Three reasons to read David Brooks’ ‘The Social Animal’

What Christian leaders can learn from reading David Brooks’ "The Social Animal."

No doubt most Christians have heard many a preacher or theologian warn against the American myths of rational self-invention and unfettered choice, and in response, offer a view of character formation based on community, habits and virtue. All good things, sure.

But then David Brooks’ book “The Social Animal” comes along to show how that vision of character formation also figures into human creativity and the sustaining of vibrant social institutions. He connects recent developments in neuroscience and behavioral economics to paint a picture of the human person as an emotional, intuitive and inescapably a social creature.

Here are three ideas from “The Social Animal” Christian leaders should consider when thinking about the life of the institutions they lead.

1. Desire is at the bottom of moral formation. Drawing on an eclectic range of social research, Brooks confirms what Augustine did so long ago: Human action doesn’t arise from a cognitive decision to follow certain rules or make the “right” choices; it’s an intuitive process based on what we’ve been shaped to love. The question Christian leaders ought to ask is whether the vision and mission of their church or institution actually addresses people at their core -- their deep-seeded desire for “the life that is truly life” (1 Tim 6:19).

2. Character informs creativity. A key point of Brooks’ is that true creativity is not innate or the result of rational thinking, but is formed much the way human character is. He looks at the astonishing power of our subconscious mind to develop an intuitive grasp of people, places and situations, in a way that allows us to “feel our way around problems” and sketch the dim outlines of solutions that our conscious mind can then finally sharpen. True creativity, therefore, requires intellectual passion, empathy and imagination that reason can harness, but not supply. Christian leaders ought to inquire whether their church, organization or school is a context where people can exercise those virtures most vital for creativity.

3. Cultural institutions act as moral and creative scaffolding. Subconscious, emotional perception might be our most powerful tool for organizing and interpreting the world, says Brooks, but that doesn’t mean human beings aren’t also a raging torrent of conflicting passions. He suggests that another key to human success is the “external scaffolding” of culture, tradition, and institutions, which frame our intuitions and shape our loves. The capacity for communities to flourish in the long run doesn’t result from superior intelligence, but by participating within vital traditions and institutions. Lest Christians think social institutions are at best necessary evils, Brooks reminds us that they sustain communities (of faith, for Christians) over time. And -- counter-intuitive as it seems -- just might provide the needed context for creativity and innovation.