Michael Novak, 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, is our guest today in our weekly ReadTheSpirit “Conversation With.” Often associated over the years with the teachings of the late Pope John Paul II, Novak is a Catholic scholar and author who has written extensively about the nature of belief — and about faith’s relationship to cultural and political movements.
His latest book, due in stores Aug. 5, is a framework for constructive dialogue between atheists and believers. The book is called “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.”
While interviewing him for ReadTheSpirit, we also asked him to tackle a major question that OurValues.org is raising this week: Is religion a value?
Responding off the cuff in the interview, here is Novak’s “take” on this challenging question:
“The word ‘value’ doesn’t mean the same thing in all contexts. It can become a weasel word. You can argue that there are no such things as values, that if you have your values and I have my values, then they’re not really values at all — they’re just personal preferences.
“We also can talk about values as practices and habits that we encourage, because when these practices and habits flourish, humans flourish. Ethics is a study of those habits and practices that lead to human flourishing.
“There are also aesthetic values. I have a granddaughter who is 15 and does not like classical music. On the other hand, when I listen to her pop and rock music, I can appreciate the beat but I really don’t like it. I find it lacking in the mathematical order and intellectual beauty of classical music. The point I’m making here is not about music –- but that we can talk like this about aesthetic values. We can talk about distinctions in aesthetics between higher meaning and lower forms of music and art. Some engage the whole human being and intellect; some don’t.
“And, if we start thinking like this, then we start to consider the Source of all of this. One of the great names of God within religion is Truth. We may say that’s how God inspired the laws of logic and ethics and aesthetics.
“So many things we value can point us back toward God if we think about it. Let’s take poetry. We can say, ‘Here’s a good poem –- and over there is an inferior poem.’ That’s a common judgment we might make. But even as we say that this poem is ‘good’ –- or this piece of art is ‘good’ -– we’re implying that there’s the possibility that there’s a poem or an artwork that’s even better. That realization is an arrow pointing toward God –- the idea that there can be beauty so great that it infuses everything else with its ultimate beauty.
“Now, we’re moving toward talking about values on a different level. The questions become: What is the Source of this beauty? What is the Source of truth?
“And, more importantly when we talk about values: What are we willing to sacrifice ourselves for? What are we willing to endure pain for?
“Religion as a value is on this different level. It’s the place we turn to find the source of all other values.”
SO, what do you think? Is religion a value? Should researchers, examining American values, ask about religion?
Yesterday’s story, which raised this question, appears below with other forms of the same basic question.
Visit ReadTheSpirit today to read the larger interview with Michael Novak.
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