I thought I’d want to talk about is how to be religious in the public square. What does the culture need from you? At least in my opinion.
Now I grew up in a slightly different atmosphere than a lot of people in this room. I work at what I think of as the greatest newspaper in the world, but being a conservative, religious person at The New York Times is a bit like being the chief rabbi in Mecca. There’s not a lot of company there some days.
I grew up in a very left-wing household in Greenwich Village in New York. Nonetheless I went to Grace Church School. I was part of the all-Jewish boys’ davening choir at Grace. We sang the hymns, but to square with our religion we didn’t sing the word, “Jesus,” so the volume would drop down and then come back up.
I went to the University of Chicago, which we called the Wheaton of the Southside. The best line about Chicago: it’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas.
I’ve lived much of my life in the secular culture. And it’s an achievement-oriented culture. If you go to the elementary schools in my local neighborhood in Washington, DC, you see the kids coming out at three in the afternoon, they’ve got those 80-pound backpacks on. If the wind tips them over, they’re like beetles, sort of stuck there on the ground. Lines of luxury cars come up, usually Saabs, Audis and Volvos because in my progressive neighborhood, it’s socially acceptable to have a luury car so long as it comes from a country hostile to US foreign policy.
These creatures come out, I’ve written about in one of my books, called “Über-moms” who are highly successful career women who have taken time off to make sure all their kids get into Harvard. And you can usually tell the Über-moms because they actually weigh less than their own children.
They’ve got little yoga mats stapled to their hips, you know in the moment of conception they’re doing little butt exercises to stay fit and trim. During pregnancy, they’re taking so many soy-based nutritional formulas that the babies plop out, these gigantic 14-pound toothless defensive lineman, just boom.
Über-moms cutting the umbilical cord, flashing little Mandarin flash cards at the things, getting ready for Harvard. They have their spiritual yearnings which they express mostly through food. So they go through Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, the progressive grocery stores that all the cashiers look like they are on loan from Amnesty International. And my favorite section is the snack food section because they couldn’t have pretzels and potato chips…that would not be spiritual. So they have these seaweed-based snacks. We had bought veggie booty with kale, which is for kids who come home and say, “Mom, Mom I want a snack that will help prevent colorectal cancer.”
And these kids turn into the junior workaholics of America. I teach them at Yale. I only teach at schools that I couldn’t have gotten into. And by the time they’ve applied to schools, they’ve started six companies, cured three formerly fatal diseases, played obscure sports like Frisbee golf. When I ask my students what you are doing Spring Break, it’s like “You know I am unicycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.” That sort of thing.
They have tremendous faith in themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” And at that point 12 percent said yes. They asked the same question in 2005 and 80 percent said, “Yes, I am a very important person.” Americans score 25th in the world in math, but if you ask Americans, “Are you really good in math?”
We are number-one in the world at thinking we are really good at math.
Time magazine asked Americans, "Are you in the top one percent of earners?” Nineteen percent of Americans are in the top 1 percent of earners. So they have a lot of self-confidence. And the great desire for fame. Fame used to be low on a value. Now fame is the second-most desired thing in young people.
They did a study, “Would you rather be president of Harvard or Justin Bieber’s personal assistant, a celebrity’s personal assistant?” And of course by 3 to 1 people would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant. Though to be fair I asked the president of Harvard, and she would rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.
And so this is an achievement culture. A culture of people striving and trying to win success. The way I express this contrast, this hunger for success is by two sets of virtues, which you could call the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. And the résumé virtues are the things you bring to the marketplace which you put on a résumé. And the eulogy virtues are the things you get expressed in your eulogy. And these are non-overlapping categories. So the eulogy virtues are to give courage, to give honor, what kind of relationships do you build, did you love.
And in my secular culture, we all know the eulogy virtues are more important, but we spend more time on the résumé virtues. Another way to think about this is the book Joseph Soloveitchik, the great rabbi, wrote in 1965 called “Lonely Man of Faith." He said we have two sides to nurture, which he called Adam One and Adam Two, which correlate to the versions of creation in Genesis.
Adam One is the external résumé. Career-oriented. Ambitious. External.
Adam Two is the internal Adam. Adam Two wants to embody certain moral qualities to have a serene, inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong, not only to do good but to be good, to sacrifice to others, to be obedient to a transcendent truth, to have an inner soul that honors God, creation and our possibilities.
Adam One wants to conquer the world. Adam Two wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam One asks. “How things work?” Adam Two asks, “Why things exist and what we’re her for?”
Adam One wants to venture forth. Adam Two wants to return to roots.
Adam One’s motto is “Success.”
Adam Two’s motto is “Charity. Love. Redemption.”
So the secular world is a world that nurtures Adam One, and leaves Adam Two inarticulate.
The competition to succeed in the Adam One world is so intense, there’s often very little time for anything else. Noise and fast, shallow communication makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from our depths.
We live in a culture that teaches us to be assertive, to brand ourselves to get likes on Facebook, and it’s hard to have that humility and inner confrontation which is necessary for a healthy Adam Two life.
And the problem is that I have learned over the course of my life that if you’re only Adam One, you turn into a shrewd animal whose adept at playing games and begins to treat life as a game.
You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to a moral purpose that gives life worth. You settle into a sort-of self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you. You approve of yourself as long as people seem to like you. And you end up slowly turning the core piece of yourself into something less desirable than what you wanted. And you notice this humiliating gap between your actual self and your desired self.
So this secular world may look like Kim Kardashian and vulgarity, but I am telling you it is a river of spiritual longing. Of people who are aware of their shortcomings and lack of direction and in this realm.
They don’t have categories, they don’t have vocabularies, but they know the gap.
They know the gap because none of us gets through life very long without being knocked to our knees either in joy or in pain. And a bunch of activities expose the inadequacies of an Adam One life.