February 26, 2009
The Hidden Dialogue
— Thomas Zebrowski
The public debate about God in which the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Dinesh D'Souza, among others, are prominent is more obviously focused on the existence than the nature of the divine. Yet the second topic is very relevant to many of the issues being disputed.
In No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Michael Novak says the notion of God he aims to establish in his new contribution to the discussion is that of "ancient deism" rather than the one proper to Jewish and Christian faith. Novak wants to show that in the West there is a rich tradition of rational reflection on God to which biblical believers can appeal in their discussions with those atheists who deny that belief in God is reasonable. Greater recognition of this fact among discussants on both sides of the theistic divide should help facilitate formation of a "new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation" between them.
Novak mostly assumes a harmony between ancient deism and biblical faith, representing whatever differs in Christianity and Judaism from Platonic and Aristotelian speculation as a supernatural content that can be grafted onto their rational philosophies. And this approach is consistent with what Novak wrote several years ago: "I do not think that faith and reason are at war with one another, or alternatives, or rivals. On the contrary, Jewish and Christian faith give reasons why reason is to be trusted, cultivated, furthered, celebrated. It is no accident that Western civilization has long been a happy (if not quarrel-free) marriage of Jerusalem and Athens."
But the harmony of faith and reason is not necessarily the same thing as the harmony of biblical theology and Greek philosophy, that is, of Jerusalem and Athens literally speaking. Certain intimations both within Novak's book and in his ongoing dialogue with Heather MacDonald suggest rather that the God of ancient natural theology differs from the God of the Bible substantially enough to put classical philosophical ethics at odds with biblical morality in important respects. For now, this problem takes a back seat to the more pressing challenge of getting atheists and theists talking to one another productively. Should the two sides actually reengage each other on the basis of ancient deism, however, eventually they may find themselves confronted by the possibility that Athens represents a quite different way of understanding God's relation to human life than does Jerusalem.
Novak has not exactly skirted the issue, for he concedes the Bible offers a personal God of freedom, love, wrath, and care. By contrast, "Greek nous (in its highest, purest formulations) is not the biblical God," is "relatively unaware of human conduct, even unconcerned with it," a God of "irony and tragedy." And divine indifference to human affairs is not compatible with particular providence or with love for humans and judgment on their acts - rather, it is the negation of these characteristics. This would seem to write out of the picture metaphysical supports for the moral life that, as an orthodox Christian, Novak occasionally represents as essential. But Novak then positively obscures this difference when he later equates the choice of whether to believe in a theistic or atheistic universe with whether or not to live in one that is "personal through and through." Because Novak says the classical deists whom he invokes in theology's support did not believe in a world founded upon a personal reality, ultimately Novak seems to lose sight of the ethical importance of debates about God's nature.
This subject also lies at the root of the old "problem of evil" that Novak discusses with MacDonald. Why is she open to the idea of "ancient deism" even while seeing the world's suffering and injustice as evidence against God's existence? It's because the deistic God is a subsistent idea or a prime mover but not the kind of Creator one thinks of as having personal responsibility for what happens to humans. Biblical religion's personal deity was what made the problem of evil a central question for philosophical theology in the first place.
Novak's attempt at showing that God is a "loving, beneficent Father" by retracing Plato's and Aristotle's arguments that we have a divine good is by itself unconvincing. Something like his beloved eros of inquiry did lead these philosophers to propose that our summum bonum depends upon and culminates in knowledge of the divine. But they are silent about that being's love and benevolent concern for us. Compared to Jehovah, the Greeks' God can appear heartless. That difference could make all the difference in the world.
Novak, No One Sees God (Doubleday, 2008).
Novak, The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilization is Not Inevitable (Basic Books, 2006).
For Novak's Response to MacDonald, see http://www.thecatholicthing.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=552&Itemid=26
Thomas Zebrowski is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a former junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center.