Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Brandy with Michael

No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers by Michael Novak

This is a fascinating book. It adopts a charitable, friendly tone in addressing the views and experiences of atheists from within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Novak sees a kind of common ground with atheists in the experience of nothingness (the dark night of the soul) experienced by Catholic mystics and articulated by those in the Carmelite tradition like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

Novak carefully avoids the belligerent and insulting tone of most of the recent "literature of contempt" coming from current popular atheists. In contrast, this is a wise and thoughtful book, open and reflective in tone. It is a kind of summing up of the life experience and reflections of a lifetime--the author more than once mentions his age as of writing--74 years.

What it is not: If you are looking for a polemic that takes on the knock-down arguments and jibes of popular atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens in a similar vein of knock-about debate, this is not your book, though it does discuss and dispute them. For that, the reader should go Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity? or one of several books that take these authors to task for their arrogance and ignorance, like Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution or David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions.

This book reminds me more of the 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre. Instead of dinner, though, Novak imagines a genial but spirited conversation (or series of conversations) over several brandies. (And I myself spent a few hours with this author, brandy in hand.) The real and imagined atheists who serve as his Alcibiades tend to be blunt, to the point, and commonsensical, like Wallace Shawn in the movie. Novak's replies are long and subtle, like Andre Gregory's in the film, but with less of the pretentious and more of sharp philosophical acuity. As Novak says and shows, it is much easier for a believer to put himself in the shoes of an atheist than the other way round.

I recommend the book highly to atheists interested in an understanding of Jewish and Christian belief that goes beyond the usual objections and who are open to the possibility that those objections have been considered and responded to at a very high level of sophistication over centuries or millennia. But the book is also deeply enriching for believers who seek to understand their atheist friends and family members in way that respects them and is both civil and non-defensive. The book requires and rewards effort from both kinds of reader. For the closed-minded, whether atheist or believer, who are content to stay that way, this book is probably not for you.

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