Red Apple In a Row of Green Apples

In his weekly column last week, David Brooks takes up the question of how, if at all, we can change our behavior. This is often a theme of Brooks, as it is with many writers of our day who feel something is out of whack and needs changing. The question we often ask is whether we can change what we do, even when it is harmful, to ourselves or to our society? Or are we simply determined by circumstances beyond our control to remain as we are? These are personal, individual questions, and they are questions for the future of our world. Much depends on how we answer them.

I am a fan of David Brooks, but I am least comfortable when he ventures off in directions I regard as behaviorist, meaning that we are creatures determined solely by the way we are wired, or determined simply by impulses of self-preservation. I know I am bucking some trends here, but I remain convinced that the aspiration to character formation lies at the heart of the preservation of civilization.

In this current column, Brooks mocks as naive the “19th century … model of how to be a good person … . Your job, as captain of your soul … is to just say no to sloth, lust, greed, drug use and the other sins.” This was the message of the preachers of that time, and we now know, so the story goes, how naïve these preachers were: “These days that model is out of fashion. You usually can’t change your behavior by simply resolving to do something.”

And here is the problem: “The 19th-century character model was based on an expansive understanding of free will. Today, we know that free will is bounded. People can change their lives, but ordering change is not simple because many things, even within ourselves, are beyond our direct control.”

No one in their right mind would disagree with this statement. Of course our free will is “bounded.” We are limited by circumstances of birth, culture, poverty, limited by the way our brains are wired, limited by the social stimuli to which we respond in set ways. Of course we all want to be loved, and of course we will behave in ways to get as much love as we can, even if our behavior is destructive.

But in much of this kind of thinking, the boundaries on our ability to make choices grow absolute, and this is where I get nervous. If I have no chance of becoming a better person, why try? If there is no chance of shaping better character, so that we might shape more decent societies, why try? Why not just go with the flow, since that is what we are determined to do anyway?

To his credit, Brooks is not totally comfortable with the determinist view either. He ends his column by saying, “as the Victorians understood (and the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand), if you want to change your life, don’t just look for a clever trigger. Commit to some larger global belief.” And, yes, this would be my point as well, though I would put it in terms probably not unlike those naïve Victorians.

Let me propose a Christian response to the challenge of character formation. As N.T. Wright says, “The aim of the Christian life in the present time — the goal you are meant to be aiming at once you have come to faith, the goal which is within reach even in the present life, anticipating the final life to come — is the life of fully formed, fully flourishing Christian character.”

Christians most certainly agree that achieving this goal is not easy. It takes effort. There are things we can do, disciplines we can adopt, habits of the heart we can shape. We are not totally determined to move down a set path that is wired in certain ways or socially prescribed. At least not totally.

In Colossians 3, for example, Paul talks about “the moral effort involved,” says Wright, in character formation: “Put to death … put away … put on.” Some things are bad, and some things are life-giving. And there are actions you can take to put off the bad and put on the good. You can and must work at it. But the steps “to get to that point involve hard decisions and hard actions, choices that run counter to the expectations, aspirations, desires, and instincts with which every human being comes equipped.”

Here is the Christian answer to our contemporary determinism: The “putting on” of good character,” says Wright, “is a matter of consciously deciding, again and again, to do certain things in certain ways, to create patterns of memory and imagination deep within the psyche and, as we saw from contemporary neuroscience, deep within the actual physical structure of our mysterious brain.”

The Christian view is always full of surprising mystery. It is not a determinist view of our lives or of our world. It is a view about becoming better, guided by a vision for human flourishing. For Christians, God is involved, of course, through grace and mercy, but the way is also a call to action, to choices, to discipline. I fear if we don’t hold on to this view of personal action, we will lose the will indeed, the will to be better, the will to change the world.


David Brooks Comes to SPU
The SPU 2012 Downtown Business Breakfast speaker
and New York Times columnist comes to campus on April 11, 2012.