March 26th, 2007

Modernity: Yearning For The Infinite

Theological Notebook: Novak on "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village"

My students read the following article – a set of book reviews, actually – by my namesake Michael Novak for this past Friday, in conjunction with a lesson on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In general, I wanted to parallel the task of ancient and today's Christians in preparing positive articulations of the faith in response to some form of critique in their culture. So, Nicaea could be talked about in terms of a response to an Arian theology of God, and Novak's article as a response to a number of fairly well-selling books on the market currently, written from an evangelizing-atheist perspective.

I noted some response to these books before, in Peter Steinfel's New York Times column on two of them (and this other NYT Op-Ed), and the dismay by more learned atheists that atheism was perhaps being seen as best represented by these rhetorical attacks that actually lacked much intellectual punch. Because I wasn't having my students actually read the atheist texts themselves, I didn't have my students focusing so much on what Novak reported as their content (whether or not he was accurate) but instead to pay attention to Novak's attempts at coaching a stronger atheist critique of Judaism and Christianity, and what a substantial critique and dialogue would look like. In particular, I had them discuss what he laid out as Christianity's primary challenges to atheist critique: that is, what – like the Creeds – represented Christianity's actual constructive response to today's intellectual challenge. Instead of the vision of Christianity presented in its Worst Possible Terms or Representatives, Novak offered a "strong" Jewish/Christian position of the sort that an atheist today could really profitably engage, rather than playing games with "straw men" that were created just to easily knock down....

Lonely Atheists of the Global Village (3/7/2007)


"The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to be territory unexplored by our authors. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives--and why these inner silences ring to those who share them so true, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life--our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical,” they might come closer to walking for a tentative while in the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying--less self-contradictory, less alienating from their own nature--than atheism."


Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris (Knopf, 112 pp., $16.95)

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett (Penguin, 464 pp., $16)

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 416 pp., $27)

Time magazine, ever the vigilant trend spotter, has celebrated a recent wave of books by atheists--among them, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of Biblical faith, especially in America; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among atheists, in part by calling attention to support groups for them. Their overriding purpose is the first one: in the words of Harris, “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity.”

But all three books evince considerable disdain for Judaism, too. Dawkins calls it “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods, and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.” And the God of the Old Testament, Dawkins calls a “psychotic delinquent.”

And it is not as if they admire Islam; rather, they use Islam as a weapon for bashing Christianity and Judaism. Harris says to Christians, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well--by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.” In truth, though, the main intention of all three authors is to praise the superiority of atheism, at least the rational atheism of professors such as themselves.

In fact, there is much in atheism to praise. Collapse )

Brown Jacket/Bookcase

Personal/Theological Ntbk: Jen, The Saw Doctors, A Weekend of Introductions, Père Marquette Lecture

This last week featured lots of running around with Jen, more than I would have thought possible after the comparatively excessive amount of free time that it was possible to squeeze out of my Spring Break. Last Sunday, after trying out a French restaurant south of the Third Ward, we took in the Saw Doctors' concert at the Potawatami Bingo Casino, which was the ultimate cap to a Saint Patrick's Day weekend. Jen had done the Exactly Perfect Thing when I invited her to the concert: she had asked to borrow their discs from me so that she could go into the show somewhat familiar with the music. To me, that's just a great sign of someone who is actually going to listen to the music, and the very fact that this stands out to me as a positive trait just goes to show how shallow people's interaction with music is these days. Although the Saw Doctors aren't known in the States nearly to the extent that they are in Ireland and the U.K., they do have a loyal fan base here in land of Irish Fest (the world's largest Irish cultural festival). Like countrymen U2, the band has been around long enough that any concert has a certain "best of" quality, because they have such a well-established selection of hits and first-rate songs to be able to draw upon. The setlist for this show was no exception:
Star Trek – Original Series Main Title (goofy piped-in intro music as the band takes the stage)
We May Never Get To Say Good-Bye Again
Presentation Boarder
It Won't Be Tonight
Ivana in the Brogue (new and unreleased)
Tommy K (with a wild, offbeat intro)
Green and Red of Mayo (the most epic version I've ever heard. Incredible.)
She's Got It (a great new one.)
Galway And Mayo (with Croke Park/"Maroon and White" interlude)
Share the Darkness
Your Guitar
Exhilarating Sadness
I'll Say Goodnight
To Win Just Once
Clare Island (gorgeous. Different than the great 2003 Summerfest version, but still fabulous)
I'll Be On My Way
Bless Me Father
That's What She Said Last Night

D'ya Wanna Hear My Guitar?
Joyce Country Céilí Band
I Useta Lover
Why Do I Always Want You
What A Day
Hay Wrap (with Leo's subliminal message "Everyone's a winner at Potawatami Casino")
We were laughing earlier that a lot of the rest of the week was a bit of a blur. Friday night, though, we took in the opening night of Julie Riederer's playing in a production of a play entitled As Bees In Honey Drown, which took us by surprise. We were expecting a more whimsical comedy and instead found ourselves in a story with its clearly comedic moments, but centered around a man caught in a web of fraud and false identity. The second act came together strongly, and we found ourselves definitely interested in the play on its own merits and not just for the sake of a friend among the players. I spoke with Jules' folks afterwards and then introduced her and Jen: it wasn't the best of times to be able to run with such an introduction, but a good performance and the high from that made for a comfortable time to make such introductions.

"Introductions" was really the theme of the weekend, with me meeting Jen's inner circle over Indian food for dinner on Saturday at the tasteful bungalow of her friend and collaborator Ricky, with whom she offered a coaching/yoga course earlier this year: a combination that's apparently well-established on the coasts but is still finding its place here in the heartland. The bungalow itself, and Ricky's highly complimentary furniture selections for it actually gave me my intro conversation with Ricky and Doug, another friend, and our mutual friend Roger kept the group in shrieking, painful laughter with a few choice stories that we thought would make the core to a fine book of misadventures.

Tonight was her meeting Mike and Donna, Dan and Amy over at Dan and Amy's where we grilled out in the unexpected 70s weather for the first time this year, after Dan, Mike and I had returned from Marquette's annual "theological event of the year," the 38th Annual Père Marquette Theology Lecture, 2007's 'Wheels Within Wheels': William Blake and Ezekiel's Merkabah in Text and Image by Prof. Christopher Rowland, Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegisis of Holy Scripture and Fellow of the Queen's College, The University of Oxford. That was an unexpected angle into the Jewish mysticism that we frequently examine here, but it was both a fine presentation (with the first use of multimedia for Blake's art and poetry in a Père Marquette Lecture) and a good set of questions afterward. Jen seemed to go over very well with the group, and, like the night before, I was very comfortable. So those two nights mark another Standard New Relationship Milestone passed. She even sat through our fanatical viewing of the season finale of Battlestar Galactica without giving any impression of feeling left out, even though she didn't know the show at all, and jumped into our rambling talk of that and other things without missing a beat. So she rules.