Public Arguments: Belief and Unbelief

My brother Dick was a missionary priest of the Holy Cross Fathers, and was then studying Arabic for a future career, he hoped, as a scholar of Islam; he was also teaching at Notre Dame College in Dacca. During the Muslim-Hindu riots of that time he went to the assistance of an elderly priest living alone in an area outside Dacca where the danger was most intense, but at a time when fears had somewhat receded. With his usual coolness (my private nickname for him was ‘the Lionhearted’) he set out by bicycle for the twelve-mile trip, was waylaid by young river pirates on the ferry across the swollen and already corpse-strewn river, and (as testimony at the trial of the culprits later came out, supported by the slashed condition of the cassock he had been wearing) died by a knife wound to the chest. He was twenty-seven, wiry, thin. Just yesterday, I mailed the broken glasses he had been wearing, long ago sent to the family, to the archives of his alma mater Stonehill College, in North Easton, Massachusetts.

Some thought that my brother’s senseless death had precipitated in me a crisis of faith, to which Belief and Unbelief (1965) was an answer. That is not really true. I had been working in the darkness that is quite normal to genuine belief in God for quite some time. In a sense, I preferred the darkness; it is a surer place. What I can’t deny is that my brother’s death added to the intensity of my words and to the desire to make every sentence of that book as true and clear as I could make it. It seemed that I owed him that much. He and I had from time to time discussed such matters, recommended books to each other, even shared some poetry. He understood the darkness.

I was at Harvard when Belief and Unbelief was written, a Harvard whose philosophy department was dominated by Willard V.O. Quine, which John Rawls had just joined. It was a Harvard as yet unshaken by the events that were soon to shatter the calm of Harvard Yard, the protests of radical students followed by a succession of other protests. The peace of the Enlightenment still reigned. (In a piece for Harper’s Magazine, “God in the Colleges,” I tried to capture the intellectual complacence of the moment. Confidence in reason was at an apogee, even if it was often a kind of mathematical, scientific, logical reason, mixed with an underlying managerial pragmatism. I didn’t find intellectual kinship there, although I did find much decency and courtesy. My own sources were ancient and medieval, and my own intellectual passions ran more in the direction of various European writers such as the existentialists and phenomenologists. In addition, I was deeply interested in problems of literature and fiction, having just published a first novel, The Tiber was Silver, based upon my experiences in Rome, where I had studied for two years. I am afraid that, though I learned much and was never sorry to have chosen Harvard, Harvard philosophy at the time did not much impress me. It seemed to me too thin and airless, much too like the logic-chopping medieval Scholasticism that I was most in flight from.

In a sense, then, Belief and Unbelief represented my alternative to Harvard philosophy. Its subtitle, “A Philosophy of Intelligent Subjectivity,” was also intended to mark out a life’s work for me. I suspected at the time that my way toward that goal would be circuitous, like the ascent up a mountain, for I thought, on the one hand, that metaphysics is best approached through ethics, and ethics through politics; and, on the other hand, that to write well on politics, ethics, and finally the deeper and larger things, a student ought first to seek out experiences in those areas that bring knowledge, so to speak, through the tips of the fingers. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (a hero of mine then and now) once quoted Aristotle as saying that no one could write well about ethics or metaphysics until he was at least fifty years old; too many matters of experience are at stake. This is not literally true, of course; Thomas Aquinas died, like Boethius, at forty-nine; and no one has ever been able to show me a more brilliant discussion of ethics than Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, which line-by-line sets forth two of the most powerful and practical ethical discussions in history, that of the pre-Christian Greeks and that of a brilliant Christian drawing upon some twelve hundred years of further Christian experience and reflection.

To make a long story short, after leaving Harvard for my first teaching position, at Stanford, I began a long journey through various explorations of politics, ethnicity, culture, and sports, including a necessary detour through certain controversial investigations into a taboo subject, the moral standing of capitalism.

I am ready now to take up again where Belief and Unbelief left off, in an attempt to give a philosophical account of the foundations of the free society in the accord between the truth of things and human consciousness, habits, and institutions. To accomplish this is to give a full account of “ordered liberty,” and thus of “intelligent subjectivity.” Thus, Belief and Unbelief is the point at which I began my mature work, and I need soon to close the circle.

Since that time almost thirty years ago when Belief and Unbelief was being written, of course, the word “foundations” has become a much contested word, particularly through the work of Richard Rorty. Rorty holds that the ancient-to-modern European quest for “foundations” is mistaken, and that the American quest, initiated particularly by John Dewey, for an “anti-foundational” approach (via solidarity, pragmatism, and open-minded inquiry) represents a more ethical, more humane, and politically more successful intellectual approach. To this end, Rorty again and again attacks the ideal of “objectivity,” and tries to replace it with the ideal of “solidarity.” Two texts may stand as shorthand for his position:

The desire for “objectivity” boils down to a desire to acquire beliefs which will eventually receive unforced agreement in the course of a free and open encounter with people holding other beliefs.

Pragmatists would like to replace the desire for objectivity—the desire to be in touch with a reality which is more than some community with which we identify ourselves—with the desire for solidarity with that community.

For Rorty, in the one case, the yearning for objectivity is to be boiled down; in the other, it is to be replaced. In both cases, Rorty is at war with objectivity but not with rationality and reasoned discourse. In both cases, too, Rorty is not proposing a vision of the isolated individual—self-enclosed, and walled-off from others—but, quite clearly, a vision of humans-in-community. (One might even call Rorty’s vision, in a bow to its more or less hidden roots in the work of his grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, a secular version of the Protestant “social gospel.”)

My own conception of “intelligent subjectivity” must have some relationship to Rorty’s effort to move beyond the tradition of objectivity. But what relation?

First of all, both Rorty and I have been influenced (to different degrees and in different traditions) by Christian philosophy. Rorty, for example, has noted that philosophers today may owe considerably more to the teachings of Jesus Christ than to the ancient Greeks and Romans—and rather more than they commonly make explicit. Among the propositions introduced into modern discourse by the life and teachings of Christ are the unalienable dignity of every single person, slave or free; the imperative of universal compassion; the equality of all human beings before their Creator and Judge; and the vocation to make this world better through “building up the Kingdom of God” by whatever approximation, generation by generation, humans may attain. Even Rorty’s own primal intuitions about the most privileged starting place of philosophical writing—an ethic of solidarity—suggest a powerful dose of the Christian idea of community. Nor is Rorty’s writing unmarked by a sensitivity to the weakness and perversity of human agents, who do not always act reasonably; nor are his works altogether remote from the world of contingency, singularity, and irony that underlies doctrines of Providence, as distinguished from those non-Christian doctrines of the Deist Watchmaker and Eternal Logician.

I see Rorty’s work as a rough approximation to a liberal Christian social ethic, on a resolutely non-believing, secular basis. True to the Enlightenment’s hope to overturn the Jewish-Christian sense of reality, Rorty tries to devise a philosophical outlook that needs make no reference to God or to anything else divine or sacred. Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss in his work a serenity, kindliness, sense of solidarity, and fundamental reliance on a sort of cosmic (that is, historical, evolutionary) hope that are by no means inherent in nihilism. “What do they lack but churches, these atheists of our generation, to distinguish them from being Christians?” Albert Camus asked of his “secular saints.” To “saint,” of course, Rorty might prefer the title “ironist.” All right, then, a kind, tolerant, open, happy, and hopeful ironist. Does it seem too ironical to see in Rorty an unavowed Christian ironist?

Rorty thinks that in showing that the mind is not “the mirror of nature” he has disproved the correspondence theory of truth. What he has really shown is that the activities of the human mind cannot be fully expressed by metaphors based upon the operations of the human eye. We do not know simply through “looking at” reality as though our minds were simply mirrors of reality. One needs to be very careful not to confuse the activities of the mind with the operations of any (or all) of the bodily senses. In describing how our minds work, one needs to beware of being bewitched by the metaphors that spring from the operations of our senses. Our minds are not like our eyes; or, rather, their activities are far richer, more complex, and more subtle than those of our eyes. It is true that we often say, on getting the point, “Oh, I see!” But putting things together and getting the point normally involve a lot more than “seeing,” and all that we need to do to get to that point can scarcely be met simply by following the imperative, “Look!” Even when the point, once grasped, may seem to have been (as it were) right in front of us all along, the reasons why it did not dawn upon us immediately may be many, including the fact that our imaginations were ill-arranged, so that we were expecting and “looking for” the wrong thing. To get to the point at which the evidence finally hits us, we may have to undergo quite a lot of dialectical argument and self-correction.

There is an analogous problem in thinking of knowing as the activity of predicting and controlling, which arises from Bacon’s seductive dictum, “Knowledge is power.” Power-seekers, even those who seek power through knowing, are quite properly regarded as well on the way to corruption. As Lord Acton’s famous caveat warns, they typically awaken in others caution, fear, and loathing. Since their proclivities lead them to approach problems as manipulators, those who are close to them rightfully resist becoming known by them and fear coming under their power.

One more point. Any God who could be known by way of scientific method, a method whose aim is power, not wisdom, a method that gives the knower power to predict and (within limits) to control the known, would be a God subject to human manipulation. And any God reached by that method is likely to be imagined as the Great Manipulator. Against such a God, it would be necessary to rebel.

Unavoidably, we embodied persons (humans that we are) can only express ourselves by way of metaphors; necessarily, our language draws upon the experiences of our senses and imagination. To try to express what our knowing is taxes us mightily, therefore, since our knowing is rather more complex than our mere sensing or imagining. We do not have unmediated insight into our minds, but come to know them through their doing, catching sight of them, as it were, indirectly and by a kind of reflected radiance. (One of the most vivid descriptions of this difficulty in philosophical literature arises in the sustained effort by Aquinas to discern what the knowing of pure spirits without bodies—angels—would be like. His inquiries forced him to press what we do know about our own knowing to the limit, and then to step beyond that limit to conceptualize how creatures of considerably larger capacities would know.) For embodied persons, learning taxes every part of the body, from seat to eyes. To paraphrase Madison, “If men were angels, teaching would be a snap—the instantaneous communication of one mind directly to another, without hour-long lectures, full semesters, or tedious cramming for exams.”

Every teacher knows how important it is to give students vivid and exact examples of every point she makes; most of the time, students can’t get the point until they see it in an image taken from their own bodily experience. Our minds work most comfortably through and with our senses, or at least through sense images stored up in memory and imagination. As we are, so also are our minds: embodied. Not, of course, as ghosts in a machine; rather, as vitality in a spirited horse, as light in a blazing fire, as the point in a well-shaped joke, as the attentive questioning in a student’s eyes. We do not know our own mind naked, pure, apart from its embodiment in the engagement of our intelligent activities with their objects.

For this reason, one of the most fruitful arenas in which human knowing of an everyday kind can be reflected upon in full exercise, as it were, lies in the face-to-face knowing in which one human being learns that he must respect, dare not harm, must pay honor to another. When we allow ourselves to be in the presence of another, to be attentive to her, and to regard her as we would be regarded, we become poignantly aware of the vulnerability that plays across the human face. We experience a commandment: “Thou shalt not strike, thou shalt not harm.” Perhaps deeper, we are commanded: “Respect.” More strongly yet, the face of the other says to us, “Submit to my dignity.” We may not heed these imperatives; we may violate them. What we cannot deny, as Emmanuel Levinas points out, is the truth they express. In this way, we experience, we gain insight into, we form the virtually unconditioned judgment, that every other human being commands respect. This knowing is the basis of all social life, even in a den of thieves.

Before the commandment expressed by the living visage of another of our kind, we sense both our humility and the other’s nobility. The human visage demands of us deference, perhaps even the sacrifice of our life (like the young man diving into the dark waters of a Louisiana bayou to pull strangers through the windows of a submerged train car). The faces of others tell us that we cannot “know” them in the sense of willfully submitting them to manipulation as means for our own ends. We cannot “know” them in the sense of imagining that they are unfree, dense, exhaustible, and discardable, like inanimate things. In their dignity, mystery lies. In each lies a secret, a sacredness, a touch of unknowability: signs that each is a free agent of her own destiny. In honoring others, we learn to honor ourselves. “Know thyself!” turns out to mean: “Know at least one other—Be attentive to another. Be respectful.”

Knowing another person well is no simple thing. “Sensitivity training” doesn’t get at it. You have either experienced knowing another well, knowing her character, knowing what to expect of her, knowing what she could not possibly have done—or you haven’t. If you have, you know that knowing another is not like seeing with your eyes and not, either, like that method of experiment and action that pragmatists write of, that ability to predict and to control that scientists and aerospace engineers practice. Knowing another demands that you bring into exercise every capacity you have for self-restraint, attentiveness, imagination, sympathy, connaturality, discrimination, the discernment of nuance and of the subtle motions of the soul, and respect for what is other than yourself. It demands a summoning up of your full powers of insight and exact judgment, the full awakening of yourself as subject, different from the other and yet also self-possessed. It also requires that you refuse merely to objectify the other—that is, to distance yourself from and imagine yourself superior to the other.

To grasp the extent to which to know another is not like “seeing” with the eye, but a far more complex activity, is an important step in inquiry into belief and unbelief. For believers say that they “know God,” if not exactly as they know another, then at least more like that than like any other kind of knowing. It is not so much that they know that God exists (or ‘that the proposition “God exists” is true’) as that they know God. The proposition that He exists is merely analytically included in that knowing. In the order of time, one does not first know that God exists and then come to know God. On the contrary, one comes to know that God in fact exists only after one has come to know God. One may have heard others speak of God, but one tends to discount these accounts until one actually comes to know God for oneself. That, at least, is the usual case.

In English, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), we use the same verb “to know” both for knowing persons and for knowing propositions. In French, one says la connaissance de Dieu for the first knowing and le science de Dieu for the second. John Henry Newman has distinguished the two different kinds of knowing in something close to plain English as “real assents” and “notional assents.” Judgments of the notional sort are made with detachment because of their relative simplicity. Scientific judgments, for example, are intended to be replicated by any observer competent to perform the prescribed methodical steps. Of course, even these judgments require the knower to become aware of being awake, attentive, and ready to work—not distracted, or careless, or unfit. But the emphasis properly falls on getting straight on definitions, procedures, and operations to be performed; on notional clarity. By contrast, real assents depend far more on the many competencies of the knower acquired through attention to the broad experiences of living. The knower’s entire grip on reality is at risk in such judgments. Among our acquaintances, we cherish those whose judgments are more often than not on the mark about how events will actually turn out. These are the sort of persons whose advice we most value, who seem most “in touch with reality.”

Real judgments demand personal commitment in two senses: First, a commitment of all one’s instincts, memories, insights, and sense of reality to a judgment about what is true and enduring in the flux of impressions (as when someone asks you, “What do you think is actually going on in the department [White House, health care reform, etc.]?”); second, a commitment of one’s being and action to that truth. Notional judgments place at risk only one’s intellectual acuity at the moment, and even if one errs it is fairly easy to recover without impugning one’s own character or even basic intelligence. Real judgments place at risk one’s own realism, and therefore one’s habits and character. Who we are is determined by our real assents. By our judgments and our decisions to act on them, we make our selves who we are.

Knowing in any field is an activity wholly different from mere sentimentality. Its opposites are self-deception and illusion. Its thirst is to grasp fearlessly what evidence commands, to honor it, and to hold to it at any price. Knowing is not an act that we experience constantly; it is an act quite thrilling to exercise, since it demands that, regarding matters commensurate with our abilities, we rise up to our full powers of alertness, attention, insight and judgment. Although (or perhaps because) it is surrounded by a vast darkness of ignorance, knowing is an act worth exercising frequently, every day, day after day. Indeed, those who do not exercise it frequently are properly called stupid.

Further, in those kinds of knowing that issue in actions that affect other persons, we necessarily make judgments that are not only true or false, brilliant or stupid, but good (in some measure) or (in some measure) evil. For not to give unto others the respect that their being demands is not only to miss the truth but to do harm. To the extent that we are made for truth, and held to judgment by truth, to fail in that way is not only to injure others but also to injure ourselves.

Perhaps I have said enough to show how Belief and Unbelief’s exploration into the no-man’s-land that lies between those who know God and those who do not anticipated Rorty’s revolt against the false objectivity of the Enlightenment. But I would like to add one thing more, in order to tie in Belief and Unbelief with one of my later books, The Experience of Nothingness (1970).

One of the most ironical characteristics of those who, like Professor Rorty, call themselves nihilists is that they write books. They claim to believe in nothingness, a bedlam in which truth cannot be distinguished from non-truth, a swirling sea of impressions and events for which there is neither top nor bottom, foundation nor direction, but only contingency, accident, hazard, idiotspeak, and randomness all the way down. And yet they dedicate their days to sitting at their writing machines pecking away messages for people in remote climes and times, in full faith that there will be enough rightness about things for those distant others to understand exactly what they are saying.

They are men and women of faith, our nihilists. They have a stronger sense of truth than they let on. They value—they do value, you can see them do it—the courage it takes to sit on one’s bottom for hours typing, risking hemorrhoids and worse, fighting off stiff necks and weary wrists and sore backs, rubbing one’s eyes to remove the ache and to change focus for a moment’s blessed relief. All this they do, craving praise for their honesty (and no doubt their solidarity with others), in a world which, as they have elsewhere shown, cares not a fig for their honesty; indeed, permits no possibility of such a thing (nor of its opposite, either).

In other words, the moral and intellectual requirements for being a practicing nihilist, as I have tried to show both in Belief and Unbelief and in The Experience of Nothingness, are many. They include powerful prior commitments to honesty, courage, a sense of community (without which one would not write), and a decision to act (even by writing, a painful labor). Thus, in the prior moral commitments they must make, not even unbelievers, not even nihilists, not even ironists, are altogether different from those who know God.

Moreover, not even those who know God ever see God. God (as those who know Him report) is beyond every image that our imaginations can form and any notion that our powers of conceptualization can muster. So those who do not see God may, if they wish, take cold comfort from the fact that those who do know God are also, like them, left in darkness and alone, with no one (so it often happens) to comfort them. What unbelievers cannot do is pretend that they are the brave ones, going out courageously into that cold night, raging against the dying of the light. What have they got to rage against, if there is no God? Stupid it is to rage against a fact: that there is only night.

By contrast, plaints against God make sense. Those who know God, even when God is silent and does not appear, might seem to have heartfelt poetry on their side, as indeed they do, in the Psalms. (He made us for Himself, yet abandons us in impenetrable darkness.) Plaints against nothingness are purely maudlin. (No one made us, no one owes us anything, we are not worth a plaint.) Yet, the believer, though he has poignancy on his side, finds scant comfort in the darkness that belongs to him even more than to the non-believer.

Trouble is, some unbelievers want it both ways. And so do some believers. In my experience, both get the darkness. From studying closely Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, certain Zen masters, and many others, I am confident that my experience is not untypical. Let others report about, and analyze, other experiences. This is what I have learned: serious believers and serious unbelievers experience a common darkness, even when they interpret it differently.

Finally, it is important for me to point out that in writing about Belief and Unbelief I am not writing about Jewish or Christian faith. True enough, even atheists in our culture tend to be Jewish or Christian atheists; the God they reject is one they have learned to think about (however badly or well) in terms of a specific cultural history. But I am not writing about Jewish and Christian faith. I am raising a question that, experience shows, grips many people even if they have (as yet) no interest in becoming Christians or Jews; and many Christians and Jews, even if they have (as yet) no interest in becoming atheists or agnostics. There is something that many such people just want to know, as far as intelligence will take them.

That question is, What can we know about what our identity as intelligent subjects portends? Does it mean that we participate in, and may converse with, Another? Or does our identity offer no such clue at all, and mean nothing whatever about anything at all?

How should we interpret who we are, under these stars, with the wind on our faces?


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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