Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The road less traveled

I have never met the pundit Michael Novak, but his spirit would be hard to ignore here at Stonehill College. Novak was a graduate of the college (1956), he has remained a loyal friend of Stonehill, and his personal archives reside here. I seem to remember him as a young left-winger back in the Sixties, but he is now a prominent pillar of the conservative establishment, opining on matters of cultural contention from his post at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. I once took issue with him here when he advocated adding intelligent design to the public school science curriculum.

Like everyone else, Novak has added his voice to the science/religion debate with a book called No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. He takes Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al. to task for their "literature of contempt," and pleads for a more civil conversation between atheists and believers. No quarrel with that. Our religious and political discourse could certainly use a more generous spirit.

The Big Questions will be always with us, says Novak: Who are we? Why are we here? What might we hope for? How ought we to live? He answers:
In the face of such questions, both the atheist and the believer stand in similar darkness. The atheist does not see God -- but neither does the believer. If there is a God such as Jews and Christians and many deists have held there to be, such a God cannot be reached by eyes, ears, taste, touch, or scent. Not be imagination or memory either. Not directly even by a clear distinct concept. The only knowledge of God we have through reason, all the ancient thinkers have taught us, is dark -- and by the via negativa, that is, by reasoning from what God cannot be. Direct empirical knowledge of God could only be a false God.
Well, fair enough. And the agnostic would respond: Thank you, Mr. Novak, Q.E.D.

Surely Novak knows that the God that so rouses the indignation of Dawkins, et. al. is not the God of the via negativa, who is not this and is not that. It is the God of the vast majority of believers, a personal God who communicates with humans and intrudes into his creation. It is the God who throughout history has stirred the troubled pot of human parochialism, and demanded loyalty with the enducement of everlasting life. It is the God who most believers (including Novak) embrace through an accident of birth.

Novak's plea for civil discourse between secularism and faith is certainly welcome, and he makes a convincing argument that humans do not live by science and reason alone. The task before us, it seems to me, is not to prop up our various parochial Gods, but to forge a modern narrative that transcends sectarian theologies. Faith and doubt will never be reconciled, and conversation between them is essentially fruitless. But there is no reason why the secular, scientific enterprise cannot seamlessly accommodate a sense of the sacred and the holy -- call it, if you will, in Novak's phrase, the God that no one sees. The via negative is not a yellow-brick road that leads to an enchanted Oz where we see God face to face; rather, once we abandon the notion of a transcendent destination, we realize that the road we are traveling traverses a landscape of astonishing beauty and mystery.