And, invoking the novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner, Brooks told me that “faith is change.” It’s here one moment and gone the next. “It’s ups and downs, and it’s always movements. It’s a continued journey of exploration.” And it’s a journey that has created in him new desires. “The temptations of worldliness are very strong,” Brooks acknowledged, “and I’m now glad I have another anchor.” Brooks added that in some respects he’s sadder than he was, in part because faith offers a much higher ideal that we’re sure to fall short of, and can make one more aware of the brokenness of the world and more attuned to the suffering and pain of others.
I concluded our interview by asking Brooks to describe grace, one of the most elusive theological concepts, and what it might have to offer the world. Grace is “unmerited love,” Brooks said. He then cited a passage from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.
Building on this sentiment, Brooks told me, “We have this amazing ability to care about each other and to love each other and love God in ways that are beyond any normal requirement. So we’re just made that way. And it is a gracious universe that gave us this capacity, and it seems to me it didn’t have to be that way.”
He’s realized over the years, Brooks told me, that as writers and conversationalists, “we don’t spend enough time on desire and where desire comes from.”
“We were implanted somehow with these very high and lofty desires,” Brooks said, “and across human history, those desires have almost always included the desire to meet God.” That, in a sense, is a form of grace. “The world is just much more enchanted than it needs to be,” he told me. “We’ve been given these gifts.”
And if the world was a more grace-filled place? “If you see other people as souls, it’s much harder to loathe groups of them. You realize we all stereotype to a degree, but you realize the wrongness of that.” He added, “In any encounter, if you treat the other person as an infinite soul, you’ll probably end up treating them the way you should be treating them.”
One of the striking things about The Second Mountain is how transparent Brooks is, sharing stories of people he’s encountered, his own struggles and doubts, his shifting perspectives, his time in the valley. In 2013, Brooks explains, his life was crashing; his marriage ended and he found himself “unplanted, lonely, humiliated, scattered.” In looking back, he says he prioritized time over people, productivity over relationships. Rather than keeping readers at a safe distance, he opens a door to his interior world.