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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Religiously Arguing

A response to Michael Novak.

I am honored that Michael Novak took the time to respond (in NRO and First Things) to my article on conservatism and religious belief; I can think of no more thoughtful or knowledgeable an interlocutor. He has spoken from his heart and his capacious mind. And I am grateful that he has returned to the threshold question posed by the current Republican association of religion with conservatism: the truth of Christianity. If a belief system is not true, however useful it may be, it seems frankly cynical or condescending to counsel it for others.

I have no doubt that a believer’s experience of God is powerful and transformative — indeed, that it is the most important reality in his life, as Novak so eloquently describes. I also know that no set of arguments can counter the force of that experience. But with all due respect, subjective experience is not always a guarantor of objective reality. It well may be that a Christian’s ecstatic awareness of God’s love is in fact caused by that love, but an outside observer needs something more to reach that conclusion.

He will likely evaluate the claims for God’s existence based on objective evidence. And here I have to revert to the question of why very bad things happen to good people, a topic which must be infinitely tedious to believers, because I find Novak’s arguments for God’s love more conclusory than evidentiary.

The most important characteristics of the Christian God, as I understand them, are his love of man and his justice. If one were to posit a god who is capricious, ironic, absent-minded, depraved, or completely unknowable, I’d be on board. Any one of those characteristics would comport with a deity superintending the world as I see it. But not the idea, as a Bush administration publicist put it to me, that every one of us is “precious in God’s eyes.”

Let me take a banal example. As I write this, the Los Angeles Times has a small item on a thoroughly unremarkable traffic accident. A 27-year-old man in Los Angeles misread a traffic signal, and drove his car into an oncoming Blue Line Metro Train. He and his sister were killed; his 7-year-old son and his grandmother were seriously injured.

Now imagine that a human father had behaved towards the occupants of the car as our Divine Father did. That is: a) He knew that his children would be mowed down by a train; b) he had the capacity to avert the disaster through any number of, for him, quite simple means; and c) he chose to do nothing. No one would call this father’s deliberate and possibly criminal passivity “love.” Instead, we would deem such a father a monster and banish him from our midst. Yet when God behaves in just this way, we remain firm in our conviction that he loved the occupants of that car, and that each was “precious” in his eyes.

How do I know that God could have averted the accident? Because believers tell me so. At the encouragement of their Church, Catholics regularly pray to saints to intercede with God on their behalf for the cure of sickness or protection from accidents. Such prayers would be nonsensical if God did not have the capacity to answer them. When a believer recovers from cancer, he thanks God for saving him. Ditto when an air passenger misses a flight which subsequently crashes — if he is a believer, he will likely thank God for keeping him off board (without wondering why he deserved a reprieve from death and the other passengers did not). If a hurricane misses a town, believers express gratitude to God for redirecting its course. As I mentioned in my American Conservative article, John Ashcroft credits God for keeping America safe since 9/11 (while holding him blameless from allowing the attack to go forward in the first place).

The traffic accident reported in the Los Angeles Times was quite trivial; such events happen on a daily basis in every town around the world. It is perhaps unfair to question God’s love for every “precious” last one of us on the basis of one measly car accident (which nevertheless was not insignificant for the car’s occupants). But it seems that there is simply nothing that will shake a believer from his conviction in God’s solicitude for man. This belief precedes worldly evidence; it does not grow out of it. Last year, National Review approvingly quoted Pope John Paul’s observation that God allowed “Nazism [only] twelve years of existence,” a statement intended to reassure us of God’s continuing love for individual human beings. A host of questions present themselves, including: Would 15 years have triggered a spasm of doubt? And if it’s acceptable for God to allow Nazism for 12 years, what about the Nazis themselves?

Perhaps when believers speak of God’s “love,” they use the term in a way that has nothing to do with ordinary usage. Novak maybe implies as much when he states: “What is difficult to believe is that any one of us . . . knows more than God does about His love for every individual.” God’s “love” is different from human love; it includes the capacity to foresee and watch the destruction of one’s children and not intervene. But then why not use a different word entirely — “callousness,” say. At the very least, if we are going to continue to use ordinary words in counterintuitive ways to refer to God, we should give them some sort of diacritical marker to let listeners know that the words they are hearing don’t mean what they ordinarily mean. One could speak of “G-love,” for instance, to distinguish it from ordinary human love.

I am also puzzled by the attribution of justice to God, unless, of course, we are really talking about “G-justice.” An elementary definition of justice is treating like cases alike and treating unlike cases differently. If a judge has two plaintiffs before him who are each suing for restitution under a contract, and each has met the conditions for restitution, we expect that he would award each plaintiff the remedy that he seeks. On the other hand, if one plaintiff has breached his contract and thus is not entitled to restitution, we would find it unacceptable if the judge nevertheless awarded both plaintiffs the sought-after remedy. In the case of God justice, however, we see like cases being treated differently and unlike cases being treated the same all the time — or so it would seem to a human eye. This irregularity is particularly perplexing when it comes to the death sentence. In the case of the train track accident in Los Angeles, for example, two occupants of the car were killed, two survived. Why was that? If we assume a perfectly just judge, we must believe that the two who died were situated differently from the two who survived. If all were equally innocent — if the father who was killed in the accident was just as deserving of life as his son who survived — one would have to conclude that there was a miscarriage of justice. Alternatively, if all the occupants deserved to die, why were two saved? If we are committed to the belief that God the father always acts in perfect justice, there must have been something about the father and his sister — the two fatalities — which distinguished them from the son and the driver’s grandmother, not to mention all the other drivers on the road that day who did not die.

At this point, believers are raging at my presumption that I can understand the ways of God. I am absurdly assuming that we can read his actions the same way that we would a human judge or father. I am overlooking the fact that his ways are mysterious. He has reasons for everything he does and chooses not to do, but they are not available to the human mind. As Novak says: “We are not God’s judge. He is ours.”

That is fine; I am happy to live with a conception of God as completely inscrutable, as long as that conception is consistently applied. But I constantly hear believers confidently interpreting God’s intentions when something good happens to them or to others. When God saves a child from drowning, a believer knows why God acted: It was because of his love for the child. It seems, therefore, that God becomes mysterious and unknowable only at convenient points: when necessary to preserve the idea that behind the seeming random violence of the world lies a loving entity who acts in perfect justice. Only then do we posit the existence of reasons for God’s actions that lie beyond the scope of human understanding.

But if God alternates between mysteriousness and transparency, why assume that it’s in the happy outcomes that his will is readable? Perhaps God is most inscrutable when something good happens; perhaps it’s only in the catastrophes that his intentions are clear.

A believer may use the tools of reason when it comes to other people’s faith, however. Novak says that he does not believe that Mormonism is “the true faith.” I will presume that this statement also means that Novak doesn’t believe that the Mormonism is true. In his opinion, I am guessing, Joseph Smith did not in fact receive magic glasses in upstate New York in the 1820s with which to read the golden tablets from God telling of the ancient American peoples. Why does Novak not believe that this story is true? Perhaps because it does not sound plausible to him and there is no evidence corroborating it outside of the Holy Mormon Scripture itself. Novak is in the same position towards Mormonism as skeptics are towards the Christian claims of a just and loving God. He is not willing to take the Mormon claims on faith alone.

And that is why I am uncomfortable when a political leader invokes God — assuming that he is serious in doing so — because he is operating beyond reason. When President Bush said in one of his debates with John Kerry: “I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s one part of my foreign policy,” there is no way to dispute the claim. Perhaps if a president invoked his belief in human destiny as set out in the Koran as a support for his policies, a few more people would be uncomfortable as well.

Novak’s characterization of the Catholic Church strikes me as debatable. Perhaps today’s Catholic Church stands for “liberty,” but that phrase may be anachronistic applied to most of the Church’s glory years, even without reference to its reaction to the Reformation or the establishment of the Universal Inquisition. Even during the great explosion of Renaissance art under the patronage of Popes Julius II and Leo X, I don’t think that “liberty” was what the Church was about. Order, authority, grandeur, hierarchy — yes, and these are all extremely valuable traits. The uniting of temporal and spiritual power—that, as well, to magnificent result in Rome and elsewhere.

I also disagree slightly with Novak’s claim that Christianity conquered the world only “by argument and by personal example.” This may be true in the main, but early Christian emperors stamped out classical religion by destroying temples and outlawing pagan rituals. Pagans, Jews, and heretics were pariahs under the law. Justinian the Great shut down the Academy in Athens. These may have been necessary measures, but they go beyond argument.

The Church is undoubtedly by now perfectly adapted to and compatible with “modernity,” but evidence for that proposition is not supplied, in my opinion, by its rapid growth in the third world, or, as Philip Jenkins calls it, the “Global South.”

I fully subscribe, however, to Novak’s eloquent statement that the “Catholic Church . . . answers something deep in the human spirit, which secularism does not, and cannot.” For the religiously inclined, only religion will satisfy that particular need for transcendence.

Religious institutions and beliefs are, however, human creations. They grow out of man’s instinct for system and order, as well as out of the desire for life beyond death and a divine intervener in human affairs. Our striving for justice is one of the great human attributes. Far from imitating a divine model, man’s every effort to dispense justice is a battle against the randomness that rules the natural world.

It is probably not possible to determine whether the aspects of modern life that we most value today — including the rule of law, scientific exploration, or the free market — trace their origins ultimately to Christianity or to concurrent developments in the Western world. But America’s governing institutions stand on strong secular grounds, as well as whatever religious origins we may want to give them. And the arguments for conservative values can proceed on reason alone.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online