Forty-nine years ago this month Michael Novak’s brother, Father Richard Novak, was martyred while serving as a missionary in Dacca, Bangladesh. Michael’s memoir of Richard and his life and death was published in the American Spectator almost a decade ago.Read More
The brilliant lay philosopher of Judaism, Dennis Prager, has written lucidly about the utter distinctiveness of Judaism among the nations of its time in its understanding of human sexuality. Prager writes:
The gods of virtually all civilizations engaged in sexual relations. In the Near East, the Babylonian god Ishtar seduced a man, Gilgamesh, the Babylonian hero. In Egyptian religion, the god Osiris had sexual relations with his sister, the goddess Isis, and she conceived the god Horus. In Canaan, El, the chief god, had sex with Asherah. In Hindu belief, the god Krishna was sexually active, having had many wives and pursuing Radha; the god Samba, son of Krishna, seduced mortal women and men.
In the temples of its neighbors near and far, Israel saw that ritual acts of prostitution and sacral couplings between religious leaders and women (or men) were routinely performed. Sexual activities were placed at the core of worship ceremonies in virtually all cultures, even including pre-mosaic Israel. Only in Israel did the prophets rail against these activities, and repeatedly drove them from the temple. The ancient world considered sexual “normality” to be fulfilled in the ungoverned sexuality of males, to which women were merely instrumental. In many of the cultures surrounding Israel, sexual acts between males were given equal or even superior value to those between males and females. In those cultures, little differentiation was made between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The important difference to people then lay in who did the penetrating and who was penetrated, not in which gender played which role.
Against this common vision of sexual normalcy stood the towering Moses. He taught Israel, virtually alone, to embrace a new standard for human sexual life. This standard gave its blessing solely to sexual acts between a man and a woman in the covenanted relationship of monogamous marriage. What a great channeling of sexual energies this provision achieved. What a great concentration of energies it brought to the world. What great, non-instrumental dignity it gave to women.
Many elites in other cultures continued to exhaust their energies in polymorphous sex. They expended whole days on the arts of pleasure—the smells, the scents, the music, the languorous bodies of dancers. And in this sexually saturated world, women remained mere instruments. As Norman Sussman wrote, “The woman was seen as serving but two roles. As a wife, she ran the home. As a courtesan, she satisfied male sexual desires.” When sensory pleasures are considered the highest aim of life—not study nor inquiry nor civic virtue—economic and cultural development is heavily retarded.
Is sexual activity the highest end of life? For Moses and the people of Israel, it assuredly was not. It was of course a great good, and one essential to the perpetuation of the human race. Sexuality was not meant to be repressed. But it was meant to run—and to run deep—in only one channel.
From this sublimation there arose two great social consequences. First, women achieved sexual equality with men in the holy union of marriage. “In His image [God] made them, male and female He made them” (Genesis 1:27). This text says clearly that the divine radiance in human life shines through the marital union of man and woman. Therein, each person finds completeness. Only together, fully one, does the married couple bear the image of the Creator.
The second great consequence is to channel immense energy into society through its fundamental unit, the family—and not just energy, but also a continuity of consciousness, and the dream of a more perfect future. Thus Judaism gave birth to the idea of progress. Judaism introduced the ancient world to the reality of progress. Judaism sees itself as always unfinished, always unsatisfied. “Next year in Jerusalem,” when “the lion will lie down with the lamb” and the Messiah will at last appear. Each family, at the family table, carries these hopes forward into the future. Making progress is always, in time, an unfinished business.
It is worth noting that the fundamental energy of the family, in this vision, is spousal love. This love is not a sentimental feeling or a passionate desire, but a firm commitment to the good of the other. Not “her good” as you wish it were, nor even the good as she wishes it were, but her objective good as identified by reason. Thus, the point of even sex is realistic love. Not mutual self-indulgence, but the growth in adulthood and virtuous living that raising a family entails. (There is no point in getting married if you don’t want to hear the truth about yourself—especially all those truths you don’t really want to hear—from your spouse and your children.) Those who live closely together come to shed their illusions about each other, and to love in each other the better self that each would like to become. This is realistic love.
Further, man and wife, though assuredly equals in marriage, are not identicals. The one sex is opposite to, not identical to, the other. In this difference lies dynamic complementarity. (The great English journalist G.K. Chesterton once marveled during his first long stay in America, that Americans can seek divorce “on the grounds of incompatibility.” “I would have thought,” he commented dryly, “that incompatibility is the reason for marriage.”)
Thus, the complementarity between a man and a woman in covenantal marriage—a privileged image of God—is designed to increase the best of all forms of happiness among human beings: growth in the ennobling habits of the heart, in virtue, in honesty, and in mutual caring, “until death do them part.” This complementarity is also designed to generate productive, creative, and ever-advancing societies, driven by dreams of perfection yet to come (and never to be fully realized).
Published in First Things Online December 26, 2008
According to the conventional narrative, science and religion have been at war for some three hundred years. But the reality is deeper and more complex. The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his Science and the Modern World (1925) that without devotion to the God of Israel, modern science would not have come into being. When humans learned that the God of Israel was the fountain and origin of all that is, and of all the stunning intelligibility within every part of creation, they had a motive for dedicating their whole lives to unlocking the secrets hidden in creation. More important, they had great confidence that this search would not be in vain. Pursuing these convictions down the centuries, Jews and Christians expected that the Creator had paid loving attention to every detail of the inner life of the molecule, and to the giant, bursting stars of distant galaxies. In the cultures shaped by the Bible, human beings had confidence that all questions can be answered if diligently pursued. They had confidence that all those disparate answers would point to a coherence and almost mathematical beauty that is breathtaking to contemplate. Further, the Bible names this intelligent Creator Truth—the Truth that is the unifying beauty and energy that moves every entity in time and space (and perhaps, in other worlds). Those who reflected on the Bible were taught to expect that the universe of human experience may have had its origins in chaos and nothingness. They were taught to expect that this universe of space and time came into existence in one complex, unifying burst of intelligence, the logos in whom, by whom, and with whom all things were made, and that makes all things (no matter how humble) intelligible. They were taught to expect, as it were, a “Unified Field Theory.”
Of course, many today hold that all this talk about God, Creator, Prime Intelligence, and the Act of Existence is gibberish. Yet even they must admit that it was to their good fortune that, in a small family of cultures, a decisive number of inquirers, scholars, and copyists of ancient manuscripts did learn to expect pervasive intelligibility in the universe because of their faith in an ordering Intelligence. That is why they were willing to invest most of the hours of their humble lives in preparing the way for modern science.
In other words, the belief shared by (at first) a few million of the Earth’s inhabitants that a light emanates from the Creator of the world, and suffuses all things, gave them a strong motivation for devoting their lives to scientific efforts. They wanted to learn more about God by studying the world He made. (The great scientist Johannes Kepler held that two books teach us about God: the Book of Nature and the Book that reveals what we otherwise could not learn about God.) Down the centuries, Westerners enjoyed the sheer pleasure that they found in inquiring, gaining insights, and making well-founded judgments. Judaism and Christianity taught them to think of these acts as participations in God’s own inner life. Why?
At its root, the notion of one single Creator who knew what He was doing “before time was,” and then chose to do it at the time and in the way of His choosing, enabled some humans to know by anticipation that human inquiry is good. Human inquiry is noble, and just, and with high probability will be rewarded by trustworthy knowledge. If God is good (and the Torah taught us that He is), then it is good to labor diligently to deepen our knowledge of His entire created world, and all things in it.
The proposition that all things have been made by one Creator has a corollary. The Creator transcends the world. He is not identical with the world, nor with any creature in it. He actively sustains all things, but is not the sum of all things. This transcendence teaches us that no creature, no earthly thing is divine. No idol within space or time is to be put in His place.
This idea of a transcendent Creator assures us that in examining and experimenting with nature, we are violating no taboo, and not defiling God. It is through experimentation that we come to understand and to appreciate the work of His creative genius. By contrast, those peoples who identified their God with some creature within creation—the serpent, the jaguar, the rain—were afraid, lest by inquiry or experiment they might arouse His anger. It is by experiment that, today, many who do not believe in an intelligent Creator encounter the intelligibility that suffuses all things. Even unbelievers, by their actions if not their words, show their confidence in the unified intelligibility of all things. This confidence is the cultural patrimony bequeathed them by generations of believers.
Today, roughly half of all scientists are atheists. Yet, insofar as they are scientists, they share the same confidence that the sacrificing of one’s whole life to the pursuit of asking questions is a noble and worthy vocation. In this conviction, they act as if they believed in God. Perhaps some of them see this old belief in a Creator as a scaffolding that was necessary for building up the edifice of science, but that we can now safely kick away.
But they would do well to recall that poignant passage in Nietzsche, in which Zarathustra hears that God is dead. Contemplating what the death of God means for the death of reason, Nietzsche writes, “Zarathustra wept.”
If God is dead, so is reason. The ultimate meaningless of everything is assured. Zarathustra wept.
Published in First Things Online December 18, 2008
Senator Obama helped himself last night by doing better than expected. Senator McCain did very well, but everybody expected that. In that sense, in terms of expectations, Obama won the debate by a small margin. Which is very good for his campaign. That, at least, is how I judged what the public perception would be, and the short-term political result.
My own personal judgment was different. I thought McCain started slowly, like a fighter pilot not quite willing to engage just yet. So I judged that Obama may have won the first half-hour of the debate by a small margin. Others scored McCain higher here, judging that McCain landed some tough blows about Obama’s plan to raise taxes and to add another $900 million in government spending, money the United States government does not have, just to build an ever larger government and welfare society.
During the next hour, though, when the issue turned to issues of war and peace, international order, and particular danger spots such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, I judged that Senator Obama again proved himself a smart talker, smooth, effortless, in his own utopian professorial way. He is a quick learner. He had figured out what to say. But fighter pilot McCain was now slashing away at him from every angle, demonstrating his own long experience, many travels to the world’s trouble spots, mastery of legislative history on these matters, and military attention to topography and power realities.
Soon, Obama seemed to slide into the role of bright student being taught some hard lessons – even put in his place. Senator Obama was much on the defensive during the last hour, and seemed a bit abashed. Still, he was respectful and paid frequent honor to Senator McCain. He retained his composure, but once again seemed the smoother talker but by far a lesser realist.
Most apparent to me were the many ways in which Senator Obama has moved to the right in regard to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan (although his team might argue that this is the one area on which Obama started out farthest to the right – by concentrating on killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, even if U.S. forces have to go into Pakistan to do so).
On Iraq, Obama has bit by bit admitted that, despite his own initial opposition to it and erroneous predictions about it, the Surge under General Petraeus has “succeeded wonderfully beyond anyone’s expectations.” He is still unwilling to admit that he was wrong (just like George Bush, McCain commented, unable to admit that he was wrong.) Obama has also walked back from his demand for immediate withdrawal. But he still wants to announce a deadline for withdrawal eighteen months from now (approximately March 2010).
Senator McCain kept hitting him hard on how little Obama understands about military morale, military facts on the ground, and the psychology of warfare.
I also liked very much McCain’s proposal for a League of Democracies, a sort of second United Nations, but only for like-minded nations committed to economic, political, and cultural liberty. Actions by such a League would not be so easily blocked by vetoes from big powers, such as Russia and China, that do not favor democratic institutions or ideals. The free nations have great economic power, McCain said, and might together put a great financial and economic squeeze on the fragile (and bad) government of Iran. The aim would be to stop the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in that unfortunate land.
Interestingly, both Senators evaded clear statements of their own positions on the crisis in the mortgage markets. Perhaps this was because the issue is still in doubt in Washington, and they did not want to make matters worse in an already divided congress. Obama said he was in favor of Treasury Secretary Paulson’s Planned Bail-out Plan, but only if it met four new conditions. His four conditions sounded very much like those of the free-market Republicans in the House of Representatives (the branch of Congress closest to the people, facing election every two years). McCain was more reticent, saying only that he wanted the voice of the conservatives in the House to be heard. He briefly pointed out that he had succeeded in getting them included in the negotiations in the White House.
Here is the political problem for the Democrats. They are in favor of big government and therefore have been willing to sign on to the Paulson Plan. They have more than enough votes to do what they wish, without any Republican help. But there is considerable fear among Democrats (a) that government bail-outs might become a normal course of events, as private companies want to privative profits, but socialize losses (passing them off on the taxpayers); and (b) the whole effort may end up failing. By very large majorities, the American public dislikes the Paulson Plan, when they learn what is in it. They do not want to pass a new $700 billion debt onto their children.
Yes, the Democrats have enough votes both in the Senate and the House to pass these bills without any Republican help. But they do not want to do that, and in fact fear the effect of a sizable Republican refusal to vote ‘yes.’ If things went sour then, the Republicans would have a powerful club to beat up on Democrats for a generation or more. That is why the Democrats passionately desire a significant number of Republicans to vote along with them. They want political “cover.” They want any possible future opprobium equally shared.
This Democratic fear has given the Republican House members great leverage over the final result. Since McCain played a key role in getting them into the White House to have their objections heard, and to put their own new proposals on the table for serious consideration, the stage may now be set for a compromise reasonable to both sides, although not fully satisfactory to either.
The U.S. is a Center-Right country, and this fact explains a lot. A far larger proportion of its citizens than in Europe really care about personal independence as opposed to welfare dependency, prefer freedom to security from the state, and take pride in limited government. That is what has forced Obama to keep moving rightward (he is the most leftward of any member of the U.S. Senate, according to measures of his voting record). That is why the Paulson Plan is so deeply unpopular, even though almost everybody wants the mortgage crisis solved soon.
Keep recalling that McCain is a fighter pilot. Last week, when Obama again slipped ahead of him in the polls, like an enemy jet above and behind McCain pouring fire into McCain’s campaign, the trained fighter pilot suddenly stopped in mid-air, to allow Obama to swoop in front of him. That is when McCain took the offensive position with Obama clearly in his sights up ahead, turning the battle around.
Only the Republican House can give the Democrats the new bill they want signed this weekend, if possible. No one else but McCain was willing to make the White House, Paulson, and the over-confident Democrats listen to the sensible Republican proposals for modifying – seriously – the Paulson Plan. If from McCain’s bold flight to Washington in mid-campaign a compromise is reached that better defends the interests of the American public, and makes the people owners of failed assets (which might soon gain in value, once the market turns up again) rather than just heavy debtors, McCain will once again have shown that he knows how to bring about bi-partisan cooperation and compromise. Wisely, he has not tried to boast about this, or to lord it over anyone. His mode has been to listen, and merely try to arrange ways to bring everybody together. It is his signature style.
Of course, the whole effort may fall apart. The Democrats made an early fatal mistake by failing to include those most opposed to the Paulson Plan – the Republicans in the House, plus a handful of important leaders in the Senate – inside their negotiations. That is what McCain tried to change. As of Saturday noontime in Washington, the outcome is not clear.
That outcome may prove more important than the first debate.
“No One Sees God is both personal and very timely to the current religious debates . . . a homerun” - Kenneth Blackwell “It is a wise and important book” - Dinesh D’Souza, tothesource.com
“Novak's book is among the best of the genre; it is erudite, sincere and rendered in clear and accessible prose” - Jacques Berlinerblau Washington Post Book World
Television: Michael Novak on The Harvest Show. Watch the whole interview here.
Radio: Listen to Michael Novak discuss No One Sees God on The Dennis Prager Show here.
Newspaper: Read the Washington Post Book World review of No One Sees God here.
I am not very good at prayer, although I try to be praying all the time, like breathing. (In fact, I have at times asked God — when I am too ill or too tired to think in words — to take my breathing as a prayer.) It is an inner conversation, wordless often, marked just by attentiveness. Every detail of every event is speaking. It comes forth from the creative insight of God. When I want to ready myself to think about God, I place myself quietly and humbly in His presence. I try to shut out other thoughts, and then quietly think about the most beautiful and ennobling and stunning things I have seen in life — all my favorite things. There are two views in the Alps — in Grindelwald and in Bressanone — that I have especially loved. The peacefulness of an ocean on a quiet day, the blue water barely rippling, never fails to move my heart. And the sunsets — in Iowa, in Wyoming, on the seacoast of Delaware — and that most peculiar green sunset on the plain above Mexico City where the sun drops over the edge of the plain before it disappears behind the earth, so that the light during that interval is eerie and prolonged and unforgettable.
I think then of favorite music of mine, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, the most beautiful of all, written after the sudden death of his much loved daughter. I think of favorite paintings from the Pitti and the Uffizi, and the convent walls painted by Fra Angelico. And sculptors. And poets. And philosophers and other writers whose work has thrilled me. (One of my most unforgettable moments as a young man was reading Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry; it was so beautiful I had to get up and take a long walk down to the lake, almost speechless in silent wonder.) For several years, every Easter I have read one of Dostoevsky’s long novels, followed in later years by War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I think of God as the Creator of all these great minds and artists. I wonder how much greater than they is God’s own mind and sense of beauty. I would love to share in contemplation of such works and such persons for all eternity. And all the more so in His beauty.
Then I think of the loves I have known. Close friends, childhood buddies, grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, my three brothers and one sister, my dear parents — and then Karen, whose name means what she is, Clara, the clear light of my life — and our solid, noble, and strong children and grandchildren. All these loves make me think that God’s love is more than the sum of these, of a different order entirely, and yet the source of all of them. “Where there is caritas and amor,” the old hymn goes, “there God is.” That is my favorite hymn.
Jesus asks us not only to be just to our enemies, not only to be merciful, not only to forgive. He asks us to resist evil, yes, and to be like steel against unjust aggressors — to defeat them thoroughly — but also, in the end, to be able to see that even our enemies are also children of the one Creator. When all the evil has been drained out of their aggression, we need to be ready to welcome them back into the human community.
The United States and our allies did this rather nicely, I have always thought, in regard to Germany and Japan after World War II. If there is ever to be even a simulacrum of a brotherly world — all right, at least a relatively tranquil world — even one based upon fear of greater power, reaching out in tests of amity and voluntary cooperation is a necessity of human life in our time. Here is one point at which I think Christianity has led the way. It once united all Europe in a common civilization. It has suffused the secular humanism of compassion and solidarity and individual freedom. It is helping to shape one global civilization, with respect for individual liberty, as well as for human solidarity.
If I had to pick out one human experience that for me seems most godlike — the best, the highest that I know — I would choose the experience of choosing to love Karen, and to be loved by her in return. Second would come acts of insight — those little bursts of fire that come when we are puzzling things through. In many ways, these two experiences are related, but saying how that is so would delay us too long right here. Suffice it to say that those are my choices for the best in life — the achievement of mutual love, and the firing off of insight after insight in pursuit of understanding. That eros of understanding is almost as powerful (in some ways more so) than the eros of love; yet the latter is primary, and is profoundly influential upon understanding. Understanding keeps love from erring badly, but in the dark, love often leads the way for understanding.
Adapted from Michael Novak’s latest book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.
(c) 2008 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org
Published in The Catholic Thing November 18, 2008
Election night, Washington, D.C. — After the astonishingly close presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, when it was necessary for most of us to go without sleep for many hours after midnight, tonight’s election has been relatively boring to watch. While the victory of Obama was not declared in the first hour or two, as some had thought possible, by 9:30 P.M. it was clear that McCain was not making a last-minute breakthrough. Obama won New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—all states that any surprise by McCain depended on. Two hours later, the race has not yet been definitely called. But the television networks are projecting that Obama has won Florida, Virginia, Iowa, and New Mexico—all states that George W. Bush had won in 2004. Clearly, although McCain came close to winning these battleground states, he in the end lost them. So what does the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the new president of the United States mean?
I will never forget the moment in January 1961, when John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president. I was watching his inaugural address in the cafeteria of the Harvard Law School, when I was startled by feeling warm tears streak down my cheeks. I was caught by surprise; I had not expected that. Yet it was so astonishing to witness a Roman Catholic becoming the public face of our nation, as presidents always do. It had seemed impossible to imagine, in this very Protestant country. In the Harvard graduate schools, a Catholic felt like a man with green hair—an oddity. But not any more, not after John F. Kennedy became president.
Thus, it is easy for me to imagine the immense jubilation in the hearts of America’s African-American population. Many eyes will be shining with joy tomorrow. Many will feel arise in their breasts a great new sense of pride, accomplishment, and public dignity. They will feel validated as never before.
That is one great blessing of this election.
What will the Obama presidency mean for U.S. foreign policy? A great nation is like a large aircraft carrier. It can change course only very slowly, a degree or two at a time. Thus, I doubt whether President Obama’s overseas actions will match some of his flights of rhetoric during the election.
Obama won the Democratic primaries by getting to the left of Sen. Hillary Clinton and all the others on foreign policy. The most activist part of the Democratic party is its most passionate left wing. Winning their hearts, Obama then gradually moved toward the center—making his views on the war in Iraq barely distinguishable in practical fact from those of Senator McCain. In any case, the foreign-policy issues that dominated the primary season dropped speedily out of sight, as it began to become clear that violence was dropping very quickly in Iraq, and something like “normalcy” came ever closer. The press virtually stopped covering Iraq. (Their passion had been to humiliate Bush; and when things turned better, they seemed no longer interested.)
Does the victory of the Left in 2008 mean that President Obama will try to make the United States more like a Euro-socialist nation? All the signs he has given us of where his heart really lies suggest that he will try to do that, within some rather severe limits. In particular, he will surely try to rush through a program of U.S. government-run and -managed health care. But under President Clinton, Hillary Clinton came to grief trying to do that.
The United States is a large nation, with an extraordinarily diverse range of populations, regions, climates, and cultural habits. Imagine trying to run one single continental health-care system that embraces Germany and Portugal, Scandinavia and Greece, and Albania through Belgium. That image suggests how difficult it will be to run one single health-care system from Washington, from Maine and Florida out through Alaska and Arizona, and everything in between. The United States is more culturally unified than Europe. But it is far from uniformly so.
Besides, Americans do not much respect the government-run programs that are now in place. Rather than rely on the inefficient Post Office, for important matters Americans prefer to pay a little more for the reliability, good manners, and good spirit of private carriers such as FedEx and United Parcel Service. Service is so much better and more cheerful in the business sector than in the government sector.
One thing that President Obama appears to have achieved, however, is to have broken through the near-stalemate of the last 20 years, in which “red” states (Republican) and “blue” states (Democratic) seemed locked in perpetual opposition. Obama broke through and won several important “red” states for the new Democratic majority.
The two parts of his past and his future proposals that I deplore spring from the fact of his being the most extreme proponent of abortion in the U.S. Congress. Given the fact that 35 percent of all abortions in the United States are sought by African-American women, it is surprising that Senator Obama has been such a great defender of the institution of abortion, which since 1973 has taken the lives of more than 43 million infants in the womb. For many of us, abortion is an even more grievous abuse of power over others than slavery, and to argue for “choice” to abort another human being is no more morally plausible than to defend the right to choose to enslave another.
The second worrisome fact about candidate Obama is his promise to appoint left-wing, pro-abortion Supreme Court Justices. He may have as many as three Justices (of the total of nine) to appoint during his four-year term. Their influence would weigh on our nation for 20 or more years to come.
Yet now is not the time to rehearse the grave doubts about Obama that were part of the partisan battle of the last two years. Barack Obama is now the president-elect of all of us. Now is the time to praise the brilliant, audacious, and wonderfully surprising campaign that President-elect Obama conducted. He overcame many obstacles. He held up better under fire than many of us expected him to do. He deserves much praise.
Published in National Review Online November 5, 2008
May I offer a friendly suggestion, simply as a possibility to be explored? It may be that the ideas of God presented by atheists are so incredible that their own reputation for good sense is discounted. Whatever the reason, atheists — even when they are given control of all levels of education and free rein for proselytizing — have been unsuccessful in persuading others of their view of life. Could it be that atheists’ ideas of God are so far off that they injure the credibility of their testimony? Consider five common but misleading ways of speaking about God.
 God as an object of scientific discovery. He is something like a new planet, or a previously unrecognized form of energy. Just another object to be examined.
 God is a gap-filler in scientific theories and philosophies of science. A little like a utility infielder, God is played in whatever position he is needed, wherever the existing explanations do not suffice. Evolving explanations make God less and less necessary.
 God as an end to infinitely-regressing explanations. He is the answer to the question, “Where did the world come from?” An Indian sage once whimsically replaced God in this role with a giant turtle that holds the world up, lest the world plunge endlessly down into nothingness. Thus, some think of God as the plug preventing infinite regress. For others, the sage’s point is more subtle: to suppose that there is one more turtle to hold up the turtle that holds up the world, ad infinitum all the way down, is ridiculous. The bottom turtle stands on nothing at all. Absurd!
 God as super-man. He knows and can do more than any ordinary human being. Yet he is to be judged by the same standards as humans are judged. If he is a “father,” then he should be held to the same standards as other fathers. If he is a “creator,” then we should note the things we think he has botched up, and review his work critically, as we would review the work of any other artist.
 God is the object of a personal ecstatic experience, which gives its subject evidence that can scarcely be transmitted convincingly to others, if at all. You have known it or you haven’t. It’s beyond rational communication. Mute.
All these conceptions of God skip over the term “existence,” and fail to consider its nature and power. Instead, they supply concepts aimed at capturing the essence of God. A misleading concept is guaranteed to frustrate any questions concerning God’s existence. A false concept would send seekers down fruitless paths, and make failure inevitable. Further, there is a vast yawning distance between essence and existence, between the concept of a thing (its essence) and that thing’s actually springing into being, a substantive reality (existence) out of nothingness. This difference is beyond the methods of science, but is as important as the difference between a “what-is-it?” question, and a question that asks: “Is that so?” The first question forms an accurate hypothesis. The second is an act of judgment: Yes, it exists; or No, that concept has been falsified.
The problem in thinking about God is twofold: First, how should we conceive of him, that is, which hypothesis are we testing? Second: What is the method of verification—how do we judge God’s reality?
Both questions are operative in the scientific method as well as in common sense. They operate in sequence: we need to be clear about what we are looking for and where we might find it, before searching for evidence about whether the being actually exists.
Human history has particularly cherished the definition of God laid out in the Torah: “I am Who am.” That is, God is purely and completely existence. His “nature” is not that of created things. God is, always is. Whereas for fragile, fleeting creatures such as ourselves, existence is derivative, borrowed, given us from elsewhere.
For the ancients, from God’s abundance flow all other existing things, borrowing from him their existence, as many candles may borrow from a single candle to turn a darkened room into one of soft, splendid light. Perhaps better: all briefly flickering flames depend on oxygen. Should the oxygen be withdrawn, darkness. Were God’s active existing withdrawn, all creaturely existence would end.
This discussion probably makes those trained exclusively in the scientific method uncomfortable. Still, the general form of its movement – from experience through understanding to judgment – actually follows a paradigm not unlike that of science. It moves from observable experience, to a hypothesis that captures the essential features of that experience, to a judgment that the hypothesis fits the facts. From experience and reflection we come to an understanding of how to think about God. Then we judge whether that understanding meets the facts. We may form an idea about God, a hypothesis. But does God, under that hypothetical understanding, exist? Put more exactly, can we with validity and force climb out from the realm of essences and hypotheses when we speak of God, up into the realm of existents?
Adapted from Michael Novak’s latest book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.
Copyright 2008 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org
Published in The Catholic Thing November 4, 2008
As of October 28, one week before the election, Senator Obama seems to be ahead by at least 6 percentage points in the average of all polls (available on the web every day at www.RealClearPolitics.com ). He seems to be equally ahead in the state polls of all the top “battleground” states, the 7-10 that at one time seemed to be open to either candidate. It seems almost impossible for Obama to lose. On the other hand, several polls that have been highly reliable in the past have moved quite close together in the last two days: for example, Gallup and Investors Business Daily (the most accurate poll in 2004). These show that among “likely” voters (which means more than “probable,” also “proven to be reliable in the past”), the gap has closed to 49-47 for Obama, which is within the margin of error.
During the primaries in his races against Hillary Clinton, Obama was nearly always much farther ahead in the polls, even when Senator Clinton came back to beat him decisively at the end. Virtually all the “undecideds” turned toward her in the end.
There is something soft about Senator Obama’s support. People do not trust him. There are too many areas of his past life which have been kept secret. All the hints about his past life that we do know of show that he comes from an extremely left-wing group of friends, who oppose in principle fundamental American ideas. Their idea of “change” is to make the American nation more redistributive and Euro-socialist. They have a certain contempt for the American founding, because it was too centered on individual effort and individual merit, and not sufficiently redistributive.
Obama also had very close friends who were former aides to Yasser Arafat and very anti-Israel. All this has been kept secret.
For all these reasons, I am not convinced that Obama will emerge the victor on the morning of November 5. Most people think he will win a landslide victory, as big as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 or 1984. The objective evidence seems to point in that direction. Realists anticipate that it will happen that way. The polls seem to be incontestably on their side.
Still, some polls are showing Obama ahead by 13 points nationally, others by only 2 percent. What could constitute the difference? Pollsters are making very different judgments about the actual nature of the electorate in 2008. Some assign the Democrats an unusual margin of superiority to Republicans, in the size of their sample. Some assign a larger number of votes to blacks this year than in past years. Some think the size of the under-25 age group (especially of university students) will be very large; others, based on past experience with such hopes, think it will only be normal. No poll is better than the size of its sample groups. If the poll consists of a thousand voters or less, even a mistake of 20 voters in this category or that can throw the whole thing off.
My own bias is strongly against Obama on such questions as abortion (he is the most extreme proponent of abortion in U.S. history), and the crucial importance for the poor and the middle class of a very active sector of enterprise and invention, which creates new industries and millions of new jobs (as did the inventions of the personal computer, cell phones, and electronic components for automobiles and other previously mechanical industries, under Ronald Reagan).
Obama confuses higher tax rates (he wants to raise nearly all of them, especially on entrepreneurs) and tax revenues. For example, when Reagan became president, tax rates on higher income groups were 70%. Reagan cut these rates substantially, to about 35%. But the revenues actually taken in by the government were far higher than ever before. The rich paid more dollars in taxes, in part because the percentage rate on each dollar earned was much lower. Reagan took away immense amounts from the rich, getting far more taxes from them than anyone had before.
One reason the U.S. stock market is going down, in the opinion of some, is that Obama has announced a doubling of the capital gains tax. In other words, instead of being taxed 15% on gains from investments, investors will be taxed under Obama by 30%. No wonder that intelligent investors are now rushing to sell the stocks they own. If they keep them to sell after Obama gets in, they will pay an extra 15% in taxes.
Obama does not seem to understand the art of using human incentives to get where he wants to get. He prefers to punish. In real life, that seldom works. Was it not St. Francis de Sales who told the parable of the harsh cold wind that tried to get a man to take off his cloak, but the man grasped it more tightly around him. Whereas when the gentle and warm sun began to shine, the man soon began to loosen his cloak, and even to take it off?
Finally, I worry greatly about Senator Obama’s naivete about the uses of power in this poor, sinful world. He reminds me of those opponents of St. Pius V in 1571, when the Pope virtually alone warned against the threat of a great Muslim fleet sailing upon Italy, while most of the sovereigns to the North preferred to see the Turks as trading partners rather than as deadly threats to their civilization. Only by the grace of God did Don Juan of Austria and his intrepid fleet avert civilizational disaster on October 7 of that year. (With a preemptive strike).
For my part, then, I judge that an Obama presidency will throw the United States into a foundational crisis concerning its own identity. His is not a “change” I can believe in.
But suppose I am wrong. Suppose that he wins. Then he will be my president, and I will support him. I do not believe in a system in which when the other party wins, the rest of us bend every effort to pull them downwards on the greasy pole. No, we must help them to succeed. For we get only one president at a time. It is important for all of us to pull together.
Besides, I will take much comfort from the look of pride in the faces of all my black friends, and in the faces of their children. An Obama victory will be of huge importance to them.
And if by chance Obama should actually lose on November 4, many black Americans (and the American left generally) will be unable to believe that the election was fair. Some will erupt in passionate anger. They never did forgive the two Bush victories in 2000 and 2004. Their fury at losing in 2008 will be almost indescribable.
The tragic flaw of the left is that their favorite, their most beautiful, ideas simply do not work in practice. Their vision of the world is Gnostic. That is to say, unreal, unable to cope with the sinful and limited nature of human beings. The left is unwise about the art of incentives, and how actually to get the limited best out of people, by not expecting from them too much virtue.
Of course, it may be too late for humanistic and biblical realism in this campaign. The media (ink and electronic) have been bewitched by the honeyed Obama gnosticism and unreality. They have never submitted his life and his character, let alone his radical ideas, to intelligent criticism. They are presenting to the public a Great Unknown.
The tragic flaw of Americans is a vulnerability to sentimentality and premature starry-eyed idealism.
Now we must trust that God will continue to bless America, despite our national weakness.
However, until I am forced to capitulate by unarguable vote totals, I will continue to hope that, once again, we shall be saved from ourselves, and blessed more than we deserve. We shall defeat Senator Obama, and elect a true and tested and very well informed President in Senator McCain.
Published October 30, 2008