May 2009By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.
No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers. By Michael Novak. Doubleday. 310 pages. $23.95.
Michael Novak responds in his new book No One Sees God to the torrent of blasphemies that promoters of atheism such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have recently spewed forth against God. Sadly, his book is fatally flawed because of his unbounded admiration for atheists. Although he spent a dozen years in a Catholic seminary, Novak seems to have forgotten what Scripture teaches about them: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God" (Ps. 14:1).
Novak expresses neither outrage nor indignation at the thumping blasphemies that pervade books like Dawkins's The God Delusion and Hitchens's god is not Great [reviewed by this writer in Mar. 2007 and Dec. 2007, respectively -- Ed.]. Instead, he assures us that "there are many quite brilliant people who are atheists, many of whom I have not only met but in some jobs been surrounded by. I admire nearly all of them." Yes, nearly all of them. By contrast, the eminent Ronald Knox in The Hidden Stream wisely remarks in reference to smart-aleck atheists: "People who are clever are not necessarily 'a very sane set.'"
Novak says he is profoundly "grateful" because the presence of atheists in the "common dialogue is of extraordinary benefit" to us. By their writings they have opened a window into their souls so that we may better understand them and realize they are led by "an impressive reverence for the driving power of justice and the fearless light of truth." It doesn't bother Novak that these blowhards seduce immortal souls into the bottomless pit. He informs us that some atheists of his acquaintance even practice heroic virtue: "A few of the most virtuous, brave, and generous people I know are atheists, scrupulous in following inquiry where it leads, and in bowing only to evidence." He's impressed that "truth" is "important" to atheists in prison, even though "their fidelity to it does not in fact help them to survive." Unfortunately, Novak's view of atheists is not shared by Fr. John Lenz, whose eyewitness report in Christ in Dachau [reviewed by this writer in Feb. 2009 -- Ed.] tells how atheist-prisoners joined forces with godless SS guards to inflict cruel sufferings and often death on Catholic priests.
When it comes to admiring his political ally Christopher Hitchens, Novak pulls out all the stops. He calls Hitchens "in some ways a national treasure," and frankly commends him for opening "his soul to an unusual degree" in god is not Great. Novak "highly admires" his "honesty," his "passion for an ever more complete justice," and his "courage and polemical force." What about Hitchens's vile attack on Mother Teresa? Oh, that's because he thinks "she should have become a socialist and helped eliminate poverty."
Hold on, an even more profound kowtow lies ahead. One would think that charity requires Novak to warn a blasphemer that he is on the road to perdition. Instead, Novak finds strong evidence that Hitchens truly loves his neighbor, though perhaps in more "statist and collectivist ways than many of us have confidence in." Consequently, Novak purrs, Hitchens "may well be more favorably judged on the Last Day than many of the baptized" and "end up in heaven." Yes, Hitchens may be going to Heaven -- against his will! Thus Novak, broad-minded Catholic that he is, thinks that even if Hitchens has publicly called God "vile names," and has justified "abortion, homosexuality, adultery, fornication, [and] masturbation," he hasn't forfeited eternal life as long as he's on the side of the weak in "statist and collectivist ways."
Heather MacDonald, an atheist-conservative of the Manhattan Institute, also wins Novak's unbounded admiration. In an extended "dialogue" with her, Novak lays down his arms and calls her a "very smart" atheist imbued with "noble longings" and "goodness of spirit" who conducts her argument against faith with "elegance and force" and "clarity of mind and persistent attention to evidence."
Not content to lie prone at the feet of atheists by his lonesome, Novak proposes that "religious people nowadays should more frequently express publicly their respect for those who do not believe in God. The reverse is also to be desired." Note that the respect of atheists toward believers is only to be desired, pie in the sky, while the homage of Christians toward atheists is something that must be paid very soon and often. Elsewhere, after he has argued in favor of God's existence, Novak concludes, "It would be odd if my friends Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, MacDonald, and others did not find this way of thinking beneath them." Beneath them! Of course, they are sure to look down if he's lying at their feet. In still another place he says that "Christian conversations must be characterized by humility and mutual respect if Christians are to find a new way forward in the coming post-secular age. Our Lord would have Christians converse with all others in an open spirit -- and yet not be surprised by the ridicule and contumely thrown their way." Here he advises us to be abject and craven in response to rampant blasphemy. He thinks we are already in a state of dhimmitude with regard to an atheist intelligentsia. Exactly when did America turn into a godless tyranny?
In an odd plea for atheists, Novak says that when they reject the Christian God it's only because they "sense something far greater, cleaner, more attractive, even if in the end dark and hidden. I have great sympathy for this approach." Then he adds that "there is some power" compared to which they "judge" the Christian God "unworthy." "Some philosophers have called this 'the God beyond God.' It is sufficient to call it the God of night." The god of night? Surely Satan springs to mind as this pretended god.
Let it be noted that only once in 300 pages, and very gingerly, does Novak allude to the virtually unanimous support atheists provide for the Culture of Death: "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." Yes, diminish their number! He expresses no indignation that they want to stop the crying of children by eliminating the children. Yes indeed, this is their red-in-tooth-and-claw response to the problem of suffering.
The big question remains: Why does Novak kowtow to these atheists and ask us to join him? He says he spent many years in academe and "cannot imagine getting through graduate studies at Harvard, teaching at Stanford and other universities, without learning how to think, and speak, and work within the horizons, viewpoints, methods, and disciplines of the atheist." He informs us that godless newspeak is now compulsory in American universities, despite the fact that these places rely on taxpayers who are nearly all believers. Novak wrongly compares our situation to that of St. Thomas Aquinas, who had to master the works of the Muslim philosopher Averroes. But it's not the same: Aquinas didn't have to hide his faith and pretend to think like Averroes. He didn't have to apostatize to fit in. Novak informs us that atheism today is "the lingua franca of nearly all classrooms and academic discussions." All the more reason, then, not to grovel but to demand fairness from those who live off public money in a rather infantile mutual-admiration society.
Novak's entire book, as well as his admiration for atheists, is based on the faulty premise that believers and nonbelievers are equally in "darkness" with respect to God. He asserts more than once that "the experience of this darkness is common to all, believer and unbeliever," and that "in trying to see God believers are in a night as much as the atheist is." His very title No One Sees God refers to this "darkness" and is taken from the Epistle of St. John: "No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us" (1 Jn. 4:12).
Novak misinterprets St. John, for there are three passages in his Gospel that complement the passage in his Epistle. First, he writes, "No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (Jn. 1:18). In the original 1582 Rheims New Testament, Gregory Martin explains this verse: "Never man in this mortality saw God in the very shape and natural form of the divine essence, but men see him only in the shape of visible creatures, in or by which it pleases him to show himself to so many diversely in this world; but never in such sort as when he showed himself in the person of the Son of God, being made truly man and conversing with men." In short, we do see God -- with the heart and soul, not the physical eye -- partly in His creation, as St. Paul states in Romans 1, and more plainly in His Incarnation. Secondly, Our Lord declares in John 6:46 that He Himself has seen the Father: "Not that any man hath seen the Father; but he who is of God, he hath seen the Father." So even if no mere man has looked on God in His divine essence, Christ Himself has seen Him and can reveal Him to us. And thirdly, when Philip asks Our Lord, in John 14:8, to "show us the Father," Our Lord rebukes him, saying, "Have I been so long a time with you; and have you not known me? Philip, he that sees me sees the Father also." And so, the Apostles could see God in the Person of Christ. From these three passages in the Gospel of St. John we can infer that we are not at all in the same "darkness" as atheists. We see just as much of God as we need to in order to decide to love and serve Him. He doesn't overwhelm us because He doesn't want to force our will.
Strangely, Novak remarks that those who say that men saw God in Christ should note that more "walked away than believed." Doesn't he realize that Our Lord Himself declared to Philip, "He that sees me sees the Father also"? Furthermore, what does it matter if more disciples walked away than remained when He spoke of giving His flesh and blood as food for eternal life (Jn. 6)? Salvation doesn't depend on a poll. Noah and Lot were decidedly in a minority.
Even more strangely, Novak remarks that "believers in God well know, in the night, that what the atheist holds may be true." He implies that virtually all believers are tempted to atheism in the middle of the night. Let him speak for himself! If his faith is so fragile, why does he sally forth against the godless crew? Surely this is why he ends up writing an apologia for atheism instead of a confutation of it. Ah, Alexander Pope, you should be living at this hour! We have need of a satirist like you who can stand up to these sons of earth and declare with an Olympian laugh: "I must be proud to see / Men not afraid of God afraid of me."
Novak believes that Mother Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux all experienced the same dark night as atheists do. He's wrong. The dark night of the soul that saints experience is the highest rung of the contemplative ascent in the Catholic faith. It is a state reserved for a very few whom God prepares for perfect union with Him. In this mysterious dark night, the saints experience a painful abandonment of mind and soul, as if God were absent, when in fact He is more truly present, though deeply hidden, than before. This is why Mother Teresa -- whom I once observed at close hand when she gave an address to a graduating class at John Jay College -- exuded such a powerful sense of a divine Presence, even though, as her recently published letters reveal, she was experiencing the dark night of the soul. It's unreasonable for Novak to put this angelic contemplative state on a par with the horrific, demonic darkness of the atheist. It amounts to putting the Real Presence on a par with a real absence. There's an infinite distance between seeing God through a glass darkly in anticipation of seeing Him face to face and staring with the atheist into a dark, vertiginous nothingness.
But Novak thinks the "experience of nothingness" is "practically universal" and is the result of "ruthless honesty" and "courage" (his italics). He speaks of the "brotherhood" of those who "recognize the experience of nothingness in one another," who accept it "as a gift, search deep into it, [and] live by its living streams." All I can say is, dear Lord, in your infinite mercy, preserve us always from this Brotherhood of Nothingness!