political wars and thus speaking to their base and cohort. Thus they tend to join rather than challenge orthodoxies whether of the right or the left.
Of course, the failure of theologians and religious leaders on this score is a more complex matter than either of these quick explanations suggest, and not all blame can be laid at their door. But in the meantime, we do continue to have some wise and helpful public theological voices, Brooks among them, keeping alive a tradition that has been a major, positive force in American life and culture.
Or as they put it in the African-American church, "God will not leave himself without a witness." And I, for one, am grateful for the witness offered by David Brooks.