A few years ago, I sat in my campus ministry office talking with a young man who was having relationship problems. Over the next couple hours he poured out his heart, confessing to many sordid activities that he had been involved in. Now, I didn’t grow up in a protected environment, but what I was hearing made me very uncomfortable. The hard part for me was putting myself in the shoes of this young man. I couldn’t even image doing what he was describing. And I knew immediately why. For me, my strongest moral compass during my youth was the thought of my mother in particular, and my family in general, of how they would respond if they learned of my involvement in certain nefarious activities. My family was a clear restraint on my actions. So, I asked this young man about how his mother would react if she knew. His first response was a confused look. Then he said, “No, I never thought about that. I don’t think she would have minded.” I was dumbstruck! I realized immediately that I was wired very differently than this young man, possessing an entirely different inner guidance system. I also knew that our key relationships (or lack thereof) provides the basis for determining how we live.
This inner wiring of the individual is the core focus of David Brook’s The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character and Achievement. Brooks demonstrates, through numerous stories and references to recent social and psychological studies, that our character and are ability to function in life is a result of our “inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms. This is the realm where character is formed and street smarts grow.” Contrary to our recent mindset of “the triumph of reason,” where knowledge and reason guide our decisions and rule our actions, Brook demonstrates that there is something more going in the human animal. For those of us who have had any involvement in ministry, this does not come as any surprise. People—even smart, well-educated people from good families—do the dumbest things! Repeatedly! The reason for this is that we are guided, not so much by reason, but by “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness” that “organize our thinking, shape our judgments, form our characters, and provide us with the skills we need in order to thrive.” Or, just as often, to self-destruct.
What Brooks develops throughout the book is a complex picture of these inner guides that make up who we are. He suggest that they are formed from the numerous relationships from the womb to the time we die. “If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people.” This focus on relationships and our complex inner wiring, I believe, is a helpful corrective for our modernist, rationalist mindset, and an important reminder for the Christian. First, it reminds us that God’s work of changing lives is not just about changing outward behavior. If our actions are based on our inner wiring, then attempting to regulate outward behavior—which has been the common practice of the Church–would be attacking only the symptoms but not the root causes. Considering the issues of the young man in my office: to tell him to stop his sinful behavior or to fix his relationships would not begin to deal with the his deeper issues of the lack of any moral guidance system, of the effects of disinterested parents, of wrong stories he has been taught about who he is and who others are, that wired him to participate in so many destructive habits. Here, it is important that the Church be reminded that Jesus came to change hearts and minds first and foremost, not just outward behavior.
Second, we can better understand the vital role the Church plays in people’s lives through the practice of liturgy, worship and story. Brooks helps us recognizing the complex nature of the self, made up of multiple relationships with friends, family and society, governed by the stories, history, memories, and messages that we’ve accumulated over time, that wired us to think and react. Throughout history, the Church has understood that we can be most deeply wired and transformed–not simply through reasoning–but through the involvement of all our senses and faculties in worship. In worship, the Church tells God’s story; the liturgy is repeated and learned over time till it reaches the deepest level of the worshiper; and movement and sensory stimulation (music, incense, the communion meal, standing and knelling) in worship all speak into the very core of the person of the things of God. As James K. A. Smith writes: “In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies….every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person.” Finally, it is in our relationships that we grow in righteousness. As MaryKate Morse reminds us: “The primary means of experiencing holiness is in right relationships to God and others. The commandments in Leviticus are about maintaining right relationships…”
Though Brooks speaks very little about religion, his concept of the person clearly reflects a biblical view, especially in his emphasis on the centrality of relationships and the significance of our inner wiring—whether we call it our unconscious, preconscious, or hearts and minds—which more determines who we are than our mental capacities or knowledge.
1David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2011), viii.
4James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 25.
5MaryKate Morse, A Guidebook to Prayer: 24 Ways to Walk with God (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2013), Kindle, 971.