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.
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.
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 it.is 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.