Archive for the ‘Michael Novak’ Category


Views of the Divine – Michael Novak

September 23, 2010


Michael Novak

Another reading selection taken from “No One Sees God,” Michael Novak scans our western understanding of the divine and focuses on some of the writings of the American philosopher, cognitive scientist and atheist Daniel Dennett.

The Greeks
The God reached by Aristotle and Plato might well have been, for all they knew, eternal. The most satisfying penetrations by the greatest of the Greeks conceived of God as the inner core of the Universe, its inner intelligence. They did not think of God as a Creator, but as an abiding intellectual presence. Their vision was not quite pantheist; they held that God is more than the sum of all the intelligibility in the universe; God is more than an inner part of the universe.

They seemed to think that their eternal, immutable, radiant, all — seeing nous must, in fact, be separate from the earth as cause is from effect. That cause may be present everywhere in its effects — as the heat of a fire can extend to the farthest corners of the room. But the fire is not identical with the heat. They thought God is not identical with the universe, but present everywhere, within all things. Not a personal God, but a God whose nature is intelligence and a capacity to choose.

The Greeks could not imagine God to be moved by some cause outside Himself. He is a “necessary being,” as they named Him, in comparison with perishable things. Yet even in diffusing his being and his intelligence into all things, the imperishable, unchangeable God of the Greeks allows contingency and freedom. He is not, like the God of Islam, Pure ‘Will, before whom the only possible response is submission. He is intelligence — Logos — the source of all the intelligence in conscious agents, and of all the intelligibility in inanimate things.

God’s free will was a little less clear to the Greeks than his intelligence. But then it was also not clear to them how human will is paired with human intelligence. Foreign to Plato was the cry of Saint Paul: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19, NIV). This common experience, stated so clearly, led Christian thinkers to recognize that simply knowing the good is not enough. To meet the data of human experience, a more sophisticated conception of the weakness of the will must be worked out than was achieved by the Greeks.

The Greek nous (in its highest, purest formulations) is not the biblical God. All by itself, the god the unaided human mind conceives of is closer to being a light infusing all things (by way of the radiant intelligibility poured into all things) than to a Creator who governs human affairs, watches over them as a kind Providence, and at death summons every human individual to a piercing Judgment, in which God is not deceived.

The nous of the Greeks is by contrast relatively unaware of human conduct, even unconcerned with it. This serene intelligence is neither within history nor overly concerned with history. The nous is eternal, unchanging, impervious to concerns emanating from his creatures. The nous is the god of irony and tragedy.

The Greeks believed in the efficacy of human action, especially in the defense of liberty; as in the wars of Sparta against the Persians, and of the Athenians against all corners. In this sense, the Greeks were not entirely fatalistic, passive, supinely submissive. Yet they did recognize the sometimes tragic blade that descends upon humans, willy-nilly. They believed in fighting to the bitter end, refusing to submit to the passivity called fatalism, defying Fate until their last breath. From that fight, they thought, springs heroism. As in Sisyphus, Prometheus, and Antigone.

In that fight, they displayed true love for liberty; in its raw, basic form.

The Greek conception of God, at its highest, is quite beautiful. Sometimes atheists who do not believe one bit in the Jewish/Christian God find the Greek god admirable, attractive, noble. That is why some hesitate to call themselves atheists. They do not believe in eternal life. They do not believe in the Christian God, or any sort of personal god. But they do not want to close their minds to every other concept of God. The conceptions of Plato, Plotinus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others appeal to them. They take no time to make a study of metaphysics, to define precisely all the contours of their background beliefs.

Inner Unities
In life, in existence, and in normal intellectual horizons something else seems to be active besides mere matter. Even in the photographs of nebulae, galaxies, and starbursts in scientific magazines, not to mention sunsets, the Grand Canyon, the marvels of the insect world, the patterns, within a grain of sand along the shore — human insight grasps far more than the mere material of what our senses report. The world of our experience seems to be suffused with intelligibilities which it takes our questioning minds a long time to plumb. All material things seem suffused, if an intellectual metaphor may be used here, with light. As when, at the moment an insight of ours grasps the inner unities that had eluded our understanding just a moment before, the metaphor we reach for is a light suddenly going on. Suddenly we see what had been in front of our eyes for a long time, without our being able to see it.

This is not to say that God’s creation does not take a wild, unpredictable, highly contingent adventure through history. But it is to say that the Creator’s relation to his creation is not that of a human being in time, as Dawkins Harris, Hitchens and other atheists normally imagine.

The god of Plato, Aristotle, and on through Einstein, is not a “person.” God does not have passions of sympathy, compassion love, or kindness. God is the all-permeating nous radiating intelligibility into all things, and inspiring in our breasts the restless, unconditioned drive to understand. The way humans reach “union” with God is by way of questioning coming to insight, understanding. Our finite minds catch a sliver of the great radiance that shines through all things: the beauty of the structure of the world. We admire.

For the Greeks, there is no Hebraic God who governs the affairs of humans in history and cares about human conduct and destiny. (Plato, though, is a little closer to thinking of God as the Good, knowing all things, inspiring in conscious, discriminating human beings the pursuit of goodness and justice. Humans never quite reach these goals, but keep being drawn toward them.)

For the atheist, the “problem of evil” is transmuted into a practical matter. If children cry in their beds at night, then in order to exercise our secular compassion on their behalf, we should take the practical steps to diminish their number. The role of the secular saint in alleviating suffering in this world, not only through science and medicine, but also through advances in agriculture and in water purification, and by a thousand other humane means, is no petty thing. On the contrary, like Dr Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague, the secular saint casts a very noble light.

For the atheist, though, the problem of goodness creates an intellectual problem. If everything is by chance and merely relative, why is it so natural for so many to be good — if not all the time, at least remarkably often? Why do some atheists try so hard to be good — good and public-spirited — and why are they so insistent on being credited with moral good?

For those atheists who are not nihilists, the intuitively obvious moral good — or at least the most reasonable good –is to promote human flourishing. Learning to be a person of conscience is good, for without conscience not even scientific papers would be reliable. Learning to cooperate with others is good, for in cooperation humans flourish much better than in a (vulgarly defined) Darwinian “jungle,” where dog eats dog and only the fittest survive. The evolutionary value of compassion, charity solidarity and other high human virtues has been boastfully pointed out by contemporary atheists, not least by the biologists among them.

Thus, the newest evolutionary biology turns out to be not so opposed to Christianity as atheists used to think. On the contrary, contemporary atheists are eager to show that any high virtues that Judaism and Christianity promote are better promoted by evolutionary biologists. In other words, you can have the distinctive historical virtues of Judaism and Christianity — for which both religions were once mocked — without necessarily believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. You can even believe in an impersonal nous who is identified with the beautiful and brilliant intellectual structure of the universe, without accepting the Jewish and/or Christian God. Anything Judaism can do, atheism can do better. Atheists can do Christian stuff better than Christians.

Design As Solely The Result Of Chance
It is quite stunning how again and again contemporary evolutionary biologists confirm the findings of classic Jewish or Christian morality — not in all respects, but in nearly all the most central ones. Indeed, they do so not only in ethics, but in the design they find so beautiful in the structure of the universe. They explain this design as completely and solely the result of chance. This is an implausible claim, to be sure, but they insist upon it. And then they add –and this is the kicker — that, yes, the design they detect does look as if it had been designed by a designer, but their science shows that it really wasn’t.

You don’t believe me? Reflect on these four passages from Daniel Dennett (easily replicable in Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and others). The first is this:

“It just stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that all the wonders of the living world have to have been arranged by some Intelligent Designer? It couldn’t all just be an accident, could it? And even if evolution by natural selection explains the design of living things, doesn’t the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics to make all this evolution possible require a Tuner?”

Dennett is pretty firm in his reply: “No, it doesn’t stand to reason, and, yes, it could all just be the result of ‘accidents’ exploited by the relentless regularities of nature, and, no, the fine tuning of the laws of physics can be explained without postulating an Intelligent Tuner”

His second quip is snappier: “Not one sperm in a billion accomplishes its life mission—thank goodness—but each is designed and equipped as if everything depended on its success.”. (Not a single one of them will stop to ask for directions.)

Blind, Directionless Evolutionary Processes ‘Discover’ Designs That Work?
Dennett’s third point begins thus: “…evolution provided animals with specific receptor molecules that respond to the concentration of high-energy sugars in anything they taste, and hard-wired these receptor molecules to the seeking machinery” Then he goes on: “Not all plants ‘chose’ the edible fruit-making bargain, but those that did had to make their fruits attractive in order to compete. It all made perfectly good sense, economically; it was a rational transaction, conducted at a slower than glacial pace over the eons, and of course no plant or animal had to understand any of this in order for the system to flourish.’

Now comes the great conclusion, with a fanfare: “Blind, directionless evolutionary processes ‘discover’ designs that work. They work because they have various features, and these features can be described and evaluated in retrospect as if they were the intended brainchildren of intelligent designers who had worked out the rationale for the design in advance”

Finally Dermett praises chance over Shakespeare: “The wonderful particularity of individuality of the creation was due, not to Shakespearean inventive genius, but to the incessant contributions of chance” But not to worry: “That vision of the creative process still apparently left a role for God as Lawgiver, but this gave way in turn to the Newtonian role of Lawfinder, which also evaporated, as we have recently seen, leaving behind no Intelligent  Agency in the process at all.” Dennett finds comfort in heartless fate: “What is left is what the process, shuffling through eternity, mindlessly finds (when it finds anything): a timeless Platonic possibility of order. That is, indeed, a thing of beauty as mathematicians are forever exclaiming, but it is not itself something intelligent, but wonder of wonders, something intelligible.” Now Dennett does not wish us to conclude that he is blind to beauty sacredness, wonder, affirmation. He praises Benedict Spinoza, who “in the seventeenth century, identified God and Nature, arguing that scientific research was the true path of theology.” Later, he asks: “Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. The world is sacred.”

On these passages from Dennett, Professor Barr pens some trenchant words:

“Dennett here makes two claims. First he claims that Newton replaced the idea of a Lawgiver. That is nonsense. In physics — and that is what he is talking about — all explanations account for orderliness by appealing to a more comprehensive and more beautiful and more profound mathematical orderliness at a deeper level of nature. For example, Newton explained the wonderful laws discovered by Kepler, but only by showing that they followed from even more wonderful laws. It is Laws all the way down! And indeed it is more and more beautiful laws all the way down. If anything, the discoveries of Newton and his successors strengthen the case for a Lawgiver. That was Newton’s own view It was the view of Faraday and Maxwell, the two greatest physicists of the 19th century, who were also devout Christians.”

Dennett’s second point is that “recent” developments have even done away with any idea of lawfulness in nature. Here he is grossly misunderstanding what he has heard about the so — called “multiverse” idea, in which the universe randomly picks laws in different parts of the universe (hence Dennett’s “process, mindlessly finds”). But if he knew what he was talking about, he would know that the multiverse idea if it is true (and at the moment it is speculation) is based on the assumption that deep down the whole universe shares some ultimate set of laws. It does not get away from lawfulness.”

A Naïve Alternative
A completely naïve person might think that if something looks designed, and acts designed, and seduces the inquiring mind by the intricate ways in which it is designed, then it rather emphatically seems to he designed. Such a person might also be unable to imagine the millions upon millions of years, the “eons,” and the alternate universes, that the atheist biologist continually postulates in order to maintain his belief in a designer-less design. A simple person might even wonder if the existing evidence gives the present universe anything like enough. “eons” to produce randomly all that evolutionists attribute to time alone. Hearing the atheist’s interpretation of the data, the naïve person might imagine that “evolution” rests on a rather mystical process, whose whole range nobody ever sees because it happens over so many eons that no records exist, or in such conjectured alternative universes as perhaps never really happened. These long lengths of time — almost like eternity — and these alternative universes, never subject to empirical testing, require a lot of faith. To believe in an intelligent, conscious, purposeful Designer—”Artist” is better — seems far cleaner, far closer to what science actually shows us. Ockham’s razor.

True enough, the designs this Artist displays are marked by probabilities, not necessities, by failures as as well as

evils and sufferings as well as by joys and delights. In fact, Christianity actually dares to propose that the key to the design really intended by the Artist is the cross on which Jesus is crucified — the just man, the innocent man, made to suffer terribly just as, long before, the prophets of Judaism had suffered and been rejected. The cross is the key that fits into a universe of many contingencies, accidents, sufferings, evils, and heartaches, and opens up the door to understanding. So this is what it all means!

Come Follow Me
It is also an appeal to our liberty: “Come follow me’ Jesus invites all. He gives us free choice. If you so choose, suffer with me. on your own cross (each of us is sent plenty of crosses down the years). One picks up one’s cross not for the sake of suffering, which would be masochistic, but for the sake of transforming suffering into divine love, which the accepting of such suffering (Dostoyevsky’s “humble charity”) unlocks.

It is not hard to sympathize with atheists who find abundant reasons, on many levels, to turn away from Jesus. Many humans have done so. Possibly a large majority What is harder to sympathize with is the oversimplified image of a bumbling naïf, which atheists fantasize, whose rosy purposes are undercut by evil, failure, contingency chance, the absurdities of human life, and by all the cruelties of that “nature red in tooth and claw,” in which so many animals are torn apart by other animals. A more sophisticated image of the Artist should emerge from the awful and bloody realities believers see around them, not the schoolboy rationalism of their teenage years.

If you do not believe in the Lord of the Absurd, contemplate what He allowed to be done to His only Son, on the cross. The Artist God in whom Christians believe is this Lord of the Absurd, this Lord of the suffering Son of God, on the bloody gibbet:

Jews, too, by their own path; reflecting on the long historical sufferings of the Jewish people, know that their God is no Pollyanna, no Pretty Boy, no Promiser of rose gardens. He made the earth to be a place of trial.

Then again, two further points. First, belief in the Lord of the Absurd so thoroughly squares with human experience and with the findings of science (“chaos” theory and all the rest) that it frees the mind to confront with equanimity both the “chance” and “directionless-ness” and the radiant intelligibility in the structure of the universe. Combining both, the Jewish/Christian faith in an intelligent and kind Creator goes more directly to the heart of what scientists and mathematicians actually experience. (We must return to this point.)

But beyond that, belief in the Lord of the Absurd also answers deeper questions in the human mind, which science is not equipped to understand. Atheist writers describe the designer god of their imagination as if he were intended as a deus ex machina, some sort of hypothesis to explain what makes things work. Thus, when they show step-by-step that such a god is not needed to explain this, or that, and not even that other matter, they stop questioning. They have the (scientific) answers they need.

Okay, no deus ex machina exists. God is not a scientific hypothesis. Agreed. We have stipulated that. The biblical God is not a deus ex machina to bail out temporarily puzzled scientists. He is not even reachable by scientific inquiry. Science is on the wrong wavelength.

The Circularity Of Neo-Darwinism
Christoph Schönborn denounced “neo.-Darwjnjsm” in the New York Times, he was understood to be attacking a scientific theory, and this mistaken impression caused shock waves that were unnecessary. This inflamed usage runs counter to the definitions most dictionaries have accepted across many decades. Believers cannot allow atheists to Own the word “Darwinjsm.” Darwinist theory is widely viewed as an enormous accomplishment and a pillar of modern science. For believers to lock themselves into a rhetorical stance against “Darwinism” is wholly unwise.

Though many students of the humanities, accustomed to terms such as “neo-Platonism” “neo-Thomism” and “neo-Kantianism make the mistake of interpreting “neo-Darwinism” as a philosophical reference, we should acknowledge that the term is most properly understood as “the synthesis of Darwinist theory of natural selection with modern genetics.”

If one assumes there is no God, no design, and no future plan in the structure of the universe, as Dennett and the others do, then one needs two new principles for the impressive dynamism, the movement, the change we see around us. First, what makes things go? Second, what makes progress happen? That is, what makes evolution tilt upward? “Natural selection” satisfies both needs.

Moreover there is a very neat offset: If there is natural selection, there is no God. And if there is a God, then natural selection is one of the possible ways through which He might have organized world process.

But these two propositions are not symmetrical. The first one does away with God, on account of natural selection. But the second keeps both God and natural selection.

Well, partisans of the first proposition might say: If we have natural selection we don’t need God. “Do not multiply entities without necessity”

To which the riposte might be: At its deepest level, partisans of the atheist position who rely on Ockham are assuming a very high degree of intelligence at work in the world, economical, tending toward elegant simplicity. How do they explain this assumption? Ockham’s razor is based on it.

On a less profound level, another riposte is possible: Such partisans seem to imagine that the terms “God” and “natural selection” are two different “explanations” for the same thing. Thus, the rule of Ockham’s razor says that one of them must go. But while natural selection may articulate the method by which species make themselves more fit and improve their capacities, and so forth, the human mind still requires an answer to the question, But what kind of intelligence and dynamism might have implanted “natural selection” as a law of nature, at the very beginnings of biological life? Did the law of natural selection — pop! — just suddenly appear?

Then, too, where do partisans of “natural selection” come up with the loaded term “the fittest”? Such a term requires an energizing source of intelligence and dynamism that puts in place an absolute standard, by which given states of development are adjudged progressive or regressive, backward or avant-garde, worse or better. Without such a standard, there is no non-tautological way to separate what is “more fit” or “fittest” from “whatever happens to be.” On its own terms, natural selection has a fatal ambiguity within it. It seems to display circularity in Darwin’s thought. If X is “fittest.”  X is more likely to “survive.” If X survives, that shows that X was “the fittest” among competitors. Fittest = survivors. Circularity?

Besides, is it true in our own experience that the finest human beings we have known outlive the thugs that prosper among us? That seemed not to happen in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany. The morally good were often put to painful death, while the malicious prospered.

So what does “survival” prove about the moral good? “Fittest” depends upon “fittest for what”? And mere survival is not a very high moral standard.

But this point about what makes individuals “fit” can also be made about species as a whole. There may be many other living creatures on this earth more “fit” to survive than human beings. Maybe the cockroaches. If humans disappear from earth, it is unlikely that all life will cease.

The Disjunction Between The Phenomenon Of Human Life And The Other Parts Of The Universe
These are just a handful of observations that call for work beyond the Darwinist account of human life and its origins. To further examine its claims, let us take some instruction from a very bright Australian philosopher, Dr. David Stove. Professor Stove, an atheist, found no difficulty in accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution for galaxies, plants, and animals. But as regards human beings, Professor Stove found that the theory of natural selection based upon brutal competition, in which only the few fittest survive, utterly fails to pass the test of what he sees with his own eyes. Professor Stove, in his penetrating analysis Darwinian Fairytales, calls this mistake “Darwin’s dilemma,” his failure, his insupportable proposition.

No other book on Darwin I had earlier read woke me up so sharply as Professor Stove’s. I had not fully grasped, in the detail he lays out through eleven tightly argued chapters, the disjunction between the phenomenon of human life and the other parts of the universe. Apes don’t devote years to educating their young. Chimpanzees do not build medical clinics. Wrens don’t become doctors. Alligators have not formed schools of monks to copy painstakingly from fragile, ancient scrolls. Even eagles do not inspire a hundred thousand nuns to lovingly care for eaglets suffering from incurable disease. Bears do not form modern states and organize into great bureaucracies to hand out benefits to the needy, to help the vulnerable survive and even prosper, or to ease the sufferings of the poor or down on their luck. Frogs do not form hospitals to ease the pain and suffering of their tadpoles and elderly. It seems highly unlikely that the lions of the world would care, without any discrimination whatever, for lambs and other species not their own. The problem with animal rights, after all, is getting the animals to respect them.

By contrast, perhaps a third of the human race is caring for the weak and the down-and-out either through government services or nonpublic institutions — and sometimes by volunteering on their own. Far from human life being a harsh, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, in which only a few survive, enormous human energies are expended through sympathy for the needy, keeping many from perishing who otherwise would. Such care also tends lovingly to the feeble-minded, the delinquent, the alcoholic, and many others whom strict Darwinism would identify for weeding out, for the sake of a healthier gene pool.

Not even Dawkins and Harris can bring themselves to turn their backs on the suffering. They are living dis-proofs of a significant part of Darwin’s conception of man. Perhaps not the most heroic dis-proofs, but dis-proofs nonetheless.

To a considerable extent, then, one might argue that contemporary atheists — even those who most viscerally hate Judaism and Christianity –have nevertheless absorbed from the culture in which they live and move and have their being the moral sentiments of Deuteronomy, the Gospel of Matthew, and even Adam Smith about loving their neighbors (even strangers) as themselves. Recall Smith’s emphasis upon the sentiment of “sympathy”:

“And hence it is, that to feel much for others, and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent, affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.”

When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect. upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many. The man within immediately calls to us, that we value ourselves too much and other people too little, and that, by doing so, we render ourselves the proper object of the contempt and indignation of our brethren.

Confronted with this radical error in Darwin’s incautious sweeping of human beings into a net better woven to catch stars, grasses, flowers, serpents, grasshoppers, sparrows, bass, salmon, and all other nonhuman animals from rabbits to rhinoceri, the spontaneous reaction of Darwjnists is to voice horror at a kind of outrage committed against their master. “This is terrible. This verges on libel!” When they actually get to defending the proposition that the Darwinian thesis about humans holds true, Stove has discovered through many years of experience in debate, they usually try one of three gambits.

The first defense is “Yes, of course, people today have learned how to associate, cooperate, and take care of each other. But this is only after many centuries spent living in caves as Neanderthals, brandishing clubs Brutal competition used to exist Only recently has human life been made more caring and considerate — and atheistic science must take much credit for that”

But a theory explaining everything cannot be salvaged by taking refuge in such an exceptional twist at a certain point in time Surely, the fundamental theory needs a quite vital amendment to account for the human tendency to overcome primitive Darwinism, a Darwinism valid only for cavemen (if even that part of Darwinism is true) At this point, it appears that Judaism and Christianity offer a far more nuanced theory about the good and evil in man’s nature than Darwin did, at least at first.

The second defense is the “iron fist in a velvet glove” defense Well, it may look like human life is civilized and well-mannered, as in the Victorian era, but if you step outside the drawing room you will see that in industrial circles there really was “social Darwinism”– it was dog-eat-dog, a jungle out there. And if you visit the chancelleries of Europe, you will see Realpolitik mapped out as if humans were pure self-interest, who use ideals as smoke screens, and whose placid public surface masks plots, counterplots, intrigue, espionage, arms races, and cleverly disguised imperial exercises.

Yet this defense, too, essentially admits that the Darwinist account is partial and incomplete. So far are its darker impulses from being the whole story that they must operate only by subterfuge, as subtext within a larger paradigm. Is the human longing to show compassion and to give loving care to those who suffer actually explained by Darwin, or is it far too lightly brushed aside, in order to keep simple and clean the background theory for which Darwin has real affection? A theory that brushes aside facts that loom so gigantic is in need of fairly dramatic modification.

The third defense is a softer one — too soft either to deny the charge or to modify the theory. It usually goes something like this, with an introductory wave of the hand: “Oh yes, that’s true of course, but that undercurrent of dog-eat-dog is really fundamental in human life. And except for humans, it’s universal. So let’s not quarrel over the details.”

But these are “details” only on the supposition that there is no God, no Judaism, no Christianity, no ethical humanism. The “soft defense” still suggests that humans should abruptly dismiss any search for “meaning.” They should set aside any hope of making sense of their capacities for goodness, compassion, and truth. When it’s over, it’s over, just as it is for dead chipmunks.

But this defense actually rests on an unscientific assumption that atheism accurately describes the human predicament. Whether there is a God or not falls beyond the range of science. If something more than atheism predicts is going on in humans who show compassion, practice justice, and seek truth, then as a theory of human existence Darwinism quite simply, and dramatically, fails. For the rest of nature, Darwin’s thesis may provide the best explanation yet available for the inner dynamic of evolution. For human beings, it leaves too much out to satisfy the inquiring mind rooted in a multitude of daily experiences of care and compassion, some secular, some religious. How can something so central be waved aside, purely to save a flawed theory?

Three Moral Objections To Darwinism
There are three moral objections to Darwinism, when it is presented as an alternative to traditional ethical systems based upon reason, common sense, and careful reflection on Jewish and Christian revelation. The first objection is based upon the horrors unleashed by the eugenics movement of the period 1896-1945, first supported by many of the most accomplished and socially esteemed elites of New York and Boston, and then so horribly abused by Adolf Hitler.

The second objection opposes the rationale for the First World War presented by the German General Staff, which argued that the strongest races had a moral duty to supplant the weaker ones, in order to further a healthier natural selection of the fittest. A duty imposed, no less, by Darwinian natural law.

The third objection confronts the effect upon young and imbalanced minds of being taught to admire atheism, nihilism, and natural selection. Two such were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the brutal young murderers in Chicago in 1924. This objection was raised by Clarence Darrow, in his defense of these tragic youngsters against capital punishment, on the grounds that their minds had been unfairly poisoned by readings assigned them at the University of Chicago.

The point of these objections is that, if Darwin’s theory of natural selection were applicable to humans as to the other animals, in order to weed out the helpless weak, nothing would be morally wrong with the use of eugenics. Nor would anything be wrong with a strong nation’s practice of justifying by the law of natural selection the depredations it inflicts upon weaker nations. Nor would anything be wrong in the dreadful, murderous conclusions drawn by Leopold and Loeb from the texts they had been assigned to study But the spontaneous sentiments of the human heart, once the relevant information is before it, cry out that these are evils to be opposed. These evil impulses are not “natural” duties to be obeyed. Whatever its strength in other areas, something is seriously wrong with an unmodified Darwinian social theory about human beings.

Pressing on, we find that many of our most irrepressible inquiries push beyond the bounds of science: Why do human beings, since it is said to be so futile a longing, nonetheless long for eternal life? Why is atheism so hard to live by, since spontaneously even the atheist heart on some surprising occasions involuntarily breaks out with “Oh! Thank God!”? Jean-Paul Sartre candidly confessed in The Words how hard it was to remove all religious instincts from his life.

Again, has nature instilled religious aspirations, beliefs, and longings in us only in order to frustrate them? Their power in us makes a large majority of humans take them as evidence of a dimension of existence about which science, at least so far, is in denial.

Why do we, knowing well our private, deeply hidden betrayals of our own deepest principles—our honesty our courage — still long for forgiveness and for a fresh, clean start? Why are our consciences, even under torture, so insistent on not becoming complicit in the lies our torturers demand that we confess? Why does fidelity under duress become so supremely important, even under threat to our very lives and (since some tortures are intended to maim us) to our future health? To what — to what vagrant impulse, to what fleeting whim, to what law of nature — are we trying to remain faithful? And why?

Why are atheists in the same prisons sometimes so brave, so forthright, so courageous, in standing up to torment? What is it in them that makes truth seem so important, when their fidelity to it does not in fact help them to survive but, on the contrary, threatens to overwhelm and to destroy them?…


Michael Novak On Two Radically Different Ways Of Living In The World

September 15, 2010

Another set of reading selections from Michael Novak’s 2008 bestseller, No One Sees God. Here we see a contrast between atheism and Catholicism: one where the inner horizon offers no answering personal presence (because the unbeliever thinks God is an illusion) and the other where a central light and energy and love lives within us. Both can be pretty awesome at times.

The Experience Of Insight
In coming to my own views, I have been much helped by Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Lonergan treats the experience of insight as an empirical datum. An insight (getting the point of a joke, for instance, or seeing at last the solution to an algebra problem) is not quite a sense datum, but it is an experience at least equally vivid. A more complex form of insight, also experienced vividly, is to conclude reflection by making a judgment; for instance: “Having heard the evidence, I conclude that your story is demonstrably false. I conclude that witness number one is a good man — but his associate is not to be trusted.”

The experience of insight and the steps involved in reaching a sound judgment are important to recognize in one’s own mental life. Beyond that, based on evidence we recognize in our own inner life, these steps offer important evidence for the judgment, Who do I understand myself to be? A mistake in this judgment deeply affects our judgments about God, his nature, his existence.

Our acts of insight are different in kind from acts of sensation. This difference suggests that our inner life goes beyond sense knowledge. It also suggests that what the ancients meant by “spirit” or “soul” appears most clearly today in a virtually unlimited drive within us — the drive to raise questions to have insights, and to reach sound judgrnents about what is true, what false. These common human drives instruct us about our true nature, who we really are. They also aim us in the direction of what an acceptable idea of God’s nature is. At the very least, He must be capable of insight and judgenent. He is nonmaterial and may be outside of the space-time continuum.

These are not matters of Christian faith or theology; they appertain to the branch of secular Philosophy called “metaphysics,” by which I mean considerations of reason, apart from faith. I mean the “background assumptions” about nature and history that are implicit in everything each person thinks and writes. I mean competing conceptions of God, some of which are to be judged better than others. In such explorations, the Greeks and Romans of old were far braver and more persistent than all but a small band in modern times

Among the chief participants in Plato dialogues, such differences in metaphysics are starkly drawn. If the participants in these dialogues are to make progress in their this-worldly arguments,  it is necessary to bring their underlying metaphysical differences to light. Plato found that the artful presentation of a back-and-forth conversation is the best way to bring out these differences. Bringing these differences to light is a work of reason, even if it is not exactly empirical reason.

A Commitment To Reason
Catholics hold that other Christian communities share with Catholics many affirmations of Christian faith, but not all. We cherish this community of beliefs, but pray that the shared circle of belief will grow larger. We hold that our Catholic faith does not make sense unless the Jewish faith is also true. We share with some atheists their clear commitment to reason. Truth is indeed crucial to Christian faith. But it does matter to our consciences which church is closest to the truth. As the aphorism puts it, faith does not take away from reason, but brings it to completion (gratia noi tollit sed perficit naturam). A quite imperfect analogy is how eyeglasses, microscopes and telescopes do not demean eyesight, only carry it where it could not go alone. For Catholics and some other Christians, reason is to be honored. Which church is true is a crucial judgment of reason.

The Tension Of The Absurd Is Crucial To Our Truthfulness
Albert Camus pointed out an unavoidable duality in human experience, which gives rise to what he calls the Absurd. On the one hand, we feel the undeniable longing for truth, beauty, goodness, justice, wholeness, love, that rushes powerfully within us, even under the most unpromising conditions (as in the Gulag, under torture). On the other hand, these aspirations cannot avoid crashing head-on with the cruel randomness, desolation, and emptiness that we are often forced to confront. We can evade this unhappy duality for a long time by distracting ourselves with pulsating music, card playing, ceaseless activity shopping.

Yet sooner or later we are driven to ask: Why are we here? Why are so many abandoned children crying in the night? Why the everlasting boredom, and the incessant rain of nothingness upon the windowpanes of our consciousness? Why so many jading daily routines, such petty strife, such pointless quarrels, such office pretenses?

Without both these sides of our consciousness, Camus taught us, we would not come to rest on the razor’s edge of the Absurd. Keeping the two sides in contact is crucial to our truthfulness. The Absurd arises from our longing for meaning and beauty held in contact with the absurdities we meet every day. Remove one or the other, and the tension falls limp.

Atheists would like to shift onto Christian shoulders the burden of explaining the evil and absurdity in the world, which their reason discerns steadily enough. Yet even when they have eliminated God from the scheme of life as they see it, they have not diminished by one iota the evils, sufferings, and injustices both Christians and atheists alike see around us. Atheists do not explain how they fit into their fairly rosy view of human progress, reason, and hopefulness. A faith they dare not express seems to tell them that this progress is indefinitely upward, ennobling, worth contributing to, quite enough purpose for a good life.

Yet, irony of ironies, meaninglessness squared, what if our visible “progress” is hurtling us toward the most awful end of history any apocalyptic writer has ever imagined? What if progress is not progress at all, but ultimate madness? (The atheist may well hold this darker assumption, not the rosy one.) I am not trying to diminish the glory of modern progress; without certain new pharmaceuticals, I would be dead. On the contrary, I am trying to make myself conscious of the underlying metaphysics on which progress depends — the vision behind it of the upward direction in which history tends, its underlying dynamism, and its ultimate kindliness toward humankind, Atheists seems to share this vision when they write of human reason and progress as benevolent. Atheists themselves suggest that the true problem before us is not the problem of evil but the problem of good. Why is there so much good?

In my experience, however, the problem of evil does in fact bother Jews and Christians, because it goes contrary to what faith teaches about the goodness of God. Evil may not be a problem for my atheist friends. For them, the evil of the world is just there. Insofar as evil matters metaphysically, it destroys arguments for the existence of a good God. To their minds, absurdity forms the backdrop for their heroic human Sisyphus who, against all odds, keeps rolling progress up the hill, only to watch it slide back down into meaninglessness.

Religion Recognizes Two Contrary Forces In The Human Soul
Here Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, who has known more than enough suffering from the irrationality of life, seems wiser than most:

In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

The weakness of atheism, however, is to take account of only one of them, the fact of injustice in the case of Epicurean atheism or the desire for justice in our Enlightenment atheism. I conclude that philosophy today — and science too — need not only to tolerate and respect religion, but also to learn from it.

Unbelievers And Believers Must In The End Submit
In real life,’ what we see seems sometimes ugly. We do not understand how mad the world then appears. We protest against evils that cause us revulsion. Yet, no matter what we do, welcome them or hate them, the facts remain the same. To a world of fact, where “randomness rules:’ unbelievers and believers must in the end submit. At this point, the unbeliever submits to randomness, while the believer submits to the inscrutable will of the Creator. Both must submit. The latter shows more confidence both in intelligence and in the intelligibility of all things.

A World In Which Free Agents Act Freely
God wills a world in which free agents act freely. He doesn’t only “permit” things to happen. He empowers free agents to act, even with less attention than they ought, or against His laws, or simply without common sense. Free agents acting freely, despite the frequently resulting irrationality, is what He now wills and has always willed. He does not command irrational (or evil) action. But He certainly brought into being, consciously and (I think) beautifully, a world in which free acts can occur, and evils and misfortunes are frequently transformed by courage, generosity of spirit, and charity into occasions of great human beauty.

God Wills And Approves The Whole
More profoundly, as Stephen Barr has pointed out:

“The really more relevant metaphysical point here is that God wills and approves the whole. He does not will the death of the unfortunate man at the railroad crossing for its own sake, as an end in itself, and as something good in itself. Considered in themselves some events are obviously not good, but horribly tragic.

But before we condemn God, consider this: We ourselves set up, and approve as good, systems that have as necessary consequences the occurrence of painful and tragic events… for example, educational systems and economic systems. When the professor flunks a student and dashes his life’s hopes, is he doing evil? Does he want the student to fail? Is any system unjust in which that happens? That it contains much tragedy is not an argument for the badness of the world.

Jewish and Christian faith do allow for trusting in God’s mysterious ways. Jews and Christians hold that the inscrutable workings of God always lead to an ultimate good, though the individual believer may be unable to see that himself.”

Is Freedom Worth The Price?
Professor Gelernter comments with great learning:

“All we know is that the evil and pain of this suffering world force us inward, onto the one path that leads to knowledge of self and God. What we don’t know: Would true self-sacrifice compassion exist without misery and suffering? Could moral heroism and concomitant strength and depth of character exist without it? Now we face a good question from doubters: even granted that we owe the existence of compassion in this world to suffering, is the gain worth the price? Or: granted, the price for human freedom is human suffering; is freedom worth the price? Or, in the words of a famous question posed in the Talmud: would man have been better off had he never been created? The two famous schools of Hillel and Shammai argued the point (as usual), and reached a conclusion: Man would have been better off had he never been created. But the rabbis know that their vision is limited, and their task is to take the world as God made it.”

We Ought Really To Thank God At Every Moment Of Our Existence
Professor Barr offers a richer and more lyrical response:

“Why do we thank God for good fortune but not blame Him for bad fortune? We ought really to thank God at every moment of our existence for our very existence at that moment, for all the blessings that we enjoy — the ability to think, to see and to hear, to taste and to touch, to move and to act, to know and to understand, to love and to be loved. Everything we have at every moment comes from God, and we should be thanking Him at every moment.

But being as we are, we forget and largely take things for granted. It is when we have a “near miss” and almost lose something important, that we remember to thank God that we have it in the first place. When the car swerves and narrowly misses the oncoming traffic, we say “Thank God?’ We are really just remembering to thank God for all of the life He has given us up to that point, and for allowing us some time more to live. If, however, something happens that takes away our health or wealth or even life, we have no legitimate claim that God has “robbed” us of anything. What we have lost was His free gift to begin with, not something to which we had a right.”

The Desire To Express Gratitude
Theodore Dalyrimple describes himself as an atheist but he is an unusually congenial, fair-minded, and discerning critic. A psychiatrist, he faults the new atheists for depriving billions of human beings of a crucial civilizing agency, the desire to express gratitude:

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality.

If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement, Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

For those who know God, by contrast, life is a conversation They are never far from raising their affections toward the Almighty directing their will to Him: “Thy will be done.” For them the world is personal, through and through. It is about friendship, and staying in close touch with our one closest Friend. Prayer is like breathing, like easy conversation with one’s Beloved. Even to love another human being, spouse or child, is to love them in and through and with the divine origin of all love: Deus Caritas Est. God is that particular form of love called Caritas.

Two Very Different Horizons
The logic in deciding whether to link one’s identify to atheism or to God is sui generis (vocab: unique, of its own kind). The argument is not whether there is one more object in the world (God), or one less (atheism). The center of the argument concerns whether I should think of the universe as impersonal and indifferent to me, and ruled by randomness and chance. Or whether I should interpret it as personal through and through, in such a way that all things that are (and have been, and will be) dwell in the presence of God, a Person (not in a literal but in an analogous sense) who understands and chooses all that He brings out of nothingness into existence. “Existence” here means being “alive in the presence of” our Creator. I apply the term now to conscious human persons, not to all existents.

For the believer, this world is personal. All of human life is an interior conversation with our Maker. Personality — whose defining traits are understanding and deciding (or creative insight and choice) — is the inner key and dynamic force in all things.

To the atheist, all this seems hot air. Solipsism. Fear of death. Illusion, delusion, poison. The unbeliever’s universe (say they) is far more bracing, invigorating, and challenging. Each brave spirit is like Prometheus, snatching a burning stick of justice from the nothingness of the night. The atheist believes that human beings put into a random, purposeless universe all the good that has ever been, is now, or ever will be. Using Ockham’s razor, the unbeliever slices off God: “We have no need of that hypothesis” The unbeliever holds that the most elegant, most economical, and most chaste explanation is likely to be best. Ockham’s razor seems to be in tune with the way things are. Into the bucket below the guillotine drops the head of God.

The believer, however, does not regard God as a “hypothesis:’ an “explanation:’ or even an “entity.” Rather, in the horizon of the believer, God is the inner dynamism of inquiry, understanding, and love in his (or her) own life, but also in the lives of all others. Dante Alighieri described God as “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” The believer sees God as the inner mathematical and creative light — and the inner, dynamic striving — of all things. Yes, that special sort of love that is proper only to the divine: Caritas.

In short, unbelief and belief are not two rival theories about phenomena in the universe. They are alternative “horizons.”  A horizon describes all that an intelligent, inquiring subject can experience, imagine, understand, and judge to be real, from the point at which that subject is currently situated. A horizon is defined by two parts: the attentive, conscious subject, and the range of all that that subject can experience, imagine, understand, and judge. Human horizons are “systems on the move?’ The horizon you now have has changed by a great deal — in range and in intensity –since you were ten, twenty, or forty, or even sixty. Ideally, one hopes one’s horizon will keep reaching out and growing until death.

The horizon of the unbeliever has within it no answering personal presence (because the unbeliever thinks God is an illusion). By contrast the horizon of the believer is permeated by an obscure sense of living within the presence of Another. Thus, if the believer strives mightily not to cooperate with the Lie, even under torture, even in prison with no possibility of escape, pain leads one to see that the inner light to which one tries to be faithful comes from beyond one’s pain or one’s own strength, burning Insight that fires one’s whole being. In being faithful to the truth, one is being faithful not only to oneself, but also to the One who is the central light and energy and love within us.

These are two radically different ways of living in the world. Two very different horizons.


Michael Novak and Christopher Hitchens

September 9, 2010

The Irrepressible Mr. Hitchens


The following is taken from “No One Sees God” and is a section of the book that deals with Michael Novak’s response to the criticisms of Christopher Hitchens.

Mr. Novak’s Introduction of Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, in some ways a national treasure for the United States, an unusually well-read, graceful, and delightful writer, often witty and even comedic, has opened his soul to an unusual degree. He predicts that his believer friends will be surprised by how harshly antireligious his true views actually are. Well, he has let fling poisonous invective against one of the most gentle, self-sacrificing, loving souls most of us have ever met, Mother Teresa. He has even called her a “whore.” That is about as gross as the jihadist expectation of seventy-two blue-eyed harlots in the martyr’s Paradise. And he now avows his hatred and enmity against “all that is called God.” I was sorry to see this. But it would be patronizing and unfair to Hitchens to take him at less than his word. Let us look into it more closely

Hitchens Four Objections To Religious Faith
The first irreducible objection he announces is that religious faith “wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos.” At the age of thirteen, Hitchens might well have thought that. But nowadays Hitchens excuses naïve scientific errors and missteps (the phlogiston theory) of great scientists such as Newton, Priestley, and Franklin by kindly covering their nakedness: “Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.” Is not religion also entitled to its childhood? Christians have also learned from earlier errors.

Hitchens is much too smart to mistake the book of Genesis for a contemporary account of string theory in an advanced text of physics. The largest of all Christian churches the Roman Catholic Church, leaves to science the task of figuring out description and theories of the material “origins of man and the cosmos.” In the Jewish tradition, Ray Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), among the most eminent Orthodox Talmudists of the twentieth century, taught that imitatio Dei requires believers to imitate God’s creativity particularly through intellectual inquiry and scientific practice. Ray Soloveitchik was among the key founders of Yeshiva University which has as its motto “Torah U’Madah,” in modern Hebrew “Torah and science.” The succinct story of the book of Genesis, and the theological affirmations that draw out its main lessons, emphasizes three points:

  1. All creation is suffused with intelligence, as a unified whole.
  2. All creation is, on the whole, good and worthy to be affirmed and loved.
  3. Its Creator is separate from creation, so that the latter is to be neither idolized nor perceived as under taboo; humans are intended to investigate it and come to understand it thoroughly, naming all things.

None of these three affirmations seems contrary to Hitchens’s own way of proceeding in regard to man and the cosmos. To refer to the natural world as “creation,” though, might cause him gastric pain.

His second irreducible objection to religious faith: “Because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism.” Really? The reader is likely to imagine that something important must be meant by “servility” and “solipsism.” But what have these to do with Dante, Shakespeare, Lord Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John E Kennedy Ronald Reagan, and the millions of other Christians who stand in their shadow and imitate from afir their boldness, capaciousness of character, wide range of vices and virtues, and zest for building a better world?

Hitchens’s third irreducible objection to religious faith: “That it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression.” I would have thought that the history of England gave witness to a great many. lusty Christians; the tales of Chaucer and the plays of Shakespeare ought to be enough on which to rest the case. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were not exactly prudes.

Personally, I am rather glad about the Jewish and Christian emphasis upon honoring the human body as sacred, a temple of the Creator. I am glad that this vision instructs Christians, in self-control, to channel their sexual acts within the bonds of marriage. These are, I would have thought, great civilizing and liberating injunctions. As Tocqueville shrewdly observes, where fidelity establishes trust in the bosom of the family, trust among citizens of the Republic is more natural.

“In Europe, almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth, not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men conceive their scorn for natural bonds and permitted pleasures, their taste for disorder, the restiveness of heart, their instability of desires. Agitated by the tumultuous passions that have often troubled his own dwelling, the European submits only with difficulty to the legislative power of the state. ‘When, on leaving the agitations of the political world, the American returns to the bosom of his family, he immediately meets the image of order and peace. There all his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys innocent and tranquil; and as he arrives at happiness through regularity of life, he becomes habituated to regulating his opinions as well as his tastes without difficulty.”

For tiny Jerusalem, too, neighboring kingdoms to the east and north and south — the Persians, the Babylonians, the Africans — did not have such channeling for sexual polymorphism, and in their own excess fell civilizationally behind Jewish and later, Christian cultures. Even science and enlightenment depend on a certain self-control, even asceticism.

I can see how atheists might wish to experiment further afield and live under fewer sexual restraints than those just stated. God knows, I have sometimes wished I could. Moreover, the many stories of love triangles invented by and for Christian civilization during the past twelve hundred years (since the troubadours) dramatize the tensions that monogamy sets up in the human heart. How could they not? These are the fantasies that arise from sexual self-control. I find it unlikely that Hitchens believes self-control to be morally equivalent to repression.

In the same vein, Sam Harris also makes a crack about how ignoble it is of the so-called God to care “about something people do while naked.” As for gorillas and chimpanzees in the zoo, which Hitchens brings up in his opening pages, it is plain that the Creator does not care when they openly rub their genitals, or whether out in the open they mount a female or are mounted. Of human beings, it appears, he expects a little more self-control, romance, restraint, and mutual respect. As a matter of human dignity.

Actually, come to think of it, surveys of sexual behavior regularly show that secularists enjoy sex rather less than devout Christians do. It may be like the difference between relieving a biological urge and knowing that marital love is in harmony with “the Love that moves the Sun and all the Stars?’ The feminist writer Naomi Wolf published a fascinating essay several years ago noting the bruises that casual sex with multiple partners leaves upon the psyche; and the absence of a sense that a faithful love can last forever. The inherent symbol of two bodies coupling is unity of heart and soul, in which two become one. A great many sexual acts, in that light, are lies.

The enormous weight that a secularist culture places on sexual fulfillment is insupportable for one simple reason. Sexual intercourse is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in. Among the young, the weakening of cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit. It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced  to the huddling of kittens in the darkness — not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of nothingness. Close your eyes and plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be.

Hitchens’s fourth irreducible objection: “That religion is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” Of course, it may be, but perhaps it is atheism that is based on wishful thinking. For some, atheism may be a defiant thrill and self-glorying attraction. With virtually no effort, one becomes a hero in one’s own eyes. And think of the burdens that slide off one’s shoulders just by becoming an atheist. It’s a helluva temptation.

There is one thing profoundly irritating about the atheist pose, however. Some atheists are among the most satirical, dismissive dogmatists one encounters anywhere in life, constantly ridiculing others, setting these others up for logical traps and hoots of laughter. And yet these dogmatists routinely boast, as Hitchens does:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers:

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

I am certain, having in admiration watched Hitchens in print for many years, that Hitchens does not really wish to be a dogmatist—he hates the breed—and does not think he is a dogmatist. Still, I would have thought that all men who in argument routinely ridicule their opponents extend the secret handshake of all dogmatists everywhere: Opponents are for mocking.

Dear, dear Mr. Hitchens. We have all experienced the dogmatism of those who claim to have none. And close-mindedness in regard to God does no honor to those who claim to live by free inquiry, open minds, constant questioning and ceaseless searching. In a word, Hitchen’s “four irreducible objections” don’t amount to much.

Hitchens Sees God the Watchmaker
Like many and religious polemicists, Hitchens suggests that believers in God imagine God as a Designer, whereas experience shows that this world is of inferior design. Indeed, he writes:

“Thomas Jefferson in old age was fond of the analogy of the timepiece in his own case, and would write to friends who inquired after his health that the odd spring was breaking and the occasional wheel wearing out. This of course raises the uncomfortable (for believers) idea of the built-in fault that no repairman can fix. Should this be counted as part of the “design” as well? (As usual, those who take the credit for the one will fall silent and start shuffling when it comes to the other side of the ledger.)”

Hitchens seems to hold that believers think of the Creator as a simple-minded Geometer, a Rationalist Extraordinaire, a two-times-two-equals-four kind of god, a flawless Watchmaker, a bit of a Goody-goody, a cosmic Boy Scout. If that is so—Hitchens leaps for the believer’s throat—then evidence is overwhelming that this Creator botched things up, like a rank amateur. In short, evidence all around us shows there is no such god.

Let’s be honest. The God who made this world is certainly no Rationalist, Utopian, or Perfectionist. We can see for ourselves that most acorns fall without generating a single oak tree. Some species die away — perhaps as many as 90 percent of all that have ever lived upon this earth have already perished. Infants are stillborn, others born deformed. Children are orphaned and little girls, terrified, sob at night in their beds. Human sex seems almost a cosmic trick played upon us, a joke, a game that angels laugh at. ‘Tis a most imperfect world that this Designer has designed.’

But suppose God is not like the Hitchens model. Suppose that God is not a Rationalist, a Logician, a straight-line Geometer-of the-skies. Suppose that the Creator God — like a great novelist, and long before man arrived on earth –created a world of probability schemes and redundancies, of waste and profusion, of heavy buffeting and hardship. Blossoms fell to earth, turned to dust. Stars for millions of light-years brilliant in the far firmament suddenly burn out. Suppose that this God loved untended forests as well as architectural design, statistical schemes of order as much as classical logic. Suppose that this God loved the idea of a slowly developing, incomplete, imperfect history, most good things emerging from suffering. Such a world might be stunningly beautiful. The cross might fit its door like a key.

Suppose He desired a world of indetermination, with all its crisscrossing confusion, so that within it freedom could spread out its wings, experiment, and find its own way:

Glory be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
—“Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gifts Of Judaism And Christianity
Judaism and Christianity considerably deepened their own resources with the moderating habits that they partly learned from pagan ethical systems — from Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics. In return, Judaism and Christianity infused into young and inexperienced Northern Europe a spark of the asceticism, self-denial, discipline, dedication to long years of study, and habits of honesty and limpid transparency that are necessary for sustained scientific work. Here was powerfully reinforced the conviction that everything in the universe, being the fruit of a single intelligence, is in principle understandable and worth all the arduous labor to try to grasp it. Here recent scholars such as Daniel Boorstin (The Creators) and David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations) have uncovered the Western conviction that it is the human vocation to be inventive and to help complete the evolving work of creation.

In this vein, Hitchens praises the efforts of two Princeton professors, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who for thirty years have traveled between campus and “the arduous conditions of the tiny island of Daphne Major” in the Galapagos Islands. “Their lives were harsh,” Hitchens notes, “but who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” With this quip, Hitchens dismisses a more central question. Who could wish that there had been no Jewish and Christian ascetics to inspire the Grants with two incandescent lessons? First, that there is intelligibility in all things, waiting to be discovered. That is, there is a fit between the universe created by God and the human mind created by God — they were made for each other. Second, the vocation of the inquiring mind requires patience, discipline, precise observation, honest reporting, and careful thinking that can withstand the objections of others and persuade even the dubious. The first of these lessons assures researchers in advance that their pain and suffering will be rewarded with new light into our world, and perhaps also into ourselves.

In our generation, Jurgen Habermas has called for a greater tolerance on the part of atheists toward religious believers, and a kind of mutual human respect, which will demand from atheists an attempt to state honestly all their debts to the religious civilization of the West. By contrast Hitchens is quite a bit over-the-top in his hatred of Judaism/Christianity

If all we had to depend on were science, empiricism and our own inquiring minds, we could still have discovered the existence of God (but not the God of Judaism and Christianity) — as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. Reason might well have shown us — did, in fact, show us — that there is living intelligence flashing out from everything on earth and in the skies above. All earthly things are alive with reasons, connections, and also with oddities yet to become better understood, puzzles yet to be solved. We learn by experiment that if we apply our minds to trying to understand how things truly are, how they work, how they are best used, there seems always to be some intelligible light within them that yields up precious satisfactions to the hungry mind. Everything, that is, seems understandable—in principle, if not just yet. This is the outer limit to his sense of the divine that Einstein confesses (as quoted by Hitchens):

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Hitchens may have been too quick in misinterpreting Einstein. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson uncovers Einstein’s objections to aggressive atheism:

“But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. “There are people who say there is no God:’ he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views?’ And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos;’ he explained. In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists;’ he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres?”

The Omnipotence And Omniscience Of God
One of the favorite objects of Hitchens’s mockery is the Jewish and Christian belief in the omnipotence and omniscience of God, proud fortresses that once protected the claim that God is good, against the maelstrom of evils that descend like rain upon the just and the unjust alike. Hitchens makes one think of the rather amusing quatrain debunking omnipotence and omniscience summoned up by Richard Dawkins:

Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?

A cute little quatrain. Yet it does have the defect of putting God in time as though He were just an ordinary Joe like the rest of us. In the classic formulation, “omniscience” and “omnipotence” characterize a being outside of time, unchanging, unchanged. Thus, God has no “future” mind, but only a present mind, in which all Time is present as if in simultaneity The god presented us by atheists, by contrast, is awfully anthropomorphic and fundamentalist. Unnecessarily so. The eternalness of the mind and will of God, in the Judeo-Christian view, does not forbid His creation from taking a wild, unpredictable, highly contingent adventure through history The Creator’s relation to His creation may not be at all what Dawkins and Hitchens project. It may be that of the Artist, or Novelist, who does not infringe upon the liberty of His living creations, even while testing them with difficulties, setbacks, and self-revealing choices.

For the atheist — for Hitchens — the problem of goodness, which his passionate conscience well exemplifies, may create an intellectual problem. If everything is by chance and merely relative, why is it natural for so many to be good — if not all the time, at least often enough to be quite striking? Why is conscience innate?

Put another way: Isn’t it unlikely that random chance alone has arranged the world so that many human qualities—the very ones that Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Jews and Christians find good on other grounds — should also work better for the survival of the human race? It would be at least mildly interesting that philosophy, revealed religion, and random natural selection lead to many of the same moral principles. Perhaps that explains why some atheists are so nobly good (the “secular saints” of Albert Camus), and why some insist on being credited with being good. Some do seem to hate it when believers suggest that in the absence of faith, moral relativism prevails. Christopher Hitchens plainly (and in his case, rightly) resents it.

Besides, atheists of conscience have often placed their trust in very human faiths, in very human causes and system~ and utopian visions. Hitchens testifies to how deeply he sympathizes with this kind of atheist, as in his splendid tribute to Doris Lessing on her receiving the 2007 Nobel Prize:

“For much of her life, the battle against apartheid and colonialism was the determining thing in Lessing’s life. She joined the Communist Party and married a German Communist exile (who was much later killed as the envoy of East Germany to Idi Amin’s hateful regime in Uganda), and if you ever want to read how it actually felt, and I mean truly felt, to believe in a Communist future with all your heart, her novels from that period will make it piercingly real for you.”

Communism was, of course, a “God that Failed.” Generation after generation such gods do arise — and disappear into the void. One should not overlook — should marvel all the more — at that lowly faith in the God who does not fail, but generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, is faithful to His people. Hitchens regards all that as “poison.” His choice.

Atheists Who Believe In An Intelligent Order
A book on American atheists some years back showed that well more than half of them, while calling themselves atheists, nonetheless believed in an intelligent order visible to them in the universe arid/or a life force running through every living thing from the blade of grass to the newborn child. Many thought the whole universe partook of some of the central attributes the ancients attributed to God, such as its mysterious pull toward goodness, justice, and beauty — qualities that are not found in their pure state on earth, but attract us onward by their own higher levels of perfection, like mountain peak rising above mountain peak as far as the eye can see.

The Two Great Commandments
Closer to the heart of the matter, does Hitchens feel bound by “the two Great Commandments that sum up the Law and the Prophets”? That is to say, does he “love God with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his mind”? The evidence of his book and all his interviews does not suggest that Hitchens loves God.

Further, does Hitchens love his neighbor as himself?

The evidence seems very strong that in a large range of cases, Hitchens does love his neighbor. His love may be shown by rather more statist and collectivist ways than many oi us have confidence in. Yet Hitchens shows that, by his own lights, solidarity with the weak and those who suffer is one of the rules by which he governs his life. On this score, Hitchens may well be more favorably judged on the Last Day than many of the baptized. This index is ranked especially high by Jews and Christians. The first epistle of Saint John insists that this is the only way by which a human can prove he loves God — if he has love for his neighbor.

Now I hate to ruin Hitchens’s remaining years on earth by bringing him the bad news — that he may well end up in heaven. He claims he would be bored. He imagines heaven to be a sentence to North Korea, under the worst combination of coerced adulation and a crushingly boring authoritarian leader, with no possibility of escape. Poor Hitchens, to suffer so from a truncated imagination.

There remains only one point on which I suspect (only suspect, not knowing nearly enough) that Hitchens does not measure up: in loving himself. In the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the most difficult part is often the “as yourself.” Self-love is common. Self-love dies, Saint Bernard told his monks, fifteen minutes after the self. But a good self-love, loving yourself as God loves you, loving yourself in honesty and full truthfulness, is very rare A great many human beings, I find, deeply underestimate how radiant with love God has created them, how good in His eyes they really are They are much too hard on themselves, insecure, and unsatisfied Usually, they cover this by  putting others down. In his interviews and published reflections after his book tour, Hitchens reveals a little more about the state of his own soul. He tends to imagine God in the most awful terms. He calls God many vile names, including “capricious dictator?’ He accuses God of meanly, arbitrarily, and spitefully throwing confused people down into everlasting punishment for breaking some silly taboo. (Like a child hopping down the sidewalk: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”) He says that the God who created sex, of which the reader takes it Hitchens approves, walled it around with prohibitions: No, no, no, no! To abortion, homosexuality adultery fornication, masturbation — you name it, Hitchens avers, there is a prohibition against it.

Without the tutoring of Hitchens, a normal person might be forgiven for thinking that God’s point has been to get humans thinking of some other things beyond sex. Sex is very good; one may be certain God enjoyed the humor of its creation, its zones of delight embedded in organs of waste removal, its whole execution rather clumsy, and its uneven outcomes as between males and females seemingly unfair Nonetheless, this lopsided, comical activity preoccupies human beings, makes some obsess about it, and maintains a steady horniness in many more sets of breeches than one might imagine Still, look at all the guidebooks on the subject, the “adult” movies, the “candid” photos on the Internet, the self-help manuals. Pleasure in sex must be a bit harder to find, or to maintain, than one might have thought So much trouble to put up with on its behalf a pretty huge business, sex. And actually, all the evidence is that serious Jews and Christians report more satisfaction from sex than do non-believers.

Besides, without sex, there isn’t any future for the human race. When sex is suffused with a lifetime’s love, and permeated with friendship and loyalty it is a wondrous part of human life. Indeed, of cosmic life One imagines even the angels dancing, or howling with laughter, and with maybe a touch of envy. Every day is Springtime.


No One Sees God – Michael Novak

September 8, 2010


Michael Novak

Michael Novak, who celebrates a birthday tomorrow, is an American Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat. The author of more than twenty-five books on the philosophy and theology of culture, Novak is most widely known for his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). In 1994 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which included a million-dollar purse awarded at Buckingham Palace. He writes books and articles focused on capitalism, religion, and the politics of democratization.

In No One Sees God (2008), “Novak brilliantly recasts the tired debate pitting faith against reason. Both the atheist and the believer experience the same “dark night” in which God’s presence seems absent, he argues, and the conflict between faith and doubt stems not from objective differences, but from divergent attitudes toward the unknown. Drawing from his lifelong passion for philosophy and his personal struggles with belief, he shows that, far from being irrational, the spiritual perspective actually provides the most satisfying answers to the eternal questions of meaning. Faith is a challenge at times, but it nonetheless offers the only fully coherent response to the human experience.” (Publisher’s blurb)
So good I have double the reading selections. What follows is part one:

Two Classes Each Fearing The Other
All others are in the same predicament. We are all in the same darkness. It is not so hard, of course, to evade the rain on the windowpanes, the tapping of the night on the doors and shutters, the darkness, the mist, and the fear. Not so hard to hide from it in the protected circles lit by comforting scientific reason. I have met people who, when you ask them how they account for the unexplainedness of life, the puzzle of it, the pain of it, smile and say: “When someone raises questions like that, I turn away, sit down, and enjoy a good lunch.” Afterward, they think of it no more.
Some people live in a protected circle of light. I notice this especially about two classes of people: first, the unquestioning Christian minds, full of light and sweetness, never doubting a doctrine, seeing in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ the answer to all things. Second, the more scientifically minded, the people of reason, the pragmatists who see no reason to wonder about where it all came from, or where it is going, or how mad it may be. Serenely, both classes race through life — each at times fearing the other.

Albert Camus Quote
The one contemporary whose life I most carefully tracked, from the beginning to at least The Fall, was Albert Camus. “A single sentence will suffice for modern man;’ he wrote in 1956: “They fornicated, and they read the papers.” Well, that’s a way to avoid the nothingness.

Mistake Your Own Nature Mistake God
Gathering force over many years, one discovery has hit me with the force of a law: If you make mistakes about your own nature, you will make as many mistakes about God, and quite properly then, reject what your inquiries put before you. The god you fantasize will appear to you not very great, a delusion, a snare from which others ought to be freed. You will despise this god.

A New Habit Of Reasoned And Mutually Respectful Conversation
This looking behind the veils of reason is what many in North America and in Western Europe today passionately resist. They do not so much despise “God” as they despise the Jewish and Christian God. (Not for the reason Nietzsche did — because Judaism and Christianity are “slave religions;’ Judaism first and in its wake Christianity –but on the contrary, because these faiths assign to humans too much liberty and judge them too exactly for their use of it.) Passionate secularists heap ridicule on the Bible. They tear to shreds Christian doctrine — the whole garment — or with some effort rip out the seams that hold its parts together.

Thus I will need to show how out in the dark, and without ever wholly coming in from the dark, I have come to understand that what the Jewish Testament and the Christian Testament teaches us about God, about human beings, and about ourselves is a truer account of reality than any other I have encountered.

Much as my atheist friends will loathe it and mock it, I have tested this judgment in living and found it to ring true. It better meets the facts of my own reality and the urgent inquiries of my own mind, and better turns aside thrusts intended to wound it and to destroy it, than any other account I have discovered. My reasoned judgment on this matter cannot really be discounted as “merely subjective:’ for it is shared under great stress by hundreds of millions of others. About one of every three human beings on this planet is Christian, over two billion in all. And in no age has the persecution of Christians reached such horrific numbers with so much cruelty. The even more barbaric assault upon our Jewish “older brothers:’ no matter what they believe, awakens amazement and full contempt.

My underlying thesis is a simple one: that unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation.

The conversation among Western atheists and Christian/Jewish believers is particularly important. An excellent model was offered in January 2004 between one of Europe’s most prominent public philosophers, Jurgen Habermas, and the Vatican’s Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect at the time of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They discussed moral relativism, Islam, and the problematic but fruitful tension between atheism and Jewish/Christian belief. In chapter ten, I try to extend and deepen their argument.

Saint Thérèse’s of Lisieux (1873-1897)
Saint Thérèse lived for most of her adult life in utter darkness and dryness and abandonment by her divine Lover. She wrote an autobiography about her experiences and how it led her to interpret the inner heart of Christianity. So powerfully and clearly did she write that Pope John Paul II inscribed her name among the historic handful of “Doctors of the Church”teach so profound and so sweeping in their wisdom that they instruct the whole Catholic people.

The canonization of Saint Thérèse in 1925 was at that time one of the swiftest on record. Miracles attributed to her care and her attention to the needy — which she promised she would “shower down” from heaven — were too many to count. As early as the war of 1914, Thérèse was the favorite saint of French soldiers in the trenches, held by them coequal with Saint Jeanne d’Arc. And so she remains today, this twenty-four-year-old victim of consumption, who after the age of fifteen never set foot outside her cloistered contemplative convent — with Jeanne d’Arc co-patroness of France.

The kernel of Saint Thérèse’s teaching is often called “the little way:’ meaning that no Christian is too humble or too insignificant to follow it and no thought or action too negligible to infuse with love. In other words, God cherishes not only great actions ( love, but also minor, childlike ones. No matter what spiritual darkness you find yourself in, choose as your North Star a tender love of the persons that life’s contingencies have put next to you. Do not go looking around for more fascinating neighbors to by Love those right nearest you.

You cannot see God, even if you try. But you can see your neighbor, the tedious one, who grinds on you: Love him, love her, as Jesus loves them. Give them the tender smile of Jesus, even though your own feelings be like the bottom of a birdcage. Do not ask to see Jesus, or to feel Him. That is for children. Love him in the dark. Love for the invisible divine, not for warm and comforting human consolation. Love for the sake of love, not in order to feel loved in return.

It happens that Agnes Bojaxhiu of Albania eventually became a missionary nun in Ireland, and chose for her religious name Therese, in the footsteps of her patron saint of darkness from Lisieux. In Spanish, the same name is Teresa, and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was also m experienced traveler in inner darkness. She came to be a Doctor of the Church, builder of scores of convents of Carmelite nuns all over Europe, administrator and guide extraordinaire, and a canny operator in bureaucracies, running rings around most of the male hierarchy of her time. Saint Thèrése of Lisieux took the name Teresa in her honor, and followed her teaching as inscribed in Teresa’s books and in the traditions of the Carmelites. (Pope John Paul H was a close follower of the Carmelites.)

For those who love God, that way is excruciating. They would like to feel close to God, but they find — nothing! Like Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Carmelite priest who was her spiritual guide, Teresa gradually came to see that if God were a human invention, a human contrivance, then warm human feelings would be quite enough..

God Is Outside Our Range
God is far greater than that. He is beyond any human frequency. He is outside our range, divine. One must follow Him without any human prop whatever, even warm and comfortable inner feelings. That may be why Jesus loved the desert as a place for prayer. The Jewish scholar David Gelernter has written:

This exactly (or very nearly) underlies Judaism’s ubiquitous image of the veil, & God beyond or behind it. In its simplest form this veil is embodied in the talit or prayer-shawl men wear at morning prayer. A more substantial instance: in the First Temple destroyed by Babylonians, worship centered on the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. In the Second Temple destroyed by Rome, worship centered on the Holy of Holies — which was an absolutely empty space. After that — today — the holiest site in Judaism is a blank wall (the Western Wall) with nothing behind or beyond it. This sequence is no accident. It’s part of the Jewish people’s coming of age and being weaned from what you properly call the child’s view to the adult’s understanding of God. That is to say, our senses cannot touch God. Neither sight nor sound, scent nor taste, nor touch, either. Our imagination cannot encompass Him, nor even bring Him into focus. How can we count on our memory? Our minds can form no adequate conception of Him; anything the mind imagines is easily ridiculed. The God who made us and out of His infinite love redeemed us and called us to His bosom is divine, not human. As such, He cannot be found using human perceptual equipment.

The Darkness In Which The True God Dwells
This is not a new idea. Serious and devout believers from the time of Elijah and Job have known about the darkness in which the true God necessarily dwells. In order for one’s soul to be ready to go far beyond any human contrivance, one must be willing to go out into the desert and the night. Thus we read of the prophet Elijah:

“At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I KINGS 19:9-13)

Thus, also, Job, after he had been stricken with painful boils all over his body, and sat outside where others might mock him, scraping off the scabs, and unable, now, to find the Lord in whom he had placed such utter trust:

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.” (Job 23:8-12)

Saint John of the Cross Dark Night of the Soul
The teachings of Elijah and Job were not so different from those of the teacher of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, the  other great Spaniard who founded the male order of Carmelites, expert practitioners of the way to God in the darkness.

In more than one book, but especially in Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross proceeded lesson by patient lesson to mark out for the novice at prayer the terrors yet to be faced in the desert, while human expectations were shed for those seeking to receive the divine. He vividly described the aridity and emptiness that the lover of God ought to expect, as he traded a child’s faith for that of an adult, as he was weaned away from the sweet milk of infancy and obliged to live on hard, dry bread for long stretches of time. And what the North Stars are. And the dangers to watch for. And the characteristic temptations of every stage of the journey

Beginners prone to “spiritual gluttony;’ St. John writes, are, in fact, like children, who are not influenced by reason, and who act, not from rational motives, but from inclination. Such persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire, therefore, of reading books; and they begin, now one meditation, now another, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God. But God, very justly, wisely, and lovingly, denies it to them, for otherwise this spiritual gluttony and inordinate appetite would breed innumerable evils. It is, therefore, very fitting that they should enter into the dark night, whereof we shall speak, that they may be purged from this childishness. There is thus a great difference between aridity and lukewarmness, for lukewarmness consists in great weakness and remissness in the will and in the spirit, without solicitude as to serving God; whereas purgative aridity is ordinarily accompanied by solicitude, with care and grief as I say, because the soul is not serving God.

Dark Night of the Soul is not an easy book to read. For one thing, it relies heavily upon the experience of the reader. It is intended to show the voyager of the spirit the ways through the night and the desert. How can anyone who has not known the night and desert recognize the symptoms and the signs? This is not a book for reading, but for experiencing.

Perhaps its main point may be expressed thus: Go, seek with love your Beloved, follow wherever He leads. Yet even when you come up to Him you must anticipate that there will be no one to be seen. Your faculties are simply inadequate. Were you actually to see, you would be destroyed. It is too much. Your bulbs would short out. Be prepared, therefore, to walk in darkness Not at all in doubt; on the contrary for the first time ever, aware that you are not now following illusions, but only the true darkling light of the true God, beyond human range. Anything else is human contrivance and illusion.

Saint John of the Cross imagines his soul as the bride, the spouse, eagerly seeking her Beloved for just one sight of Him. This is his great classic song to the Dark Night of the Soul, in eight brief stanzas, of which the following four are the most telling.

1. On a dark niqht, Kindled in love with yearnings — oh happy chance! —  I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.

2. In darkness and secure, By the Secret ladder, disguised —  oh happy chance! — In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.

3.       In the happy night, in secret when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, With out light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

4.       This liqht guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me. A place where none appeared.

Saint Teresa Of Avila On Spiritual Aridity And Torment
The memoirs of Saint Teresa of Avila recount years of spiritual aridity and torment:

“I may say that it was the most painful life that can be imagined, because I had no sweetness in God, and no pleasure in the world.

I believe that it is our Lord’s good pleasure frequently in the beginng, and at times in the end, to send these torments, and many other incidental temptations, to try those who love Him, and to ascertain if they will drink the chalice, and help Him to carry the Cross, before He entrusts them with His great treasures I believe it to be for our good that His Majesty should lead us by this way, so that we may perfectly understand how worthless we are…

It is certain that the love of God does not consist in tears, nor in this sweetness and tenderness which we for the most part desire, and with which we console ourselves, but rather in serving Him in justice, fortitude, and humility That seems to me to be a receiving rather than a giving of anything on our part.”

Yet Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and Saint Thérèse all break out in joy in an analogous way. Dante saw the Christian story as a happy one (commedia), not a tragic or crestfallen one — as Easter follows Good Friday.

For example, of her own spiritual aridity, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:

“But during the Paschal days, so full of light, our Lord. allowed my soul to be overwhelmed with darkness, and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood now became a subject of conflict and torture. This trial did not last merely for thys or weeks — I have been suffering for months, and I still await deliverance . . . I wish I could express what I feel, but it is beyond me. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to understand its blackness.

Sometimes, I confess, a little ray of sunshine illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but later, remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness thicker still . . … And yet never have I felt so deeply how sweet and merciful is the Lord.”

The Darkness And The Desert Free Us
This is the context in which Come Be My Light by Mother Teresa of Calcutta must be grasped. Teresa of Avila and Thèrése of Lisieux are her two “mothers” in spiritual growth and authentic Christian faith, in the light of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The forty-five years of emptiness, darkness, and inner pain experienced by Mother Teresa, and honestly set forth in her private letters to her spiritual director, follow in a long tradition. They are not really signs of doubt, although the black darkness feels like that.

 They are in fact signs of Christian adulthood, following in the only way in which illusions of human contrivance can be scraped away, as Job tried to scrape away the dry boils on his arms and ribs. And in which the truly faithful, like Job and Elijah, can find Him whom they love in the darkness.

“Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job 2:9-12)

It is from “human fabrication” that the darkness and the desert free us. When God subtracts His gifts, as He subtracted Job’s, Job does not take this withdrawal as punishment. Job knows his innocence; he knows his fidelity, even in the darkness and in utter suffering. He utters not one denial of his Lord. His soul stands firm beneath the pain. So also Mother Teresa of Calcutta stood darkly in the presence of her Beloved, confident that even unseen, He was best found where love for her nearest dying neighbor presented Him. To the place where he (well she knew who!) was awaiting Her — A place where none appeared. (Adapted from Dark Night of the Soul)

Somehow I early learned that the important move in prayer is to direct an inner, quiet, steady will toward God’s love, to be united with that love, even in dryness and aridity. Prayer, essentially, is saying “Yes” to the will of God. Not knowing exactly what that will is now, or yet will be, saying “Yes:’ in any case — and in whatever tranquility one can bring to one’s disorderly, discordant self.

One Comes To Know His Presence
I came to learn that, while one can come to know that God is present, our minds are unable to form an adequate conception of Him, or to grasp Him with any of our five senses, or to imagine Him. His mode of drawing us into His presence is necessarily by way of absence, silence, nothingness. I remember an image fixed in my mind by the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, mentioned earlier: “The place where he . . . was awaiting me — A place where none appeared.”

It must necessarily be so. The true God is beyond human concepts, senses, imagination, memory. On those frequencies, He is not reachable. Mother Teresa of Calcutta acknowledged her inability to reach God on human wavelengths in a 1979 letter to one of her spiritual directors, the Reverend Michael Van Der Peet:

“Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me — the silence and the emptiness is so great — that I look and do not see — listen and do not hear”

If a Christian has not yet known this darkness and aridity, it is a sign that the Lord is still treating him like a child at the breast, too unformed for the adult darkness in which alone the true God is found. Any who think they can make idols, or images, or pictures, or concepts of God remain underdeveloped in their faith. Darkness is not a sign of unbelief, or even of doubt, but a sign of the true relation between the Creator and the creature. God is not on our frequency; and when we get beyond our usual range, which in prayer we must, we reach only darkness. This is painful. In a way, it does make one doubt; in another way, experience shows us that when one is no longer a child, one leaves childish ways behind.

Our intellects, our will — these can reach out to God, like arrows of inquiry shot up into the infinite night. These are not shot in vain. They mark out a direction. Waiting in silence, in abandonment, even in the dry sands of the desert, one comes to know His presence. Not believe in it. Know it. In a 1959 interview with the BBC, C. G. Jung once made the same point. Asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied, “I don’t believe — I know.” This is a dark knowledge. One cannot expect anyone else to know it, unless they have also walked the rocky and darkling path — or somehow by God’s grace been brought to it by a different journey, along a different route. Ascent of the Mountain, Plight of the Dove, I called another book of mine. Some of us labor sweatily, others are borne on eagle’s wings.

I do not mean that this knowledge consists of warm sentiments, feelings of devotion, uplift, and “faith.” I mean a certain quiet emptiness. A dark resonance of wills. Echo to echo.

Mother Teresa wrote of her own emptiness in 1961: “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.”

This is not a “will” characterized by effort, unrelenting desire, unshakable determination. I mean something almost the opposite: the quiet of abandonment, and trust. This is another mode of will, quite different from the striving will. It is. the willingness to forgo any other reinforcement except the blind and dark love we direct toward that infinite Light, on which we cannot set our eyes.

Nor do I mean a turning away from intellect or rationality On the contrary, I mean taking these with utter seriousness “all the way down” to the very roots of the universe. I mean trusting our own rationality our own intellect. I mean serene confidence in infinite Light, even when our senses go quite dark. Trust the light, the evidence-demanding eros of inquiry, within us. I mean the suffering love in which that Light issues forth among us. Not to, remove us from suffering. But to transfigure us by means of it.

The Line Of Belief And Unbelief
In every age there have been atheists. In every age there have been believers. Sometimes I think that the proportion of each hardly ever changes. True enough, within a given civilization the relative prominence of one may favor it far beyond the other. Furthermore, many people at any one time may take neither choice with much seriousness. Swirling along the streets, the fallen leaves of autumn. Too passive to act, one way or the other.

In my own life, I have tried to keep the conversation up between the two sides of my own intellect. The line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us. That is why the very question stirs so much passion. I have known people who declaim so passionately and argumentatively that they do not believe in God that I am driven to wonderment: Why are they so agitated, if, as they insist, God does not exist? Why, then, do they pay so much attention? Some of the greatest converts, in either direction, are those who wrestled strenuously for many years to maintain the other side.

I want to add here, before I go back to an earlier theme, that I left the seminary after twelve years, but not out of lack of faith. On the contrary, I was much deepened in its darkness, convinced only that I could not be a good priest and also experiment and write as by then I knew was my true vocation. Maybe others could do it. I could not. Besides, the attraction of women was more than I thought that, over the long run, I could bear. For a long time, yes. But forever? It seemed to me that life as a layman would be far better for my soul. So I returned to my philosophical studies, experiments in fiction, and close attention to Albert Camus.

What particularly struck me in Albert Camus was his insistence that we begin within nihilism. Only by finding our way out from nihilism could any new civilization rest on solid ground. He meant: finding our way out by intellect, the kind of intellect that can engage with the Absurd. Now some fifty years after my first book, much of the spiritual terrain has changed — on a massive scale, and more than once. My aim at the present moment is to give one more report from that no-man’s — land, at the crossroads where atheist and believer meet in the darkness of the night.

What is it that keeps us from getting through to each other? What is it that needs to be looked at from a fresh perspective, or disentangled in one’s own mind, before true disagreement can occur? What goes through the minds of some when they use a name like “God” is very different from what goes through the minds of others.

Naturally, coming face-to-face with God is to be feared (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, “The Mystery fascinating, attracting, and to be feared,” in Rudolf Otto’s phrase) Happily for some, this encounter within the self is fairly easy to avoid. There are many ways to avoid inwardness and to “kill time” simply by keeping busy, frequenting rooms throbbing with the strong beat of certain kinds of music, picking up the car keys to search somewhere else for something to do.

It is not at all hard for a believer to become an unbeliever. A great many do. The seed has often been thrown on dry ground, or on the soil over rocky shale, and cannot bear the heat of the afternoon. Often enough, faith leads one, to feel abandoned to darkness, isolated in inner dryness, undermined by a fear of having been seduced into an illusion For a believer, it does not take a prolonged thought experiment to imagine oneself an unbeliever.

Yet atheists may actually find it harder to imagine themselves coming by way of reason to know God than believers to imagine the opposite I hypothesize that unbelievers, especially those who have never known religion in their personal lives, or who have had bad experiences with it, experience a revulsion against reasoned knowledge of God, and even more so against a Jewish and/or Christian faith Indeed, they find it harder to imagine themselves as believers than believers to imagine themselves as un-believers. Am I wrong?

Reflecting On The Experience Of Nothingness
I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their back-sides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books — the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est deflusivum nil — the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account — or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty courage, community and. practical wisdom — or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people:’ faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

Nihilism Turned Out To Be Antihuman
We may observe how the generation that fell into the nihilism of the 1930s at last stumbled onto the way. In the concentration camps and prisons, many a poor wretch unexpectedly felt himself morally bound not to become complicit in the lies his torturers demanded him to sign. But why? Why, if before they had thought they were nihilists, why couldn’t they manage to be cynics and nihilists and liars here at the end, under torture and torment and soft blandishment (“You can go free, you can have drinks with your friends again”)? Is not a lie a small price to pay in a world without truth? What would a lie mean anyway? “No one will ever know No one will ever care.”

But the liar himself would know his soul would know; in his own mind’s eye, his integrity would forever lie in the dust, humiliated. And his torturer would use this petty surrender to weaken the will of his next victim. “If he did as he was told, why can’t you?” The aim of these torturers was to destroy every last vestige of the moral sense, every fiber of integrity of soul within everyone. For those in prison, the torturers could use the harshest methods and take all the time they needed to break a man. The integrity of the entire public could be assaulted by incessant intimidation and occasional, unpredictable terror. After seducing almost everyone to spy on their associates, the slave masters could easily blackmail them forever. These poor sinners could never forget their own treason to loved ones.

Even with their almost unlimited power and ferocity of will, it proved impossible for totalitarian regimes to instill nihilism into everyone. Nihilism turned out to be antihuman. However powerfully nihilism is enforced, the human spirit is sometimes able to triumph over it by honesty; courage, community and practical wisdom.

Those who have doubts about the power of this argument should read the biographies of Anatoly Sharansky, to whose stirring memoir we will turn our attention in chapter one; as well as the stories of Václav Havel, Mihaio Mihaiov, Armando Valladares, Pavel Bratinka, Irma Ratushinskaya, Maximilian Kolbe, and hundreds of others. From the ashes of nihilism, the human spirit rose stronger and truer.

I have tested this moral principle and have found it fortifying:

Accept the experience of nothingness as a gift, search deep into it, live by its living streams. One thing I particularly appreciate about this moral principle is that it requires no illusions. Far from shutting one’s eyes to the nothingness and the meaninglessness, one keeps the cellar door open in order to feel, at all times, its cool, stale draft. In that way, one is never allowed to forget. And from these four moral virtues, one forges creative strength. Creation out of nothingness.

Freedom means choosing every moment who I am, and what exactly I must do this minute. Self-government yes, precisely that. Yet not exactly without community, community down through time, community around the planet. Not exactly isolated. One’s ancestors continue to live in one’s own consciousness. One’s universal brothers also do. All together, on a darkling plain.

In “Dover Beach:’ Matthew Arnold wrote of an ebbing Sea of Faith:

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

But today there is a difference. The melancholy roar of a receding sea belongs to atheism.

“Unquestioning” Faith?
Our three authors (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet), it does seem, are a bit blinded by their own repugnance toward religion. Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise . . . Fundamentalist religion is hell — bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a Virtue?’ Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions — which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

Christian Innovations
I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art — in music, architecture, .painting, and poetry — in the human patrimony.

And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person:’ “community” “civitas,” “consent:’ “tyranny?’ and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous universities of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past — often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations — during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology.

Alfred North Whitehead And Faith In The Possibility Of Science
Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead — in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. If all things are intelligible to their Creator, they ought to be intelligible to those made in His image, who in imitation of Him, press onward in the human vocation to try to understand all that He has made.

In addition, Judaism and Christianity have inculcated in entire cultures specific intellectual and moral habits, synthesizing them with the teachings of ancient classical traditions, without which the development of modern sciences would lack the requisite moral disciplines — honesty, hard work, perseverance in the face of difficulties, a respect for serendipity and sudden insight, a determination to test any hypotheses asserted. What would modern science be without belief in the intelligibility of all things, even contingent, unique, and unrepeatable events, and without culture-wide habits of honesty; intellectual rigor, and persevering inquiry? Whitehead pointed to this marvelous indebtedness many times, much more generously than Dawkins. In Science and the Modern World (1925), he wrote: “My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology”

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience — from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lovely lily in the meadow — is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility; mutual connection, and multiple logics All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling — the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam — the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

A Theology of the Absurd
It seems useful — and necessary — to sketch out some of the facets of Christian faith to which our atheist threesome (Dennett, Harris, Dawkins) seem inattentive. Each Christian (each Catholic) sees this differently, of course, but right off the bat I notice four questions on which Christian faith offers arresting reflections.

A Theology of the Absurd. Begin with the bloody cross of Calvary. On this gibbet dies the Son of God? The cross is the very symbol of contradiction, and the absurd. When Christians speak of the act of Creation, we do not think of a perfectionist artificer making Lladró dolls, but rather of God creating flesh and blood in all its angularity deformations, imperfections, and concrete limitations, and in the midst of myriad evils and abominations. The world of His creation is riven through with absurdities and contradictions, species that die out, and the teeming, blooming, buzzing confusion of contingencies and chance. When God singles out a chosen people, He picks a small and difficult tribe in a poor, backward, and underdeveloped part of the world. His chosen ones are overrun by enemies again and again, and carted off into slavery and exile for long, long years. Then, when the Creator sends His Son to become flesh, the Son also roots his new community mainly among the poor, the uneducated, the humble, the forgotten.

But then, blasphemy is added to blasphemy, and this Son of God is condemned to death as a common criminal, and forced into the most disgraceful sort of death known to men of that time: public mockery and scourging virtually unto death, and then put out to hang on a cross where the public can shout insults, until the vultures come to pick at his eyes and his wounded flesh. This is not a Pollyanna, this Creator. But what He does do is assure those who suffer and who groan under the weight of the absurd, that, though at times they feel icy fear, they do not in the end need to be afraid. God is a good God and has His own purposes, and it is no mistake to trust His kindness, ever. The Creator did not make us to face a reasonable world in a rational, calm, and dispassionate way — like a New York banker after a splendid lunch at his Club, sunk into his favorite soft chair in the Library where a fragrant cigar is still permitted, as he comfortably reads his morning papers. Instead, there is war, exile, torture, injustice. Life is to be understood as a trial, and a time of suffering. A vale of tears. A valley of death. Even in the bosom of wealth, and luxury, and plenty — even there, cancer and failure and radical loneliness strike; but even more often still, simple boredom.

Not at all a land of happy talk, not at all the perfect world of Candide. Atheism is in the main suitable for comfortable men, in a reasonable world. For those in agony and distress, Christianity has seemed to serve much better and for a longer time, not because it offers “consolation” but precisely because it does not. For Christians, the cross is inescapable, and one ought always be prepared to take it up. I myself have watched three deeply religious people die without consolation, bereft, empty of feeling for God. To be empty of consolation, however, is not to be empty of faith. Faith is essentially a quiet act of love, even in misery: “Be it done to me according to thy will.”

Like Stephen Jay Gould, our three authors think they are destroying the argument from design by showing how poorly designed are so many parts of human anatomy, how many species have perished since the beginning of time (something like 90 percent), how chancily and seemingly without reason so many steps in natural selection are taken. They want to show that if there is a Designer, he is an incompetent one; or, more exactly, there is too much evidence of lack of design. What kind of Lladrô doll do they think God is? Our God is the God of the Absurd, of night, of suffering, and silent peace.

The Burden of Sin
It took me some years, but I have come to understand that, just as some people have no ear for music, so others (as Friedrich Hayek put it) “have no ear for God?’ Still others say they have no “need” for God. They sense in themselves no round hole into which God fits. One of the blessings of atheism seems to be that it takes away any sense of Judgment, any sense that by one’s actions one may be offending a Friend, any awareness of sin. “Sin” seems, indeed, to be a leftover from a bygone age. Beati voi! I want to cry out to atheists. Lucky you.

“At the heart of Christianity is the sinner,” a very great Christian, Charles Péguy, once wrote. Some of us are aware of doing things that we know we ought not to have done, and of not doing things that we know we ought to have done. We are aware of sinning against our own conscience deliberately doing what we know to be wrong, whether from weakness or from a powerful desire that is still out of control. Afterward, sometimes, we feel a remorse so keen that it hurts — and yet what has been done is done, and nothing we now do can take that fault away And at times the fault is shamefully grave, at that.

It is to this common, virtually universal experience that Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, first addressed his auditors, “Be sorry! Do penance. Resolve not to sin again.” (Even though the probabilities of sinning again are high, just as a man with a bad knee, though his knee has healed, knows that it will too easily go out on hint)

Christianity is not about moral arrogance. It is about moralism, and moral humility Wherever you see self-righteous persons condemning others and unaware of their own sins, you are not in the presence of an alert Christian but of a priggish pretender. It was in fact a great revolution in human history when the Jewish and Christian God revealed Himself as one who sees directly into consciences, and is not misled merely by external acts. (This God would be unpersuaded by the external pietas of the numerous Greek and Roman pagan philosophers who — unconcerned about conscience — were sure to be present at religious rites, whether they took the gods seriously or not.)

The biblical respect for conscience greatly dignified and honored inner acts of reflection, commitment, and choice. It turned a powerful beam of attention away from the external act to the inner act of conscience. It greatly honored truthfulness and simple humility Eventually, the inner duty of conscience toward the Creator became the ground of religious liberty — no other power dares intervene in this primal duty to God, which is antecedent to civil society state, family, and any other institution. (See James Madison’~ Memorial and Remonstrance) 1785.)

The Bright Golden Thread of Human History
Emphasized in the liberation of the Jews from the Seleucid Empire (celebrated at Hanukkah), from Egypt (celebrated at the Passover), and from Babylon (celebrated in the poetry of Israel’s prophets), a pilgrimage toward liberty and truth is the defining theme of the Torah. Every story in that testament has at its axis the arena of the human will, and the decisions made there (whether hidden or external). Thus, for biblical religion, liberty is the golden~ thread of human history This conception of liberty is realized internally in the recesses of the soul and also institutionally in whole societies or polities.

The Point of the Cosmos Is Friendship
No other world religions except Christianity and Judaism have put liberty of conscience so close to the center of religious life. For instance, Islam tends to think of God in terms of divine will, quite apart from nature or logic. Independently of reason, whatever Allah wills, does occur. Judaism and Christianity tend to think of God as Logos (reason), light, the source of all law and the intelligibility of all things. This difference in the fundamental conception of God alters, as well, the fundamental disposition of the human being proper to each religion: inquiry, versus submission. If it has ever occurred to you to ask, even if you are an atheist, why did God create this vast, silent, virtually infinite cosmos, you might find your best answer in the single word “friendship.” According to the Scriptures, intelligently read, the Creator made man a little less than the angels, a little more complex than the other animals. He made human beings conscious enough, and reflective enough, that they might marvel at what He had wrought, and give Him thanks. Even more than that, He made human beings in order to offer to them, in their freedom, His friendship and companionship.

Friendship is not only the biblical way of thinking about the relationship between God and man; it is also a good way to imagine the future of our nation and of the world toward which we should work. From this vision, Judaism and Christianity imparted to the world a way of measuring progress and decline. William Penn called his capital city “Philadelphia” (brotherly love), and made freedom of religion its first principle. If there is no liberty there can be no friendship. Even the atheists of the French Revolution named their fundamental principles “Liberty Fraternity Equality” — each of them a term that, as we will see in chapter two, derives not from the Greeks or the Romans, but from biblical religion.

A worldwide civilization of mutual friendship is a powerful magnet, and a realistic measure. Friendship does not require uniformity On the contrary, its fundamental demand is mutual respect, willing the good of the other as other. It births a desire to converse in a reasonable way about fundamental differences in viewpoint, hope, and a sense of practical responsibility.

Evolutionary Biology As A Guide To Life
The young Thomas Aquinas, in his late twenties, was one of the first men in the West to have in his hands an authentic translation of several key books of Aristotle. As his extended line-by-line commentaries on several of the most important of these books show, Aquinas mastered a viewpoint quite foreign to his own. Not many years after, he had to do the same in reading al-Fãrabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and other major Arab philosophers.

And so, when a Christian reader comes across Professor Dawkins’s argument that God cannot exist, because all complex and more intelligent things come only at the end of the evolutionary process, not at the beginning, the Christian’s first reflex may be to burst out laughing — but as an attentive student, he is also obliged to observe that, yes, from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology; that must in fact be so. The argument may be intellectually or philosophically satisfying, yet when its practical implications are compared with those of the Christian viewpoint, evolutionary biology may not be attractive as a guide to life. If one wants to be an evolutionary biologist, however, one must learn to confine oneself within the disciplines imposed by that field.

From a Roman Catholic point of view, at least, there is no difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology understood to be an empirical science-. — that is to say, not as a philosophy of existence, a metaphysics, a full vision of human life. It is easier for Christianity to absorb many, many findings of the contemporary world — from science to technology, politics, economics, and art — than for those whose viewpoint is confined to the contemporary era to absorb Christianity That is just one reason that we may expect the latter to outlive the former.

It is obvious that Dawkins, at least, is quite aware of the conventional limitations of the scientific atheist’s point of view He writes that “a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief.” A few pages of his book, in almost every section, are given over to showing how an atheistic point of view can satisfy what have hitherto been taken to be religious longings. Atheism, too, he shows, has its consolations, its sources of inspiration, its awareness of beauty its sense of wonder. For such satisfactions, there is no need to turn to religion. Dawkins does good work in restoring human subjectivity emotion, longing, and an awed response to beauty to the life of scientific atheism. For Dawkins, scientific atheism is humanistic, a significant step forward from the sterile logical positivism of two or three generations ago.

Harris Explaining Away The Horrors
Atheism has a more severe limitation, one that shows itself in the actions of its proponents. One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism?’ Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional. .. The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Everything Is Permitted
Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently — and endlessly — disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow

Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence. .

The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny

Reasons For Altruism
Dawkins attempts to get around this flaw in (what he calls) the neo-Darwinian view of chance and blind natural selection by counting out four reasons for altruism rooted in evolutionary biology: “First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favors given, and the giving of favors in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying authentic advertising.”

To these reasons based upon nature’s egotism (which furnishes little motivation to be kind or virtuous when no one is looking), Jews and Christians would add four or five others. To begin with, altruism is morally good, rooted in natural law, and most highly commended among the “laws” of God. Second, not to love one another is to disappoint the Creator who wishes us to be His friends. Next, not to love one another is a failure to imitate the Lord Jesus, who asked us to imitate Him. Fourth, experience confirms that loving others is in tune with a communal dimension of our nature, beginning in the family, but radiating outward through the polity and the economy. (Adam Smith referred to this highest law as “sympathy”) Last, as Tocqueville pointed out, every Mosaic commandment has a foundation in nature, but tends to stretch nature’s outer limits. Maimonides, Aquinas, and many others discussed this in great detail centuries ago.

As Thomas Jefferson recognized, it is self-evident that any creature owes his Creator certain duties in conscience; that much is clear by nature itself. But the commandment “Remember the Sabbath” is more specific than the natural law of reason; it stretches nature by adding to it a specifically Hebraic duty Meanwhile, Christianity specifies this duty in terms of Sunday, rather than the Jewish Sabbath. Thus, nature alone reaches the fundamental principle, but this Third Commandment, at least, specifies more than nature alone does. Jewish and Christian faiths do not reject, but build upon nature, add to it, bring it to a more concrete expression.

Finally, our three authors (Dennett, Harris, Dawkins) fail to think carefully about what Jews and Christians actually have to say about God. Their own atheistic concept of God is a caricature, an ugly godhead that anybody might feel duty-bound to reject. Dawkins makes fun of an omniscient God who would also be free. If an omniscient God knows now what future actions He will take, how will that leave room for Him to change His mind — and how does that leave Him omnipotent? Isn’t He caught in a kind of vise? -

But, of course, this is to imagine God being in time as Dawkins is in time. Dawkins fails to grasp the difference between a viewpoint from eternity outside time, and his own viewpoint from within time. He also fails to grasp the freedom that the primary cause allows to secondary causes, to contingencies, and to particulars. God’s will is not before human decisions are made. Rather, it is simultaneous with them, and thus empowers their coming into existence. Ancient philosophers proved able to grasp this point. Surely our contemporary atheists can become equally as learned?

When Catholics celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass, for example, we imagine that our moment of participation in that particular Mass is — as for every other Mass we attend in our lives — in God’s eyes simultaneous with the bloody death of His Son on Calvary In our eyes, it is experienced as a “reenactment;’ but in God’s eyes both moments are as one. No doubt, for some minds this is all too mystical, and its underlying philosophy is a bit too sophisticated, especially to those of literal and purely empirical tastes. Our three authors, in any case, present a quite primitive idea of God. If the rest of us had such a view, we, too, would almost certainly be atheists.

The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to our atheist authors unexplored territory. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives — and why these inner silences ring so true to those who share them, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life — our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical;’ they might come closer to walking for a tentative while the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying — less self-contradictory; less alienating from their own nature — than atheism.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 273 other followers