The following piece is part of an ongoing conversation on the nature of religious belief and conservative principles. To read more about this discussion, see the original piece by Heather Mac Donald here, responses by Michael Novak here and here, and comments by Mac Donald on Novak's response here.
Praising the “skeptical conservatives” who “ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral arguments,” Miss Mac Donald made four main points. First, “the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies,” who openly support American values, including conservative family values.
Secondly, these skeptics “find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today.” They just can’t follow its logic or discern its sense.
Third come several real objections to the religious rhetoric in the American air. Heather does not pretend to have studied theology, even of the natural, philosophical, non-biblical kind. She only reports what she has observed: In the face of a tragedy averted, “believers decipher God’s beneficent intervention with ease.” But they seem silent about unnecessary human suffering they encounter every day. Isn’t the same God responsible for the bad as well as the good?
Finally, she holds that “Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular” during recent centuries. There is no need to be religious, she avers, in order to be good and to affect moral progress in human society.
The internet replies to Heather, pro and con, were plentiful. Some critics found her inexcusably ignorant of what religious people actually believe, and of their reasoned arguments for these beliefs. Others cheered Heather on.
Since it is rare in American life today to conduct public argument at this depth, and since such arguments are crucial to our national life, I wanted to seize this precious opportunity. Questions like Heather’s have haunted humans for many, many centuries.]
A famous Jesuit once said that it often takes drinking a case of brandy together to achieve disagreement. Most of what seem to be “disagreements” are actually the result of misunderstanding each other, and are not so much real disagreements at all, just weeds to be identified, uprooted, and set aside.
All this takes mutual patience, and willingness to circle round and round together, narrowing the issues. At that point, one often concludes, “Well, on this one we will just have to disagree.” At least for now. We can come back after a time and see whether each of us has learned something more in the interim. Or not. One of the best things about friendship is lifelong disagreement on some basic things.
Here are some points on which an unbeliever and a believer are probably in agreement:
- The arguments for conservative values can proceed on reason alone. Other good arguments have come from Jewish and Christian teachings. Some conservatives prefer one of these routes over the other, some put both together.
- Religious conservatives nowadays should more frequently express publicly their respect for those who do not believe in God. The reverse is also to be desired.
- Conservatives should approach questions about human nature and destiny, God, and the choice of our own community of “ultimate concern” with the best reasons they can present to a candid world. It is best if these reasons are not merely from subjective experience or personal faith. They very much need to be communicable through reasoned discourse, if nonbelievers and believers are to meet on the same ground, at least initially.
- Arguments about the real facts of history usually take the parties too far afield, and end inconclusively. These should be addressed by the methods of reasoned historical inquiry. Disagreement is to be expected, but a lot of mutual learning can take place. For example, the humanistic atheism of many in the Anglo-American world needs to be sharply distinguished from the bloody and coercive atheism imposed by Communism and Fascism early in the 20th century. Then, again, Catholics (and some other scholars) tend to make a different factual case from what one gets in the standard history course in our universities--about the crusades, the inquisition, the “two powers” of church and state in modern European history, the French Revolution, etc. The real achievements of evangelical Christians like the Baptists on behalf of religious liberty in the United States have seldom been given the credit they deserve. The full stories of other particular traditions have also not been adequately told.
Yet alongside these agreements there remain strong disagreements. Like Feuerbach, many atheists today assert that religions are created by human beings, to meet human needs felt by some people (but not all). Religions do not come directly from God but from man.
Within certain limits, of course, religions are created by human beings. When Jesus established an ordered community that he said would continue until the end of time (which then seemed more imminent than it turned out to be), he did not specify how it should be organized, ensure its own continuity and fidelity to his word down the generations, teach, preach, educate the young, prepare its leaders. He did not mention councils of the church, popes, cardinals, or the Holy See as an independent state among states, etc. He left an immense array of concrete details to human ingenuity and initiative.
And yet, if the Christian church is simply a human invention, and has not really received its mission from God, the Christian church is a fraud. If I were an atheist, I would certainly draw that conclusion.
As a Christian, I ask any searcher to examine the evidence for the truth of the Christian faith commonly advanced by the best Christian minds in generation after generation. From Augustine and Aquinas to Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, through writers such as John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Arnold Lunn, and Romano Guardini in more recent times, these evidences are steadily advanced, for those who seek them. The evidence is public and accessible to all, not simply private and individual. It is the witness of a public visible community, not merely subjective.
But the main issue that stops Heather cold, she keeps reminding us, is the most difficult one for the believer--but for all that, most frequently addressed: The problem of why a good and just God allows so much evil and injustice to metastasize in this world.
Some of the ancient “pagan” philosophers were able to figure out that this world is too filled with intelligibility and great beauty for there not to be some trans-human power of great intellectual capacity, which draws men to the deity by his beauty. They even reasoned to the conviction that this unseen deity is spirit, not matter. They were repulsed by stone idols, and did not really admire the antics of the gods of Greek and Roman myth. But they did show pietas toward the traditions of their ancestors.
Some pagan philosophers reasoned to the notion that the deity is outside Time, existing in some kind of timelessness that they called the “realm of the unchangeable,” the world of simultaneity without time, “eternity.” Such pagan philosophers saw it as an error to think of such a remote and awesome God anthropomorphically. From his vast power come many creatures more imposing than man--the Alps, the seas, the horrific storms filled with lightning and thunder and merciless winds. The deity, of whom we know so little, “transcends” not only the human world but all things, and dwells in a wholly other dimension, not shrunk to our size.
In short, reason alone figured out quite a lot about God, gathered together as settled knowledge in the “philosophy of God,” or “natural theology,” as it was called at the time of the American founding. (This was a required course at almost every university that the founders attended.) Much of this knowledge was reached before Judaism or Christianity entered into human consciousness.
Therefore, it is not only “conservative values” that can be reached through the use of reason alone, but also knowledge about God. But there remains much that is hidden about the divinity, much that is behind veils. Is the deity benevolent or hostile, too great to be bothered with us, indifferent, totally controlling of human fate? It hardly occurred to the philosophers of old that the deity is a judge of consciences, invites humans into his friendship, forgives sins, offers eternal life. All this extra insight is from Jewish and Christian revelation. Yet insight is one thing; a judgment that the insight is true is another. That is why Christians proffered evidences for the truth of revelation, to be weighed by each seeker, and accepted or rejected.
Very few pagan philosophers during most of Western history thought that the world was absurd, random, lawless, purposeless. Only after the “death of God” that Nietzsche announced did the world also come to seem absurd, random, and purposeless. Many humans experience that as the death also of modernity, or at least of its hubris. As Nietzsche first saw, the death of God meant the death of reason, and the birth of the random and the absurd.
One quality that I especially cherish in a certain kind of atheist, including Heather (a type almost old-fashioned to post-modernist eyes) is that she has not given up on reason, even though the idea of God--or at least the Christian God, as she understands the term--makes no sense to her.
The biggest disagreement between us, in fact, arises out of our different conceptions of the Christian God. Let me just mention three assertions she and others make about the Christian God that seem to me be wide of the bull’s eye (even though she hears them from Christians).
- God foresees events such as the death-dealing accident in Los Angeles, that she reports, in which a car missed a stop sign, ran head on into a train, and two died, and two were crippled. (A human who foresaw and did not prevent that cruel suffering would be charged with criminal passivity. Why not God, too?)
- Christians only exclaim about God’s providence and goodness when good things happen to them. One does not hear them call the tragedies, absurdities, and horrors of life providential. (This is a double standard.)
- The Christian claim is that God is just. But that is simply contrary to what we actually see. Often enough, the good suffer, while the evil are rewarded.
Heather marshals good arguments concerning why she cannot accept a God of this sort. However, I sometimes think she must have been more exposed to a very sentimental, sweet type of Christianity, and not read much in the Scriptures or in the classic commentators for herself. Because, contrary to her assertions, the Christian vision of God (and also the Jewish) is quite the reverse from the picture she draws. Let me begin with the third point.
Far from describing himself as just, the God who parts the veils in scripture to reveal himself gives countless warnings about how unjust, in the eyes of humans, his justice will seem. The Psalms of David, the Book of Job, and countless other texts present the opposite of a pretty picture of God; rather, a sovereign Governor of the universe not trimming his will or his wisdom to meet human measurements or expectations. He is in fact a God who in the full view of human acts in a manner cruel, unfair, and terribly trying.
The revelation brought by Jesus confirms this vision. Just look what happens to Jesus, God’s own son, in his passion and death. If this is what God does to his son, Scripture seems to suggest, we should not expect better treatment for ourselves. We are told, in fact, to pick up our cross, and get ready to bear trial and suffering, as Christ did.
Moreover, there is parable after parable about how unjust God is: He hugs the prodigal son while turning his back on his dutiful, hardworking, self-denying brother; he pays workers in the vineyard the same wage even though some have worked all day, and others only an hour; and many other such stories. God is just? Not by human standards. Not in the Christian Testament.
Heather is not wrong to claim that often God seems to her, from watching the world as it is, criminally passive, callous, cruel, monstrous. God’s self-descriptions in the Bible often forewarn that this is the way it will seem, even to those who know and love him.
One other place closer to home in which to learn how Christians understand Providence is to chart George Washington’s usage of the term. Contrary to what Heather thinks Christians do, Washington saw the hand of Providence in his greatest defeats, sufferings, and losses. He found God’s ways inscrutable and almost impossible to bear. Yet he felt even at such times “in the hands of a kind Providence,” and warned himself to keep a steady keel. For him, the presence of Providence kept him from too much elation in victory, and too much despair in defeat (of which he suffered more, sometimes through stupid blunders or character flaws of his own).
For Washington, God is sovereign. We bow our heads before him, trusting in his ultimate kindness. He is always present, in all things. He is there in the most evil, senseless, and horrific moments of human life. He is there in the days of narrow escape from evil and the full enjoyment of dreams come true. He is not the plaything of our desire.
Look at what He allowed to happen to his son. He “forsook” him.
These last two points, on God’s cruel kindness and on his empirically unjust justice, are not matters of reason. We would not have such insight into God’s nature if He had not pulled back the veils on it. They are in this sense matters of faith. You either accept it as rational and verifiable in lived experience. Or you reject the scriptural concept of God, and go elsewhere. Many of Christ’s own disciples found his sayings hard, left him and went elsewhere.
The saccharine faith that some atheists encounter in Christians is a shallow, sentimental, and much too prettified version of the faith. It does not compare very well when held up against the whole of the Christian intellectual tradition.
What I am about to write may seem so preposterous to Heather and many like her, who reject metaphysical thinking. Metaphysical methods, they say, are not congenial to American empiricism and pragmatism. Against that point there is the fact that both empiricism and pragmatism rest upon certain background assumptions about nature and history, but without subjecting these silent assumptions to criticism (the proper task of metaphysics). Here my point is not to persuade, but to clarify. So I ask her just to entertain this next section for consideration, even if her good habits of mind lead her to reject it. The main point is not particularly Christian, but philosophical.
It is a category mistake to hold that God “foresees” future events. In fact, and here the conception is philosophical, not based on Christian data: God dwells in a simultaneous present. Past, present, and future are all present to him in one vision. He sees the whole world of Time and all of this creation in one instant. He wills it all into being, and sustains it in being. Since by contrast we are in time, we must speak of past, present and future. God is not bound by that constraint.
Why, then, did Jesus instruct us to pray to our Father for our humblest needs, as well as for grand and seemingly impossible things? If to him everything is present instantaneously, isn’t the deal already done? Yet in that one same instant, God’s eternal vision sees our prayers as part of the texture of events that unfolds itself in time. For us, all is sequential. For him, all is simultaneous. He wills the whole all at once. He understands it all, and he wills it all. He sees it as good, and he loves it.
Many rationalists argue that God must be a bumbler. They can imagine a far more perfect world. More perfect in what respect? As Jefferson writes in the Statute for Religious Liberty in Virginia, “Almighty God hath created the mind free...[It is] the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, Who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do...” The Almighty might have made the world different--without human liberty, for instance. But, for reasons which escape us, he did not.
If you hold that all the beauty, intelligence, justice, love and truth that are found here in fragments in this actual created world of ours--if you hold that all these spring from the creative energy of the Creator, then you gain some idea of the beauty, justice, and benevolence he has within him. Clearly, he could have created a simple paradise of goodness, mutual cooperation and trust, and peace on earth. The story of Adam and Eve in paradise holds before our eyes just this possibility. Instead, it seems, God allowed the human story to be one of weakness, betrayal, and evil by the free choice of many, and severe trial for the good who are also tempted by evil (seeing all its rewards on this earth).
God as he reveals himself to Jews and to Christians has somehow imagined this earth as a great stage, an immense drama, a drama of liberty, and of the misuse and noble use of power, and of love and also betrayal. It is a play worthy of an Aeschylus, a Dante, a Shakespeare, a Milton, a Goethe. It is not a prettified morality play. It is ironic and tragic--and yet, withal, a comedy.
Heather notes that the father driving the car that hit a train in Los Angeles read a sign wrong, and paid for it with his life. Would she really prefer that all of us were robots who could never err on our own, never fail, never come to grief? If the Creator in fact better loved the contingencies and happen-stances of this world as we see them, in its absurdities and tragedies, and if he took pleasure in the whole (“He saw it, and it was good”), then he had to allow a great deal of rope to human liberty. This meant freedom to be noble or ignoble. It meant that some would choose malice, ill-will, and deliberate evil. Such a world would have to be constructed so as also to allow for the wild contingencies of an open world order.
Speaking metaphysically then, such an order God did not base on geometric logic, but on schemes of probabilities, unique occurrences, and wide open spaces for various chains of probability to work their way out. Only in such a world could humans help to determine the course of history. They were not born robots, but free agents. As Jefferson saw it, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” God did not have to make the world this way, but he did.
Now a different line of thought, but bearing on the same point about human liberty. Certain Islamic writers of the time of Aquinas or earlier, saw the world as predetermined by Allah, so that there was not really liberty in which humans might act. All humans could do was bow to the will of God. They were passive instruments of God’s will. Frederick II had built a Muslim university in Naples, and the encroachment of Muslims was being felt everywhere around the Mediterranean basin.
The principle that Aquinas used in refusing to go down that intellectual route, runs like this: If Heather chooses to go to the store, then God wills that she goes to the store. God does not will it “in advance;” in him there is no time. For him the willing is simultaneous. When Heather uses her freedom to go the store, then God ratifies her freedom and her choice. Simultaneously. The ratifying act of God’s will does not precede human action. It is simultaneous with it. If Michael chooses X, then God permits X to be done. Thus does he make good on the Scriptural promise of human liberty. Humans have to fill out the conditional--“If Heather does X...” for the proposition that God wills it to be true. God is not jerking her strings around or forcing her to act contrary to her own will. But when she does will something, God is present to sustain her liberty in action.
It might be that the X which Heather chooses to do is to disbelieve in God. When she does that, he sustains her liberty to do so. Even though in another sense, His will is that she not do that. He has made his will clear, but he is also committed to sustaining a world of human liberty. So thought Jefferson, for instance.
Heather’s man in Los Angeles, alas, was permitted to be more careless than his responsibilities to those in his car with him required. He read a sign wrong. No one forced him to do so. Alas, free deeds have consequences.
If Heather had reported a case in which a man with his children and mother died in a hurricane, we would not have said that he was careless when he should not have been, but that he was overpowered against his choice by the fury of the storm.
The Creator didn’t promise us a rose garden.
Yet those who love him thank him when they are spared from suffering, or enjoy success. But even when they suffer terribly, some find his judgments just and kind. As Washington did, taking every act of Providence as meant for his own instruction. That is to say, God has in mind for all of us not contentment, nor a state of constant pleasure, nor ease, but a time of trial. He could scarcely have been more clear about that. Everything that happens to us is for our good, even when we cannot see how that can possibly be true. Those who love God attend to every event and every new direction, in order to discern what wisdom they can glean from it. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).
The God of the philosophers, like the God of Judaism and Christianity, is not over-protective. He does not spoil us. He asks us to be grown ups, with tip-top attentiveness, and with a reliable force of character. Only a few in any generation manage to do this well, under terrible trials and misfortunes.
Yet many millions suffer more than is easy to witness, and endure it nobly, and praise God for what they have. They know that God does not owe them anything, and has in fact given them everything they have. I repeat, there are philosophers who have written about such consolations, brought to us through philosophical reflection--for one, Boethius of the sixth century after Christ, in The Consolation of Philosophy. One does not have to be a Christian or Jew in order to come to such wisdom.
But one does have to work out for oneself, at least in practice if not in a theoretical statement, a conception of God that allows for liberty, contingency, and all the hazards as well as triumphant moments in history. ‘In sua voluntate é nostra pace,’ as Dante wrote, “In his will, our peace.”
There are souls whose integrity leads them to kick and bite in protest against this world, and also against its Maker. Indeed, almost everyone sometimes feels the urge to protest at ear-shattering volume: “This is not fair!” As Job did.
Nothing wrong with protesting. Nothing wrong with wrestling against God.
There are others who simply say, “Thy will be done.” And find there stillness, and also strength.
One last point deserves attention.
Most people are not philosophers but, rather, want to get some of these answers in a way that comports with common sense — a way that fits with their working knowledge of how the world works, and what spoken words actually mean.
So I will close on this no doubt too simple a note. The experiences of Christians are not always merely “subjective.” Sometimes they are, and such opinions are likely to be brushed aside by others. But sometimes certain experiences share certain qualities with those well recognized in a long tradition, and otherwise meet certain criteria that lift them from the merely “subjective” into what might be called the “inter-subjective.” They are as the tradition predicts, and have met the typical criticisms designed over the centuries to “test their spirit.”
Rare are “ecstatic” experiences among the ordinary run of people, like ourselves. The religious experience of most of us is more like “give us this day our daily bread,” a more ordinary and vanilla-plain awareness.
Yet when such an experience is widely shared with hundreds of millions of others, and in a way highly scrutinized by a long tradition, the word “subjective” is not quite the right word.
Perhaps, though, that is too Catholic a point of view. It may be that the whole point of evangelical religion is to stir in the listener a strong, emotional experience of the forgiveness of God. In that case, “subjective” may be an appropriate term. However, even here the form through which the experience is brought about is by now “traditional” and the words to describe it are also “traditional.” So here also the purely “subjective” is going on.
Correlatively, when atheists insist upon “objective” evidence, one must ask what are the criteria of “objective?” I have had conversations with people who call themselves atheists, and who also say that they would like to believe in God--if only they could find some objective evidence for his existence. At this point, I strain to see what they are looking for when they say “objective” evidence. Often the background of such persons has been the sciences, and so one can see that what they are looking for are “testable hypotheses.” But this expectation supposes that God is just one other item in the universe among other items, of the same sort as those others that are subjected to testable hypotheses.
Most such persons have in my experience been sophisticated people, and have been by no means logical positivists of the early A.J. Ayer type. They are not simple-minded materialists. For them, the gate to rationality is no longer so narrow as it was in the 1940s.
So the question becomes, what sorts of “tests” would they count as yielding evidence? No use searching for God if you are searching in all the wrong places. Or trying to find God in all the futile categories.
Suppose that the proposition were put this way: Would you count as evidence a proposition that listed some of the classical characteristics of what the most astute philosophers count as “knowing that God exists”? By “most astute” philosophers, I mean those who not only give you an account of their own moving viewpoint, but can also give a very good account of other moving viewpoints not their own. Further, they can show why their own viewpoint comfortably explains a larger body of data than any known alternative, makes a greater number of helpful distinctions, even predicts specific outcomes from certain courses of action or certain patterns of belief.
Would you count it as evidence, that is, if someone laid out the characteristics involved in saying “I know that God exists,” and you came to see that you, too, could fulfill those characteristics in your own rational mind? It is worth trying to imagine what those characteristics might be.
The evidence of our senses in the material world is not likely to help, because God is spirit, not matter, according to the philosophical traditions of ancient (and perennial) bodies of thought.
Thus, we keep coming back to St. Augustine’s finding, as he moved from a very secular philosophy into belief in God, and then into a specifically Catholic belief: viz, “I searched for thee everywhere, my God, but when I found thee thou wert within.”
The evidence for God’s existing and ever-present sustaining power, in short, lies in one’s own cognitional life, as this can inter-subjectively be understood. The unrelenting, inexhaustible drive in us to ask questions leads us gradually to catch a glimmer of the boundary line between finite and infinite. The drive to ask questions is infinite, and would carry us beyond everything in creation that we know, of can ever know, if we give it free rein.
Even if we understood everything there is to know about the material world in which we live, our spirits would still raise questions. It is our endless drive to raise questions that is, generation after generation, the active fire in us that leads us beyond the immediate world of our experience. That same fire keeps breaking out human history, as the root of the religious quest, at the boundary of the infinite. Our own consciousness nudges us to cross that boundary.
Who are we under these stars, with the wind on our faces? What should we do? What may we hope?
The Jewish and Christian reply to this question of the soul is that humans are made in the image of God--not in the sense of being a painting or an icon of God, but in the sense of having inner capacities (insight, judgment, love) that are shared with him.
It is in coming to understand our own identity that we come face-to-face with the God who summoned us into being, and propels us onward. Socrates gave intimations of this route, when he began his inquiries with the imperative “Know thyself!”
The atheist has a very different sense of who she is.
We are talking pure philosophy here, not yet about matters of any particular revelation or church tradition. Who are we under these stars?
As I see it, one sort of atheist gives up trusting in intelligence at this point, and finds the whole of existence absurd, based upon chance, random, undirected, meaningless. One sort of believer comes to believe in God by trusting all the way down his own drive to question, which first awakened him from his slumbers, wakened him into awareness, and kept sending out questions like radar into the dark. The believer does not believe that this drive is in vain. This drive is at the heart of reason itself.
The insight finally dawns upon him, or her, that to say “God” is to say the Subject that awakens the restlessness within me and fires the infinite drive to ask questions. That is the only ultimate Light that we catch sight of, in a backward-glancing reflection upon our own active cognitional life. Whence does it spring? Even though it is merely a taste of God, when the mind glimpses, however darkly, all that it was made for, the resonance is very sweet.
Who am I? I am the questioning being who participates in the infinite capacity of the Creator to question and to understand everything that is. A person moved to gratitude for the full Light that is foreshadowed in my own questing little searchlight of mind and heart. A person moved to love Him who has always been within. Even when my eyes were clouded.
To pursue like a hound this movement of the mind is, I think, to plumb what being objective and rational and questioning really means, all the way down.
I didn’t mean to give a sermon. I am not trying to persuade, but simply to clarify.
We still have a lot of brandy to drink together, Heather. I thank you for the invitation.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at AEI.