ACCORDING to David Brooks, an influential columnist for The New York Times, life is about two mountains. Contemporary culture and social norms tell us that there is only one mountain that we’re meant to climb: one of individual success, security, reputation, and recognition.
Almost everyone sets out to climb this mountain. Some get to the top, achieving ambitions or affluence. Others slip on the ascent. Sooner or later, most find themselves in the valley beyond it, whether because the summit did not fulfil them, circumstances changed, or they never made it very far — the remaining, unconquered mountain casting an embittering shadow.
Brooks maintains, however, that there is another mountain beyond the first and its valley. His recent bestselling book The Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life (Penguin, 2019) describes the contours and qualities of this further peak. If climbing the first mountain is centred on the self and what we are told will make us happy, climbing the second is about life with others, serving something outside ourselves, and discovering sources of transforming joy.
Brooks says that the “second-mountain people” whom he meets have invariably made an all-encompassing commitment to a cause or calling, another person, a faith, or a community. They have seen beyond the first mountain’s reverence for individual freedom. They realise that staying uncommitted, keeping your options open — in a career, relationships, agnosticism, or the rootless inhabiting of urban space — is ultimately unfulfilling. He consequently proposes four named commitments pursued on the second mountain: vocation, marriage, faith/philosophy, and community.
CHRISTIANS might be suspicious that Brooks is stealing their vocabulary. His narrative device of life’s pilgrimage up two mountains also has a nagging familiarity — as though we have read this somewhere before, presumably in scripture.
The familiar tropes are no coincidence, as this is really a spiritual autobiography. Brooks was born Jewish, and was influenced as a child by Episcopalian summer camps. He then followed the typical path of untroubled East Coast atheism, only to remain intrigued by faith-filled people: Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, and John Stott.
In Stott’s case, Brooks relates being taken out to lunch by the doyen of Anglophone Evangelicals after writing about him, only to be unnerved when the conversation steered into the troubled waters of Brooks’s own response to God, with lasting consequences.
Years later, Brooks now recognises his personal journey up the first mountain of achievement and accolade, only to find his comfortably sceptical world-view crumbling in the face of repeated transcendent experiences and the harrowing emptiness of a divorce. Once in the valley, it was readings in Jewish and Christian spirituality, and the counsel of a Christian colleague, which turned Brooks away from a return up the first mountain, raising his eyes to the calling, commitments, and embedded community of the second.
CHURCHES should take note of this intriguing transformation in a paid-up member of the secular commentariat — more for the resonance of its imagery than perhaps an expectation of equivalent conversions among columnists here (as welcome as they would be). Because Brooks has arrived at a metaphor that maps much of what the parish church can offer.
It isn’t just clergy or church staff who have vocations. Within congregations, pastoral encounters with parishioners of any age might uncannily circle around the question what their life is really for, once existing aims or expectations seem empty.
The second-mountain metaphor enables the Church to escape the kind of careers advice that says: “Work out which job you’re good at, pray for it, and please give generously.” In contrast, it offers an image for committing ourselves to a cause or service beyond ourselves, and aligning our gifts with God’s intentions rather than our own plans.
Similarly, the vocabulary that many churches use to make the case for marriage today could benefit from the vista of the second mountain, where relationships of mutual, maximal commitment are qualitatively different from anxiously managing individual desires or blessing pre-existing households. There is notably sufficient nuance in the language of first and second mountains and the valley between also to minister sensitively to the prevalence in congregations of broken unions and those who never marry.
And if faith is the given of parish life — the shift in perspective which most are qualified to talk about — then community is the fourth commitment that the parish church can always do with help articulating, because community is a second-mountain commitment to a place and a people, thickening the bonds of relationship otherwise thinned by individuals who seek to stay unencumbered, mobile, and without roots.
Many know, deep down, that the parish at its best is a localised culture of joy-filled, faithful, covenant relationships, of time-rich commitments to where we find ourselves on God’s earth.
Recognising that so many of us are already “second-mountain people” might just be the crossover image that we need to invite others from our surrounding society and culture to join us on the journey to what we otherwise call “the Kingdom”.
The Revd Dr Philip Lockley is Assistant Curate of St Clement’s, Oxford.