Monday, March 2, 2009

Thoughts on Completing "No One Sees God" by Michael Novak

Following up on the promise made in a previous post, I have finished Michael Novak's "No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers." Finally. It's a worthwhile, if somewhat slow read for people like me, who are struggling to understand the darker sides of life and religious faith.

Some concerns to start: The book meanders (Novak acknowledges this) and begins with a pious tone before polemics. Not a good way to start the book in my estimation. You lose the unbeliever. But that is not likely to be the reading audience of this book, I think.

In the current atmosphere of aggressively polemical atheism and constant exposure to the reality of evil through the mass media, I would have preferred that Novak begin the work in a more direct, logical format. Some more trivial arguments (such as that Christians report having more satisfying sex than atheists) could have been left out.

Additionally, Novak is such a happy warrior for faith that he may not recognize how his pious tone fails with non-believers. Overall, the book feels like it is written, especially in the beginning, for those who are already highly conversant with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That aside, there are things to recommend the book. Including some provocative ideas. Here are a few random highlights for me:

Platonism: It is powerfully evident that Novak relies heavily on Platonic "eros" or constant striving for truth as a fundamental drive in the universe, one which explains science itself. Having taught such eros for many years now at local colleges, I can say that it is intoxicating and makes one interested in seeking the terminal point of all knowledge and levels of being. However, one must have a certain cast of mind to accept this argument, and Novak could have done some more work to explain that eros, in Plato's divided line, his reliance on mathematical forms as the spur to his own ideas, etc. This might have been helpful in adding significance to his argument.

God the Novelist
. Often times Novak refers to God as an author-like figure, with a taste for drama. Indeed. This idea bothers me (it seems insouciant about evil) and provokes me. I have found myself slipping into my usual meditations on evil and suffering and rather than thinking of God as uncaring, this idea makes me think of God as deeply involved in the unfolding of the story. But, it also makes me think of God as somewhat bipolar, who is likely to "allow" crazy things to you just for his own kicks of a good story. This is an idea I am thinking about a lot lately.

Secularism Crumbling. In the concluding chapters of the book, Novak provides a valuable overview of the origins of "secularism" in Christianity. He notes the tensions which have arisen within modern, militant secularism, challenged from within by the likes of Nietzsche, Derrida, etc. And, the risks that secularism taken to its nihilist extremes might energize fascism. Additionally, I was unfamiliar with many of Irving Kristol's arguments against secularism and will be sure to look into those more.

Constructive Dialogue. When I attended Fordham University for my graduate philosophy degree, Jurgen Habermas's name was much bandied about. I had other concerns at the time, but Novak has stoked my interest, insofar as Habermas, not a believer, is yet an active proponent of dialogue with belief, and recognizes that certain important concepts within the unbeliever's lexicon are heavily dependent upon their religious origins. This struck me as a jumping off point of a Socratic dialogue between belief and unbelief, where certain key terms seen darkly must have their meaning clarified by a healthy metaphysical answer. Additionally fascinating to learn, the acknowledgments of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) in dialogue with Habermas about the "toxicity" that religion can generate, and how it must be purified in dialogue with the secular.

The Two Faces of Belief. Darkness within faith is not the product of reading the "wrong books." Such as when I have read and taught David Hume, for example. Novak calls for a healthy respect for and dialogue with atheism because we see in atheists another side of ourselves. If we are honest. From Novak's appendix of favorite "dark" biblical passages, to the Via Negativa of the Pseudo-Dionysios to the Dark Night of John of the Cross, there are strains of darkness within religious faith. We need more such resources in a modern form. And I felt a certain sense of relief at reading Novak's acknowledgments of this aspect of faith and his call for an open discussion of it.

Perhaps we will yet see progress in our lifetimes.

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