Thursday, January 15, 2009

Not Seeing, Still Believing

{This is the third in a series of posts centering on doubt for the month of January, 2009}

Michael Novak's newest book, No One Sees God: The Dark Night Of Atheists and Believers, came out recently. I have not read the book yet, but have read a few reviews of it and, to be honest, it was those reviews that prompted me to focus on the issue of doubt this month. Here is an excerpt from one of those reviews:
Novak brilliantly recasts the tired debate pitting faith against reason. Both the atheist and the believer experience the same “dark night” in which God’s presence seems absent, he argues, and the conflict between faith and doubt stems not from objective differences, but from divergent attitudes toward the unknown. ... He shows that, far from being irrational, the spiritual perspective actually provides the most satisfying answers to the eternal questions of meaning. Faith is a challenge at times, but it nonetheless offers the only fully coherent response to the human experience.
Novak is a brilliant man, and a devoted Catholic philosopher. I have read his work before and, as you can see from the overall thrust of his book above, I am inclined to agree with most everything he writes. Everything, that is, except the most quoted lead-in to almost every reviewer's comments on this book. Though I believe I share his conclusions, I have to disagree with one of his main premises quoted here:
"Neither the atheist nor the believer sees God. Both must live in darkness. Both must try to figure out from many clues, gleaned from here and there, who they really are in this vast cosmos, in this tiny arc of the universe, on this spinning blue-green ball, possibly insignificant among the galaxies, asteroids, cold dead planets, and even deader moons."
Why does Novak think this "dark night" is inevitable? He seems to have bought the naturalistic notion that faith -- on both sides of the issue of accepting the existence of God -- is nothing but blind, wishful thinking. He seems to think that the theist can't know or prove its truth and therefore believes in spite of this lack of proof.

I don't buy it.

True, we can't "see" God. No argument there. God is a spirit -- a non-physical entity -- so it is no surprise that, unless He decides to miraculously allow it, we won't be "seeing" Him anytime soon. But it doesn't follow from that that we live in sheer darkness regarding His existence.

Specifically, I do not share his view that what we look up at are nothing but "insignificant galaxies, asteroids, cold dead planets, and even deader moons." The design argument for God's existence rests on the fact that these objects we see in the night sky are anything but insignificant. Without them we would not be here. Given the laws of nature that govern our world and the vast, black cosmos it moves within, life could not possibly have come to be, or continue to survive, without them. Even atheistic scientists recognize this fact and have labeled it the Anthropic Principle in recognition of the fact that the cosmos seems to have had mankind in mind because it all seems too well-suited for our human existence to be accidental.

Neither does C. S. Lewis share Novak's assessment. In the first book of his "Space Trilogy," Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis's hero, Ransom, is kidnapped and taken to Mars. As he hurtles through space, Ransom comes to experience a "progressive lightening and exultation of heart" which he soon recognizes as his own awakening:
A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now -- now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empryean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with som many eyes ... No: Space was the wrong name.
For an even more ancient account of this realization, go read Psalm 19.

I would submit that those who doubt because they cannot "see" are simply looking with the wrong "eyes." And by that, I do not mean to imply that they should rely on "the eyes of their heart" -- that gloriously misused notion of relying on subjective feelings -- to discern their way to truth. In this case, an understanding of the beauty, majesty and design that defines the creation first comes through "eyes" of the intellect -- then seeps into us as a properly informed view of the nature of the Creator God. Seen that way, there is no missing Him.

The human tendency to want to believe in something is fulfilled when we come to the realization that our observations about the universe we live in are perfectly consistent with the nature of the God described in the Bible. No, we still can't "see" Him with our physical eyes but, like footprints in the sand, we can see evidence of his presence and be perfectly justified in believing that He is, and always has been, a God Who Is There.

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