Novak: Belief and Unbelief

February 28, 2012

Belief and Unbelief
A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge
Michael Novak
(Mentor-Omega, 1965)
189 p.

Novak, addressing the problem of belief in God in the modern world, recommends as the surest and most authentic approach the way of self-knowledge. Reflecting on the experience of the conscious self, and particularly on “first awareness”, insight, reflective judgement, and the desire to understand, he finds that these faculties point to the existence of a God who remains, however, ultimately unknowable. His philosophical approach, which he calls “intelligent subjectivity”, starts from his own experience as a subject and reaches toward God as subject.

He is quite forthright in his insistence that, at bottom, the interior experience of the authentic believer and the authentic unbeliever are quite similar. God is hidden from both. At times he seems too eager to affirm the aridity and darkness of the true believer’s spiritual life, as if trying to prove his credentials as an anguished modern. He appears determined to strip away every inadequate conception of God (that is, every concept of God) and every hint of conventional piety.

The argument pursued in the book is specifically philosophical, proceeding from general considerations without reference to religious doctrine (though he does, toward the end, relate his own conclusions to the Catholic tradition of thought on the subject). The philosophical content is quite rich — Novak states that the basic philosophic duty is not “Construct a consistent system”, but rather “Know thyself”, and his discussion is correspondingly concrete and personal. His conception of reason is larger than calculative reason, close in spirit to the classical tradition and, more overtly, to modern existentialism.

His decision to proceed philosophically from self-knowledge has its strengths and weaknesses. His guiding principle is fidelity to conscience and self. He rightly recognizes that our experience of ourselves as beings, knowers, thinkers, and willers is prior to any particular knowledge, thought, desire, or act. As Augustine says, one can be very certain about one’s own subjective experience, more certain in many cases than one can be about external facts. It follows that any alleged fact that challenges the veracity or intelligibility of one’s subjective experience challenges, in a peculiar way, the very ground on which it rests. “There is no other knowledge prior to self-awareness by which self-awareness can be criticized.” This does not mean, of course, that self-deception is impossible, but that certain profound aspects of experience are invulnerable to radical doubt.

On the other hand, from a religious point of view his method has defects. Highly personal in its content, there is difficulty relating his project to human community, to history, to theological dogma, or to anything that has its origin outside the self. In particular, it is not clear how the Church, the person of Christ, etc. enter his considerations. The book was published in 1965, which was the silly season for Catholic theology, and though in the intervening years Novak has been a fairly prominent and fairly sensible Catholic intellectual in the United States, in this book he seems too willing to cut himself loose from history and revelation.

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2 Responses to “Novak: Belief and Unbelief”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I recently read (the first half of) The Philosophical Approach to God by W. Norris Clarke, S.J. It is an introduction to the transcendental Thomist approach to God, and quite good (even gripping). The approach, like what you’ve described here, does have an important subjective element (influenced by Kant, particularly), but embedded in an essentially Thomistic metaphysics.

    I’m not sure if this would save it from your critique that Church is absent. But perhaps we can keep in mind that even the five ways of St. Thomas (ST I.1.iii) could possibly be open to the same critique! What St. Thomas does, however, to temper this, is to insist that it is necessary that we have faith in the existence of God (and other dogmas), even when this can be known by reason (ST II-II.2.iiii). That is, to believe that reason is in some way separable from our spiritual nature is erroneous (c.f., ST II-II 2.iii).

    So, perhaps the conclusion might be (as you seem to be arguing) that an authentic argument for belief is very useful, and in some cases perhaps indispensable, but not ultimately sufficient.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Adam. It brings joy to my heart to see references to specific parts of the Summa in a comment.

    You make a good point about St. Thomas’ arguments; I had not really considered it from that point of view. One could also argue that Novak’s method is not that different from the one championed by St. Augustine: look into your own heart and mind, and you will find God.

    My basic attitude toward such arguments — at least the ones of which I am aware (and in this I would include the Thomistic ‘ways’ as well) — is that although they are of some value, they only get one part of the way toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and arguably not a very big part of the way. Considered apart from revelation and tradition, these arguments leave one stranded rather far from home. Do you agree?


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