David Brooks socio-psychological study, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, while full of holes and inconsistencies overlaying a political agenda, does very much get to the heart of how human’s develop, grow, and flourish. His central thesis is that our emotional subconscious is very much a key leader in how we will interact, live, react, and succeed or fail in the world. Using an almost bizarre amount of random factoids and scientific studies, he strings them along with a life narrative about two people to illustrate his point. The complex social systems we inhabit, whether they be family, culture, neighborhood, or school, go on to have profound influence on our emotional subconscious, affecting our intelligence, emotional well-being, successes, failures, and even our next generation. Brooks does not seem to be deterministic though, he is working mainly with statistics and probabilities, and does a good job pointing out the exceptions, and that people can overcome and break through.
Brooks does give us some good things to think about as Christians and leaders. Generally, he is asking how do we affect change, or create systems that will promote human flourishing. For Brooks, the ultimate focus should be on “the character of the society” so that we are also utilizing “emotional and social perspectives” in how we tackle societal problems (loc 5279, 5299). That is to say, Brook’s final thesis is that emotionally healthy people of high character will emerge from socially strong and adequate systems, to continue to form equally strong social systems. There is not much really new here. One need only read Bauman or Castells, or really any anthropologist to find similar conclusions about how human’s develop emotionally and cognitively. Brooks is much more optimistic though and simplifies by focusing in on the powerful urges of our emotions. Culture is of course one of the biggest, unconscious emotional delimiters of morality, beauty, cognition, and values. It is no wonder Yahweh set forth such strong cultural markers for his chosen people in the Old Testament, for their protection and flourishing. Still, we know how the story goes, even when training up a child in righteousness, we get some good and some bad, and in the end God’s chosen failed at their ultimate end (although a study of the myriad success and flourishing of Jewish culture would be interesting in light of Brook’s thesis). Still, they were just part of a bigger plan, a sign and a foretaste of what was to come, and incubation of God’s ultimate plan and love. For God, had said he would one day bring about his Spirit and write his law on the hearts of the people, and thus would flow mercy and love.
Here we turn to the issue of morality. One which Brooks makes some interesting observations about how our unconscious informs our morality put into actual action. Morality is an essential part of the puzzle here. It is essential how we treat each other, and ourselves. Adultery breaks up and destroys families, greed leads to stealing (at all levels), and how we view others can either lead to exclusion or embrace. Even different cultures do not always agree on the clearer definitions of morality. For a Spaniard, not being completely direct or honest is not a matter of importance, but to a German it is everything. Current political and economic European realities bear this out. Here Brooks explains that it is our deep unconscious emotions that really enact our moral agency. The problem of immorality is when there is a strong disconnect between our emotional self and our actions. Perhaps this is what Paul railed against when he said he did the things he did not want to do. For Brooks healthy morality comes together when we become deeply aware of our inner selves and strive for “integrity-integrating inner ideals with automatic action. (loc 48522).” This seems to be what God is calling us to: moral action that comes from a deep emotional well spring from within. That the law be written on our hearts. That mercy and compassion flow out of us into action. Jesus often acted out of compassion for others. In fact his acts of healing and miracles often directly followed the use of the verb “splagchnizomai.” This Greek verb signified being moved in one’s deepest bowels towards loving action.
As Christians we often struggle between the letter of the law, in imposing righteousness through structure and rule, and the Spirit of the law, acting out of love of God and neighbor, but not a weak kneed Hollywood type of love, one of Jesus centered compassion. So there we have it, the church still often has a morality issue. Either we fail to live up to our ideal morality, or we do, but we lack the real connection to our inner emotional life. What to do?
Perhaps we do need to deal with our deep unconscious and emotional self. Perhaps we need to spend more time digging deep like a mole into the inner recesses of our soul. Reflection, contemplation, and silence may need once again to become a part of mainstream Christian spirituality, and not just for monastics. Monastics like Teresa de Avila understood this link, how in the contemplation of the inner self and of God, one could receive great healing, and integration of the emotions with the will, so that one could be better prepared to truly love God and neighbor in action.