National Catholic Register

Books

How Dialogue Is Done

BY The Editors

August 23-September 5, 2009 Issue | Posted 9/22/09 at 11:00 AM

 

No One Sees God:

The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers

By Michael Novak

Doubleday Religion, 2008

336 pages, $23.95

To order: randomhouse.com

(212) 782-9000


The dust of the grandiosely labeled “New Atheism” publishing barrage has mostly settled. Christopher Hitchens’ and Richard Dawkins’ books have been widely debated and rebutted by theologians, apologists, and, with surprising vigor, secular philosophers. One could not help noticing in the ebb and flow of these battles, however, the same formations deployed as in ages past, even if decorated in different uniforms. As President Obama affirmed in his address at the University of Notre Dame, dialogue includes for him an element of obduracy: I have irreducible objections, so why not find some common ground and move along?

Enter Michael Novak, mediator extraordinaire, whose No One Sees God could not be more timely in the era of ostensible irreconcilability. While not shying away from going mano a mano on intricate and tricky points of historical inquiry — where, Novak admits, many scholars fall into “polemical habits”— the author draws most extensively on his encyclopedic knowledge of natural theology, the application of human reason to the mystery of God. Novak’s chosen discipline, which has not enjoyed a luminary in recent memory, differs from but dovetails with theology proper, which confesses faith yet seeks deeper understanding. “What if,” the author says to the atheist, “I start with unaided human reason, as you do, and we examine the evidence together?” Further, Novak challenges, “Are you willing to shift your perspective to divine revelation and re-envision the data?”

The chapters that follow bring to light Novak’s magnanimous technique. He lauds some atheists for their interrogative challenges, but expresses surprise and disappointment as he reveals their self-contradictory proselytizing, defensiveness and provincialism. Dedicating an entire chapter to Hitchens, Novak lauds the satirist’s wit and honest passion while uncovering the selfdeluding notions behind them: a man all too ready to conceive God only out of human materials and failings, to rail against the miasma of dogma, while spouting his own brand of fundamentalism. Novak engages Heather MacDonald for two chapters of catechetical cat and mouse, offering deeply moving and undeniably compelling rejoinders to the most difficult questions of redemptive suffering and divine justice. At the root of MacDonald’s queries — and behind many of the believer’s own dark thoughts, too — lies a poverty of human responsibility, a complacency with carelessness, and even an acceptance of inevitable decline.

And here, in this realization of the unity of suffering, Novak comes to one of his most lucid arguments. In the face of true struggle, nonbelievers cast their cares onto others — usually through aggression, whether passive or active — or, more harmfully, onto themselves:

“[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, unsatisfied.”

Novak dedicates the remaining chapters to an ambitious synthesis of several developing threads: the natural theology underpinning democracy, the suffusion of intelligibility in the world, and a re-examination of the secular.

Though Novak writes beautifully of the inscrutability of God, discussions of joy are notably absent. Relish the rare moments of consolation in your reading journey as you move through this faith-challenging and sometimes melancholy desert.

Know, however, that you can have no better Virgil at your side than Novak.

Stephen Mirarchi writes

from Lakeland, Florida.