Michael Novak's Commencement Address at Franciscan University of Steubenville

Knowing the Unknowable God: How Most People Know the Presence of GodDelivered at Franciscan University of Steubenville on May 9, 2009

Distinguished Presidors and guests, Remarkable Faculty, graduates of “0-9” – and all your amazing parents!

I know with extremely high probability that you of the graduating class of 2009 have changed immensely in the last four years. I know your parents have seen it in you. You yourself recognize it: you are no longer who you were in high school.

… Myself, I know that you have learned good mental and moral discipline, know how to work hard, carry a lot of information in your heads, and think clearly. I know this because during the last twenty years I have worked with a good number of graduates from this great Catholic University. I was skeptical at first, but learned to admire their high quality and sound preparation, their enthusiasm, and their can-do attitude.

They also know how to laugh, and how to party. I’ve seen that, too.

Above all, graduates from this place are distinguished by their intelligent grasp of the Catholic faith and its best spirit of affection and enthusiasm. Graduates of Franciscan Steubenville seem to have learned the happy openness of their great Patron from Assisi, and married it to the intellectual searching of St. Bonaventure. One senses that happy marriage of temperaments in a remarkable number of you. Praise God! It is a rare and wonderful combination to encounter.

Let my second word of congratulations today go to your parents and families. This day is for parents! Today is a tremendous step in the life of your daughter or son. It is the crowning day of an enormous gift that you have given them—a university education. That is a privilege only a tiny fraction of the parents who have ever lived on earth have been able to give their children—the best gift, next to life itself, next to the faith.

And, dear parents, today also means one less year of tuition payments! … My wife and I will never forget the discovery we made the month after our last child had completed university–discretionary income! We had forgotten what it was like.

But today belongs especially to the graduates of the class of “aught 9.” You are the ones God chose to launch the next thousand years of Christian history.

What a difference you are going to make in the world! We don’t yet know where. We don’t yet know how. But still … During the four years of your stay here, thousands of young men and women your age have offered their bodies to bring freedom to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them gave the rest of their lives, young as they were, and some came home badly hurt. All of them together performed one of the great military feats in the history of American arms. They rescued some 80 million human beings from tyranny and torture. They have given two nations a shot at building stable democracies…given them a chance, not a guarantee.

Some of you may do even greater things. There are countless restless souls to be healed, families to be started and nourished to maturity, discoveries to be made, businesses and new technologies to be started, young minds to be taught and inspired, the sick to be cared for, the poor to be lifted up. – And graduating seniors with big debts to pay off!

What I really want to talk to you about today is the center of your lives –about God, and how people know Him, even without faith.

Let me begin with a little story about my daughter Jana, who has written two books with me: “My daughter, the agno-theist,” I call her. Years after her high school years, she told me that she had actually become an atheist at that time. Then, when she went to one of the best secular universities in America, she discovered she really couldn’t be an atheist. She saw a contradiction in the thinking of her atheist professors, who said there was no “meaning” to things, because the world came to be by chance, without reason. At the same time, they insisted that the only way to come into contact with “reality” is by scientific method, rigorous logic, and the uprooting of prior prejudices. She couldn’t accept the contradiction between a world to be understood as springing wholly from chance, and a world to be understood through a rigorous use of science.

Besides, there was a moral chilliness – except in political matters – that she didn’t much approve of, either. So she stopped calling herself an atheist. She concluded that she is, after all, a theist. (By the way, I am a great believer in encouraging our young to question everything, to keep raising questions. The drive to question endlessly is the best way to gain an experience of the infinite – and to be restless, until one rests in the Infinite.)

Still, in college, Jana was not at all sure what the existence of God meant for her. Why did God care about her? Maybe God is just impersonal, like the frightening powers of nature. She was pretty sure there is a God, but she was very unsure what God is. So she called herself an “agno-theist.”

I’ll bet that there are at least some here today – perhaps many – who are rather unclear about what goes through their head when they say – or hear – the word “God.” Certainly the New Atheists have sold going-on two million books questioning what Christians and Jews mean by God, making fun of self-contradictions, finding no evidence of God’s existence even. The New Atheists sure expend a lot of hatred on a God they say does not even exist. Nonetheless, a lot of people now seem troubled by the question, What do I mean by “God”?

The main point I want to put before you is that God is not, and cannot be, reached by our poor human equipment. He is on an altogether different frequency. Apart from the God-man Jesus Christ we cannot find Him through out senses. We cannot smell Him. We cannot reach out and touch Him. We cannot taste Him, or hear Him. We cannot see Him. Or picture Him in our imagination. Or recall Him in memory. And even in regard to Jesus, most people who encountered him during his life on earth did not see God in him. God no one can see.

Only little children think they can picture God. Kindergarten. Sister Heloise comes up behind Ellen in a drawing class. “What are you drawing, Ellen?” Ellen hunches her shoulders over her paper, and says: “Drawing a picture of God.” -- Sister Heloise: ‘But no one knows what God looks like.” Entirely unabashed, Ellen replies: “Now they will.”

Or Sister Margaret in catechism class. “Where is God?” she asks the class. Maureen in the second row waves her hand wildly. “Maureen,” says the Sister. “He’s in the bathroom,” Maureen insists confidently. “Maureen!” says Sister Margaret. “Well,” little Maureen defiantly insists. “Every morning when my sister and I are in the bathroom, daddy knocks on the door, and says ‘God, are you still in there?’”

Back to the world of adults. “No one sees God,” St. John’s Letter tells us. Philosophy tells us the same thing. Our senses are inadequate for reaching God. He is beyond the range of our imagination. We can shoot concepts up toward Him like so many arrows, but they all fall back to earth without quite hitting their target. God is simply too great for our minds or senses to penetrate through to Him.

Yet the truth is that nearly all human beings in history, from the beginning until now, have been aware that they are in God’s presence. Atheists hardly appeared in prior history, before the last two centuries. Only in the twentieth century did there appear a significant number of atheists in high positions, able to sway the public culture.

In the United States, recently, only two percent of the population declared themselves Atheists in the large Pew Poll, and only six percent more as Agnostics. Quite stunningly, half the Agnostics admitted that they did believe in a great Intelligence underlying all things, and a great force or energy moving this cosmos. So did twenty percent of the Atheists. In other words, a majority of Atheists and Agnostics also believe in God, at least a God rather like the God of Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus, Cicero, Seneca, and virtually all the philosophers down until modern times.

What today’s Atheists and Agnostics seem to reject is the Jewish God and the Christian God. That is the God in whom they do not believe.

Among common people, by comparison, the default position of most of the human race is that they know that God is all around them, and in almost all things—they know they are in the presence of God. I say they ‘know’ this. But they do not, of course, know it through sense knowledge, or by imagination, or memory. They know it in a kind of darkness. They know what they cannot directly see. In fact, for most of human history, it was almost unknown in human experience not to know it. It took work to become an atheist, and it was not easy, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained in his autobiography Words, to remain consistent about it. He often found himself on a particularly beautiful day thanking God. He said it took a lot of vigilance every minute to be an atheist all the way through.

In fact, one of the hardest things about being an atheist, by their own testimony, is not having anyone to thank for the marvels they run into every day.

Now it is important for Christians and Jews to be able to give a reasoned account of what they believe. This is because the God of the Muslims may be pure, naked Will, more powerful than any law, but the God of Jews and Christians is the God of mind, and logic, and law, and probabilities, and surprises and creations and serendipity – but He is to be thought of first as a Word, that is, an Insight – “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word generated by the Source of all Insight, the Father, and communicated through all of creation by the Holy Spirit generated by the brilliant light of the overpowering love of Son for Father, and Father for Son.

A Jewish friend of mind once asked me, sitting at lunch with me high in the Rockies of Colorado, “Michael, what goes through your mind when you say the word Trinity. I don’t get it.” I wasn’t ready for that. But the woman he was very happily wed to was sitting with him. I asked him, an old experienced man, what was the best thing he had known in his life? What was the thing he might say was “divine,” almost too good for human beings. His love for Esther, his kids, his sisters?

Isn’t it true that the best thing you, too, have ever known in life, the most divine thing, is love – or, maybe better, communion? That’s how we Christians hold to our notion of Trinity. Our God isn’t just a solitary being, icy, and isolated, and alone. The most divine of all human experiences is love, love that is requited, love that is a circle binding all within it. The communion achieved by a man and woman who love each other so much they have committed themselves to each other for all eternity, and their communion with their sons and daughters who are the fruit of their own original communion?

That is why we think of our God as a Communio Divinarum Personarum, a communion of divine persons. Looking at it this way, we learn to respect both the singleness of every person, and the communion in which each reaches its own full happiness.

Nonetheless …my main subject today is not Christian or Catholic faith. It concerns most human beings of all time, even without Christian faith. Here are three of the signs, I think, by which most of them become aware of the presence of God… all through this universe -- and in themselves.

First, the path of beauty. The beauty of so many sunsets, and even sunrises… the breathtaking beauty of standing on a peak in the Rockies, purple mountain ranges beyond dark blue ranges, and grey-green ones… the beauty of Mozart’s sonatas, and J.S. Bach’s “The Saint Matthew Passion.” ... The incredible fragility and beauty of the ear of a newborn son or daughter, held in the palm of one’s hand for the first time… the beauty of a snowflake caught on a dark blue mitten in the seconds before it melts… the beauty in the flashing eyes of the one you love in young love … There is just so much beauty in the world, so beautifully and surprisingly ordered that it seems more like the masterpiece of a novelist, a master of surprise, a creative artist, than like an irrefutable chain forged by a logician. From beauty, the heart rises in wonder, gratitude and upward aspiration.

Second, the path of goodness. There is so much goodness in the world, even among us poor and weak and will-bent human beings. So many daughters and sisters stay with elderly parents and nurse them through awful cancers and other torments of age, with great love and solicitude and generosity. If a mother runs into a burning home to rescue her three-year-old we don’t even think of it as special heroism, it is the sort of thing that mothers do. How much immense good there is. How much suffering is borne nobly. How much self-sacrifice there is … All these things make a suffering God seem credible to us. They point somehow to the divine.

Third, the communion of souls. When Anton Scharansky was suffering the agonies of solitary confinement in the Gulag, his chief interrogator tried to plant the idea in him that, even if he told the lies they wanted from him, no one would know, they would just go into the rows and rows of files they had stacked up by the millions. “You are going to tell me anyway. Why not make it easier for both of us?"

Then the interrogator devilishly employed the example of Galileo, a hero of Scharansky the physicist. After all, he said, Galileo did not tell the whole truth to his interrogators. “Still, for you and for millions, Galileo is a hero.”

This line stunned Scharansky, but then gave him an insight. Galileo had been dead for more than 400 years, but his partial betrayal of truth was supposed to influence Scharansky to do the same. Then Scharansky’s case would be used to weaken a long chain of others. In other words, the inner life of every human being is linked to the falls of other human beings. In our heroism and in our falls, there is a secret communion of souls.

So there we have it: Beauty, Goodness, Communion,

Beauty by surprise, not exactly beauty by design. The overwhelming beauty of the universe, as seen through the Hubble telescope (brilliant stars strewn like sand, exploding in glorious colors), and seen also in shiny grains of sand in the palms of our hands. Ours is not so much a God of Predetermined Five-Year Plans, as this God: the Artist, using serendipity and schemes of probabilities and sudden turns in the plot.

And the heroic examples of so many good persons, humble persons, unknown persons down the ages. Think of them, the saints in your own family and circles of friends.

And in both good and bad alike, the community of souls down the ages. So that the Psalms of King David sing through our hearts as though springing unbidden from eternal depths, for us as for him.

Beauty, goodness, communion: All these three things praise God.

And so should you – so will you – in everything you do in your lives. God bless all of you, and God bless your parents. … And all your teachers … and officers of this miracle-doing University.