217: Conversation With Michael Novak on need for new dialogue with atheists

ou probably have heard or seen Michael Novak, 74, even if you haven’t read his books.
    When there’s news about faith and politics, especially related to Catholic issues or the Vatican itself, he’s likely to pop up in radio and television interviews. Sometimes, working through the American Enterprise Institute or with his own large network of colleagues, he makes news himself. He regularly publishes new books, editorials in major newspapers and sometimes works with friends to issue statements on various issues.
    For a while, politically liberal commentators liked to peg him as a “neoconservative” and, in the mid 1980s, the Nation magazine even poured such scorn on his relationship with Pope John Paul II that they accused Novak of blatant opportunism. Here’s the hardest blow that Nation commentator Alexander Cockburn could muster in his attack on Novak in ’85. Cockburn wrote that, in moving into the Vatican’s inner circles, Novak “has capitalized on two rather meager assets: his Slovak heritage and his claim to be a theologian.”
    Nasty stuff from Cockburn, right? The point I’m making here is this: Over the years, Novak has taken as many hard shots as he has fired in global debates. He’s a fascinating writer precisely because his sharp-edged intellect and his deep faith allow him to keep picking himself up, dusting himself off and going back for more.
    If you regard Novak as mean spirited — you’ve completely missed his message. It’s a passion for faith and liberty and building bridges between people all around the world that animates his work.

    In recent years, something quite interesting is happening in our culture’s collective regard for Novak. Much like Pope John Paul II, as the smoke of old skirmishes is fading from the battlefields, the basic arguments advanced by both John Paul and Novak about the nature of faith in our modern world are standing pretty solidly across the tests of time.
    Late last year, when we launched ReadTheSpirit, we quoted John Paul II in our second online article. This is not to endorse every word John Paul uttered nor to take John Paul’s side in all the battles he fought with his critics. In fact, it’s pretty clear that John Paul picked a few very bad fights over the years. And, I’m not even going to touch the still-red-hot issue of John Paul’s regard for women.

    Similarly, I’m not trying here to revisit each of Novak’s battles over the decades. Today, we’re focusing on an exciting new position he is staking out in “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.”
    I’m certainly not alone in praising the brilliant side of Novak’s work. Among the accolades that have come his way was a 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, placing him in a fellowship of honorees that includes the Rev. Dr. John C. Polkinghorne (the physicist who explores connections between faith and science), the Very Rev. Lord George MacLeod (founder of the Iona Community) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (the Russian writer on faith and conscience).
    Like many of the other Templeton honorees, Novak’s new book is an important contribution to building bridges between believers and unbelievers. It’s also a great book for small-group study, especially for religious groups trying to grapple with the acidic waves of neo-atheist writing over the past year.
    Click on the book cover to learn more about it. (We’ve reviewed it for you — and you can pre-order a copy from Amazon while you’re at it. This book doesn’t hit bookstores until August 5.)


    DAVID: Your book is an appeal both to atheists and to believers, essentially telling both sides that they’ve made mistakes in trying to talk to each other — or talk at each other, really. Deep in the book, you raise the question: “Why did ‘the new atheism’ suddenly arise, and why now?” Your answer is intriguing because, in part, you attribute this to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
    That’s not the only reason for this rise in atheist voices, of course, but you say that 9/11 became “a rhetorical bonanza to atheists. Now they had a devastating symbol for ‘religion.’ The barbarism of September 11, some said, is typical of all religion.”
    MICHAEL: The new atheists make heavy use of this as an awful example of Islam. But even more than that, they point to it and say: “See? That’s what religion moves us to!” They use 9/11 as a club. They have found 9/11 of incalculable value in their attacks and I think it’s just terribly wrong. We shouldn’t speak of religion as univocal. Let’s not pretend that there’s only one religion in the world and it is this extreme. That’s terribly wrong to say.

    DAVID: In this new book, you’re telling both sides that we’ve made mistakes in the way we’ve talked about each other. At one point in your book, you put it this way: “My underlying thesis is a simple one; that unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation.
    MICHAEL: It doesn’t make much sense for unbelievers to enter the discussion in this area by calling belief in God a poison, a delusion or an illusion as some of the new atheist writers are doing. That’s not even a new claim. That’s been common since at least Freud’s writing about religion as an illusion. These writers like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins supposedly speak for the Enlightenment, but there’s nothing self questioning about their approach to these issues. There’s nothing respectful of rational conversation in their style. It’s just a series of put downs.
    And from the other side, the community of believers, people approach atheists as creatures from another planet — as if we have nothing that we could possibly share in conversation with atheists.
    My position is that most people, whether you are an atheist or a believer, go through periods of inner emptiness. God’s way of dealing with us is not to be touched or seen or felt or heard. God doesn’t appear to us. This is what we mean when we say God is spirit, and spirit is truth, and so on.

    DAVID: Let’s talk about that point for a little bit, because it’s going to come as a shock to some readers, especially evangelical or Pentecostal readers who talk regularly about touching, seeing, feeling and hearing God. What you’re describing here is an experience of faith that runs powerfully through the lives of a whole series of great saints and sages. You write in your book about Mother Teresa and the revelations in her writings about the silence she experienced from God for most of her life. Or from the Protestant ranks of writers, Frederick Buechner writes powerfully about how the truth of faith is realizing that we are standing at a great abyss of doubt and looking down into that abyss together.
    What you’re talking about is the truth of this distance that we feel from God sometimes — these doubts we experience — even in the heart of a life filled with faith. You’re reminding us of the passage from First Corinthians.
    MICHAEL: I’m talking about an adult experience of faith: “When I became an adult, I put away childish things.” That experience. And it’s often a very difficult thing. There are times when you just feel so beaten about by life that it’s impossible for us to think of a just God.
    Many writers describe these as adult experiences of faith, when the easy ways of thinking about God that you once had as a child have been taken away from you. But, in the pursuing of faith in these often dark experiences of faith — there is also a quiet joy in this.
    DAVID: It’s not that God abandons us, but that we discover God is far larger than we ever imagined.
    MICHAEL: I say: God is not on the same frequency that we are. God is so much larger. God is on a far greater frequency. We couldn’t live on that frequency without exploding.
    So what do we do with this darkness, when we experience it? There is a way through this darkness and it’s the path that Mother Teresa followed. The way is love.
    It’s right there in the letter of John (1John Chapter 4): “No one has seen God …” but “if any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
    So, if we find ourselves in this darkness, unable to see God, what do we do? In the darkness, we turn to love of our neighbor and we try to make life better and easier for all of us. This is the way we serve God in the darkness.
    You might feel like the bottom of a birdcage yourself, but begin to show someone else love — because they are worthy of love –- and, as you do that, you’ll find a sort of sweetness coming into your life. You’ll find something cool and fresh in the darkness.
    What I’m saying to believers is that most of us, even in the midst of our belief, also find ourselves in some of the most insecure, dark places. And I’m saying that is part of a proper relationship with God. It’s part of what the Bible describes as an adult experience of God.

     DAVID: And here in this place of darkness that you’re describing we share a mutual vantage point for a healthier, more constructive conversation with unbelievers.
    MICHAEL: Yes, we both end up in some pretty terrifying moments of darkness, when even the believers aren’t quite sure that we’re not deluding ourselves.
    This is hard for unbelievers, too! Jean Paul Sartre tried all his life to be an atheist, but he often failed. He would find himself just spontaneously thanking God for something. The journey is hard on both sides. This realization becomes a place where we can talk to each other.

    DAVID: One of the creative concepts you revive in your book is the idea of a “blik.” Now, the original version of this word, “blik,” was spelled without a “c.” And you’ve added a “c” to turn it into a slightly different version of the word.
    But here’s the idea in a nutshell: Decades ago, in one of the long-running debates over faith and atheism, this term “blik” was invented to describe a person’s basic approach to deciding what’s true in the world. Some people have a religious “blik” and the ways they accept truth through their faith will never completely fit with a person who has an entirely secular “blik.” It’s an odd little term — but it’s helpful in describing the conflicts we face when both sides in a debate think they’ve found the truth. A secular debater may feel he has unleashed devastating arguments against faith — but they bounce off another debater whose whole sense of truth comes in a different form. Their “bliks” are so different that they both think they’ve won the argument.
    But you add a “c” to spell the word “blick.” Why?

    MICHAEL: I added the “c” because I wanted to show that I’m using the term in a new way. I’m using it even more broadly. Here’s an example that just happened today:
    I was looking for a book and it wasn’t on the shelf where it should be, so I called my wife in and she found it — exactly where it should be. Now, it turned out, I was looking for the wrong thing. My mind was already focused on something different and she went to it more carefully and discovered the book right where it was. Why did this happen? I had a different blick than she did. I brought an entirely different expectation to my search than she did and I couldn’t find what I was expecting to see.
    What forms your blick? All the things you have experienced, imagined, felt, understood and questioned throughout your life to this point.
    DAVID: Here’s a good passage from your book about the way people’s blicks can lead them to see the underlying forces in the world quite differently. You write:
   ”In one blick, a person is inclined to see everything around her as at root random and absurd; while, even so, she turns her face against fiercely hostile winds, in the direction of an ever fuller justice she helps to prevail. In another blick, this same instinct for justice is seen as a sign of the divine life active in the poor stuff of this world.”
    MICHAEL: And remember, our blicks change over time. As you move around and grow older, even from the time you’re 20 to the time you’re 30, your horizon changes. You may learn a new language or you may travel and you don’t look at things the same way anymore. All of this shapes our blicks — our first expectations as we encounter things.

     DAVID: You write about Anthony Flew’s life, describing the powerful change in his blick in the course of his life. He moved from atheism to a kind of “deism.”
    MICHAEL: Anthony Flew wrote one of the great books on atheism. He eviscerated all the traditional arguments for God. Then, in later years he had some experiences that made him think that his way of thinking about the world was too narrow. He was a very self-critical man. In particular, he had a near-death experience. He talked about this experience as much larger than his earlier expectations and that he needed to revise his sense of what human existence is. He revised his thinking to the point that he could no longer call himself an atheist. He didn’t call himself a Christian or a Jew, but he came to think that he could no longer call himself an atheist.
    DAVID: I like the way you put it in the middle of your book: “Unbelief and belief are not two rival theories about phenomena in the universe. They are alternative ‘horizons.’”
    You know, as a journalist for many years, I reported on the Catholic church and even reported from Rome on occasion and, so often, the stories we published involved conflict with American Catholics over various church rules and teachings. So often, that’s how we saw the story involving the Vatican. But, in recent years, I’ve come to see a lot of timeless wisdom especially in the later writings of John Paul II. I’m especially drawn to his letter on “Third Millennium.”
    That letter is so specific to the year 2000 that perhaps people overlook it now, but there are some powerful prophetic appeals in that letter to dialogue — what you’re pointing toward in your book.

    MICHAEL: I’m so glad you’re interested in that letter and are telling people about it. Yes, there’s a lot in that letter.
    Think about this: It was a scandal that East was divided against West by the Berlin Wall for so many years, but analogously we’ve got the Christian world divided from the Islamic world by centuries of conflict — and we’ve divided ourselves from Asia, too. We know almost nothing about Asia.
    Benedict XVI has picked up on this problem. He’s talking about how little the different cultures around the world know about each other. He’s saying that’s the job of the 21st Century — bringing about a great international conversation.
    Aquinas said: Civilization is conversation. Barbarians club one another.
    If we are civilized, we must be constituted on conversation.

    READ MICHAEL NOVAK ON VALUES, today! With the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, we are cosponsoring another landing page within ReadTheSpirit, called OurValues.org. This week, UofM’s Dr. Wayne Baker raised an intriguing question among OurValues readers: Is religion a value? During our Conversation With Michael Novak, we asked if he would take a crack at that question — and he did. Read Michael’s “take” on the question: Is religion a value? It appears today at OurValues.

AND, PLEASE, TELL US WHAT YOU THINK: Leave a Comment by clicking at the end of our online stories — or you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

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