Conversations with the New Atheists IV Print
By Michael Novak   
Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The following objections were raised by Christopher Hitchens in a live debate (now online) with Dinesh D’Souza. Most of them were asides, which Dinesh wisely did not allow to distract him in pursuit of larger issues. But I found them helpful in sorting out my own ideas. (Dinesh is the first debater I have ever heard get the better of Mr. Hitchens.)

The burden of proof is heavier on believers who claim to know that God exists, who in fact know what God wants, and who are friends with the Guy.

Sorry, Christopher, the burden of discovering the truth about who we are falls equally on all human beings. No one escapes responsibility for deciding about that, and then living accordingly.

As for your second point, knowing what God wants is not too difficult, in a very general sense. The God of Judaism and Christianity asks us to love Him with full integrity: with all one’s heart and mind and soul; and to love all men, His children, with the same love. He also wants us to keep His Commandments.

Knowing what God wants in any particular instance, in this particular exchange or at this particular grave and insistent moment of decision, is by no means as easy. That is why most human beings pray – to compose themselves and to try to be as clear-eyed and self-critical as they can. In this way, they try to perceive and to interpret the subtle signals that are abundant in concrete reality itself. The first principle of morality, Pascal writes, is to think clearly. The second is to act according to what one sees.

As to your third point, the “Guy” has offered His friendship to every person. The burden of deciding whether to accept it or not falls upon each of them. Equally.

Actually, though, the locution “Guy” misdirects the mind toward a human being writ large. “The Source of all existence” is not adequate, either, but it leads us rather deeper than “Guy.”

So you think that people believed that killing was ok, and only later came to Sinai and miraculously discovered that killing was not so kosher after all?

No, nearly all of the Ten Commandments can be, and have been, ferreted out through reason alone. But for good measure, God Himself “put the hay out where the horses can get it” in His engraved Ten Commandments. These ten succinctly summarized the teachings of the philosophers on two stone tablets.

In other words, with Thomas Aquinas and Moses Maimonides, Christians and many Jews reason that the Ten Commandments sum up a considerable proportion of what have been called the laws of human nature, or natural law. That is, the law that can be known through reason alone. And was, in fact, learned through reason alone by many of the ancient pagan philosophers.

Yet it was altogether reasonable and pedagogically sound for the Lord to present these laws of human nature (the laws which best nurture human flourishing) in short mnemonic tables. It was, as the medievals said, not strictly necessary, but fitting (conveniens).

Shia Islam is essentially a parody of Catholic faith.

So was socialism, so was communism, so is today’s environmentalism (complete with an apocalypse), and so also virtually every other religion that has come after the universal (Catholic) Church, which is bound neither by race nor tribe nor region nor nation. Some of these parodies are, of course, abominable.

Still, even these poor and sometimes ugly parodies are a tribute paid to a very successful, long-lasting, continually developing and evolving way of living, which hits each important note buried in human nature itself. But in a unique and not quite imitable way.

All religions secretly want the eschatological end of days. They want this poor and contemptible world to be over. They are waiting for the promise of Heaven.

But Judaism and Christianity see this good world as coming from the hands and heart of an infinitely good God, and intended for His glory, as a radiance of His own beauty. One finds this in great music, in lyric and playful and grave poetry, in magnificent drama (tragic as well as comedic), and in the nebulae of the universe itself, “the music of the spheres.” Oh, and I hope Christopher has noticed that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, lived in by God, and radiant with His beauty (even in our weakness). George Carlin’s notion that Christianity teaches people “to hate their own bodies” is bizarre. Christianity is the only religion that teaches that our bodies are so beloved by God that they will be raised “on the last day.” Teaches, in fact, that soul and body are not two things, but mutually interfused: an inspirited body, an embodied soul. If one thinks of “spirit” as inquiry, wit, the drive to excel, the will to endure and to survive, invigoration, spiritedness – all of which are “embodied” in particular human beings – there is no need to think of “ghosts in a machine.”

Michael Novak’s website is www.michaelnovak.net

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