Dialogue in the Dark

No One Sees GodIt totally slipped my notice that, a couple days ago, Religion Dispatches posted my latest article, a review of Michael Novak’s No One Sees God. This one, unfortunately, may inspire more ire from the anti-atheists. But I promise, I genuinely tried to move a more sensible conversation forward on all sides. Take a look at it here.

I begin, mercilessly, with a quotation from Plato. Fitting treatment for someone I later almost call a Straussian elitist (only to quickly back down on the charge in admiration for Novak).

In Book X of Laws, Plato sighs, “Who can be calm when he is called upon to prove the existence of the gods?” Still, he concludes, “it must be done.”

Note: I have generally insisted on using the spelling “dialog” in all cases instead of “dialogue,” but most editors, including those at RD, demand the latter. I understand the need for conformity with general usage. But according to the OED, both are valid. And to me, the “ue” just reeks of the feel-goody fluff that is most polite interreligious conversation.





20 responses to “Dialogue in the Dark”

  1. Very, very good — although one wishes that you brought more definition to your ‘honest, curious question’

  2. Henry Bodah

    Even if it were impossible to dialog with atheism (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-18), still it should be possible to dialog with atheists. No?

  3. Great to hear from both of you, as always. It feels like being back in Manning Hall all over again!

    The text that Fr. B mentions is this:

    Do not be yoked with those who are different, with unbelievers. For what partnership do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? What accord has Christ with Beliar? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said: “I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Therefore, come forth from them and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch nothing unclean; then I will receive you and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”

    It is a terrifying text for the prospects of dialog to be sure! For instance, “what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” Because of the differences between us, it suggests, be nowhere near people who are unlike you.

    But at the end here Paul is using a Hebrew Bible quote, so I suppose it should be read in the light of Jesus. Jesus was the one who went among the dirty and the reviled, treating them like human beings and urging them to believe. This, I suppose, is why you say that we should be able to dialog with atheists, right Fr. B?

    Much of what I take issue with in Novak’s book is the dour account he has of atheism. For him, it is a purely negative doctrine, except for its taking comfort in the pleasure principle. What I suggest is that there is more to living atheism than that. There is, to return to the passage above, righteousness, there is lawfulness, there is light, there is belief, there are temples, and perhaps there is even some Christ—though that may go too far, distorting the picture out of recognition (which is precisely what I would like to do).

    If I’m right about that, there is much Christians like Novak still have to learn. They should wonder if they’ve got the definition of atheism quite right. If it were, precisely, a belief in nothing, then of course dialog would be impossible. But the people we’ve mistakenly called “atheists” aren’t voids at all. They may not even be the “unbelievers” Paul is talking about. There is need to rebuild the picture we have of them.

    How do they live without being one of us? In what do they hope? What can their experience tell us that our own cannot? This is what I mean by an “honest, curious question.” A question that cries out: I don’t have all the answers, and I need you to help me understand.

  4. A false quote from Chesterton has him saying “that when men give up belief in God they do not believe in nothing: they believe anything.” (Taken, of all places, from p. 92 of Some Trust in Chariots: Sixteen Views on Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?)

  5. I’m not sure what this means. I may need to speak to a young earth creationist to understand why she/he thinks what he/she thinks but not to figure out how nuclear physics works. If I speak to an atheist what am I suppose to understand? How they attempt to build an ethical system devoid of God? Does that help me build an ethical system for myself? Frankly, all atheist explications of ethics I am familiar with are either completely derivative of previous systems or some form of social darwinism.

  6. I was attempting to quote this:

    How do they live without being one of us? In what do they hope? What can their experience tell us that our own cannot? This is what I mean by an “honest, curious question.” A question that cries out: I don’t have all the answers, and I need you to help me understand.

    To summarize, to understand how and why someone else structures their own life does not provide direction for my own or anyone else’s. It is as if you have conflated anthropology and ethics.

    Not that I have any great answers to the Is/Ought divide.

  7. I hope you don’t mind me quoting this, which might make clearer what you have in mind more broadly:

    Engaged in what may become a debate over at The Row Boat in which I claim that my friend’s approach, now clarified, essentially combines anthropology and ethics at the expense of the latter. The fundamental question is ‘What is meant by open-mindedness?’, and also, ‘What is the purpose of dialogue?’ The second interests me more at the moment. Is the purpose of dialogue merely to understand the other person? Or is there some dialogical, dialectic approach to truth? I believe Socrates’ conclusion is that fancy words are either a complex mechanism for obfuscation, usually the defense of a certain class of persons, and the economic-political system that provides them their power, or a way of finding the latent contradictions in such a system — that is, identifying the ‘exploitive.’

    These are neat and challenging questions you raise. I’ve been trying to think through them. I wonder how this sounds.

    There is, to be sure, something veiled in what we call “dialog” that has gone unspoken, right? In the article, I just took it as given that Novak wants dialog, which he seems to think of as “to close the great divide between belief and unbelief.” My argument was that, while the proposal is interesting, he in no way makes a real effort to do this. He only strengthens the divide. So what happens? The subtext of my article is that Novak is really making a power play—posing as someone who wants to talk in a friendly way but who really just wants to decimate the other.

    Isn’t this, very often, exactly what we mean by dialog? Or diplomacy? Just think of why competing governments sit down to talk: to buy time (Hitler before WWII). To get the other to recognize one’s legitimacy (i.e. Iran, Venezuela). To get a subjugated other trapped in the status quo (Israel and Palestine). In all these competing motivations, is a pure, genuine, open-minded (to use a term that you rightfully interrogate) dialog really possible when anything at all is at stake?

    I would say yes and no. Of course nobody really enters the dialog with pure intentions, pure “open-mindedness.” But the posture of good will matters, for it allows the conversation to go forward, even if it is somewhat false. More importantly, however, is the way that the dialog does work when it acts unexpectedly on both parties. I’ve long had a fascination with the Cold War academic fad of General Systems Theory, which insists that whenever two entities become interconnected, they can no longer be understood separately, but only in relation to the other. There is a change that occurs in each, one beyond its own control. The unscrupulous use of dialog can only go so far. Eventually, no matter what, the dialog makes use of its participants. (Perhaps this is why Paul is so wary of intercourse with others in the passage quoted by Fr. Bodah.)

    You raise the challenging question of anthropology and ethics. Am I conflating them? I’ve been thinking much about this (wandering through rainy New York City days) and seem to be concluding: without a doubt, yes. When has anthropology ever not been about ethics? Of course, by many accounts, it began in the West as an instrumental attempt to figure out how to best convert the natives to Christianity. But very soon the dialog got the better of the anthropologists. By the time of Margaret Mead, anthropology had become the hottest topic out there for people trying to decide how people should interact and how society should function. Seeing how others live, sympathetically and up-close, couldn’t help but fundamentally call into question the ethical “systems” at work in Christian Europe.

    Most Western non-theistic ethical ideas have emerged in the world that anthropology created. Like ancient Epicurianism and Skepticism, they are built on a sense of cosmopolitanism. As such, they have to be careful about putting too much stock in hard-and-fast ethical systems. More, cosmopolitanism asks one to cultivate habits and practices and dispositions that enable one to live in some harmony with diverse others. Maybe this is a cop-out, but maybe it explains why your search for an atheist ethical system that isn’t “derivative of previous systems or some form of social darwinism” has been so disappointing. The first criteria, for instance, seems especially unimportant. What, after all, isn’t derivative?

    You bring up Socratic dialog, so let me finish with that (finally). (See earlier discussions here and here.) I think there are two uses of Socratic dialog. One is what you point to—the conversation that unravels itself and its participants, that reveals their ignorance and thereby advances them in wisdom. The other is the one best attested to in Lysis, as I read it. The dialog concludes this way:

    O Menexenus and Lysis, how ridiculous that you two boys, and I, an old boy, who would fain be one of you, should imagine ourselves to be friends—this is what the by-standers will go away and say—and as yet we have not been able to discover what is a friend!

    Here we see certainly the unraveling, the revelation of ignorance. But we also see an incredible gentleness. The conversation itself, the interaction, brought the participants closer to each other. Something happened that wasn’t exactly in the logic of the words. This something is what we see throughout the genre of ancient dialogs, and most especially in Plato. Philosophy takes place amidst human drama. The conversation possesses its participants.

    What direction for your own life, you ask, does how and why someone else structures theirs provide? Because, one way or another, you won’t be quite the same after the encounter.

  8. First, I’ll assume your assessment of Novak is correct. I am in general agreement that you shouldn’t frame things as dialogue if this is not your actual intent (although there may be ‘strategery’ here, in which case we shouldn’t be discuss this as an intellectual credible attempt but as something else). Since I am not about to pick up the book, let’s not discuss Novak but what has come up as a result.

    Can I restate your last couple paragraphs as ‘The ethical imperative is to understand the other through dialogue’ ? While I have no desire to advance my own branch of ethics (at least at this moment) it does seem that this severely limits the scope of ethics, which is why I brought up ‘exploitative’ in my earlier post. To unpack your Greek examples, were the ethical systems of ancient Greece truly an embrace of diversity or were they generally the embrace of the privileges of a certain class? Where were the barbaros? ‘Cosmopolitan’ can mean many things; many political systems grind the poor (and unborn?) under steel boots. Consequently, I see the limitation of the ethical in this regard as ultimately an embrace of the status quo. Not all Socratic dialogues end happy; Socrates divided as much as he united. Christ and the prophets?

    Now, suppose Novak doesn’t believe in dialogue at all but is simply asserting a normative traditional Judeo-Christian ethic. I’m not sure how the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ got invented, how one would attempt to create a normative ethic for 21st century America on the basis of selective passages from the Torah, or even if one did have a convincing ethic, how one might apply this to a racially and religiously diverse nation. So there are questions that need to be asked.

    But at the same time, I feel strongly that we cannot abandon the normative in favor of the anthropological.

    One additional word about ‘atheism.’ For the most part, we all work from tradition, atheists no less than theists, and I find no need to disparage them. Can one be good without ‘God’ ? Since proper definition of this last word is also a matter of debate, I prefer not to comment until terms are more tightly defined.

  9. The past 24 hours with own time to reflect in the rain near mad Ludwig’s lofty palaces. If I could I would drop the use of ‘exploitative’ earlier. The issue I think is more general — Socrates points out how persons use language tilted toward political objectives, rather than pursuit of truth. Politicians and pundits tilt at each other within this arena, but should intellectuals? Is it proper to use the academy as a venue to prosecute political ends? Part of my Burkean readings last night (at the expense of should-done homework) was to remind myself of what classic conservativism included, which was some sense of cultural cohesion. If you are correct, Novak departs from this and seems the worst for it.

    Of course, there may be a proper manner of dialogue and there may be proper ends for dialogue. You address the former (and to some extent Socrates adheres, besides being a bit stinky and ill-shod) but the latter and perhaps more important is that although Socrates’ points may be made gently, the result is often division — because there is a fundamental division in purpose. To restate our earlier discussions (or at least my conclusion from them) there are words tilting towards truth and there are words oriented toward obtaining a current political-social-good — which often is only the good of those at the top of the social mountain. When this latter case exists it can be called ‘exploitative.’

    We are right to be suspicious of political intent embodied in language. As a British friend never tires of pointing out, Americans are free from anything else — both political and religious spheres are ‘evangelical.’ Moreover, language is democratized in order to build coalitions for political ends. The open-minded Democrat exults at the many Black and Hispanic faces at his convention, disparages the Republican for the lack, and is overjoyed at the demographic shift away from White America — just as the Judeo-Christian Republican speaks angrily about ‘atheism,’ the loss in family values, or a ‘gay agenda.’

    Now you may argue that at the bottom of this there is something we all share and this is what we must discover (through dialogue). But what is this? I have my own answer, but would like to hear from you first, if you be so kind.

  10. Hmm, your restatement of what I’m getting at doesn’t ring quite right. Not so much, as you say, “The ethical imperative is to understand the other through dialogue,” as: ethics cannot quite be separated from dialog. Through dialog, ethics become transformed. The idea that dialog is something worth pursuing was the assumption I took from Novak. I happen to believe it is mostly true, though you’re perfectly right that such an imperative limits constructive ethics. There comes a point when we all must be and are communitarian. We are simply are too human for cosmopolitanism to really be what it claims (as you rightfully point out).

    Your second comment speaks about a Truth which dialog might serve to help us reach—a Platonic idea if I ever saw one. There’s some truth to this, I think, in the sense that dialog broadens our experience and teaches us. But I don’t have a great deal of optimism that dialog, whatever it is, means acquiring universal truths or discovering human universals (which can come in several kinds). Rather than the image of God or the image of science, the main thing dialog teaches is the image of interaction, which comes as we act out our indiscrete image.

    Less jargon: I mean something like Thomas Friedman’s idea from The Lexus and the Olive Tree that “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.” Or how asking for a cigarette from a stranger might make them invested in you. The experience forms a new picture of the world. A reevaluation. It becomes less easy to imagine the other as a different species, one that can be destroyed without committing murder.

    I’m not trying to say that a community’s ethics and dialog (or anthropology or whatever) are the same, only that they aren’t quite separate.

  11. Maybe “commerce” is a better word than “dialog.” It implies a fuller exchange, not just a silly chat.

  12. It seems you haven’t quite clarified your approach to ethics, for which I can only fathom a few options. Either (A) The scope of ethics is limited to that which facilitates dialog/commerce (B) Dialog/commerce is a prerequisite for a fuller ethical sense (that is, necessary but not sufficient) or (C) Dialog/commerce are neither sufficient nor necessary for ethical living. If I read you correctly you claim ~A in your most recent post, and ~C when responding to me earlier. Unless you wish to make a counterclaim, this leaves you with (B). But then what constitutes this ‘fuller’ sense? And what are our sources for composing it?

    The one maxim you bring forward is ‘peace.’ While I share the value generally, where is ‘peace’ when the exploitive situation I described earlier exists? The class of persons with money-power always claims they desire peace while they use violence to obtain more money-power, or at least to uphold the status quo? As the prophets stated violently, ‘peace, peace, but there is no peace;’ the same maxim holds with respect to American business interests in Burma. Here and everywhere there is a need for a strong voice to uphold that which we claim to hold dear (whether we believe it is self-evident or not). To hold hands with such persons in Burma (again, the ruling class) and say ‘we must start with dialog,’ is a circumspect way of saying we must forever consign the persons below them to chains. I thank God for Aung San Suu Kyi and others within the State Department who have been willing to take a stand for Truth, not simply the priority of commerce.

    In truth, the situation has not worsened to the point I expect it shall in a few years, when the rule of commercial
    enterprises will be all that is left of the American dream. Remember our discussion about your decision to include an essay advocating a non-pacifist pacifism because of the use of ‘oppressive violence,’ in a journal you formerly edited? Is not this also a lapse in the ‘communitarian ethic’ ?

  13. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I can’t seem to be clearer on these points. I do very much appreciate your pressing me on this, though. As you can imagine, there is some improvisation going on, and some discovering as I try to explain (as so often happens in dialog.) Let me try again.

    None of your options, A, B, or C, represents what I am trying to get at—though I’m seeing how you can get those readings. Let me try bullet points.

    • I have said repeatedly, I do not take dialog to be the goal of ethics or an end in itself—in the essay that started this, I merely took Novak at his word (or agreed conditionally) that, in the particular situation at hand, dialog might be worth trying out.

    • Just as dialog is not the goal of everything, neither is peace or commerce, or any such thing—I have said nothing about ultimate ends, which I consider to be the purview of communitarian ethical systems.

    • I speak on the one hand of commerce, dialog, peace, etc., as tools which are available to ethics, which ethics can choose to use or not use depending on its imperatives.

    • So when I speak of “conflating” ethics and dialog, perhaps the word is too strong; I only mean that there are times when the two become indistinct, and when dialog can unpredictably turn the ethical enterprise on its head—as any technology can transform those who use it.

    Since you’ve taken me so far, tell me more about where these deep concerns in you are coming from? It would help me to know what is driving you to push these points. What is at stake, my friend?

  14. No hard feelings from this end. Hopefully none from yours either.

    Nevertheless, I fail to see how one can have a discussion about the purpose of dialog without first specifying the ultimate ends toward which the dialog is oriented (which I believe we agree are the also the ultimate ends of ethics, communitarian or otherwise). Consequently, if your criticism of Novak is that he fails to initiate an honest and open dialogue, it seems to me that you must also provide some argument as to why he should do so (rather than a statement as to how ethics and dialog occasionally overlap — vague, although my agreement is substantial).

    But none of this is the ‘deep concerns;’ rather, my personal and greater concern is that commerce does become the ultimate reason and guideline for societal ethics as it has in the past and already is in the minds of many in the city which you happen to reside, which may be masked in polite language regarding ‘free markets.’ Along with other thinkers (P. Bobbit, J. Robb) I expect this to greatly intensify in the coming decade. I believe persons concerned with a broader spectrum of ethical behavior must be ready for these shifts and willing to make strong statements in favor of the truth (which, as Aung San Suu Kyi illustrates, is often not without its costs).

  15. No, no hard feelings, of course!

    I’ve described dialog as a tool—and therefore see no more reason to talk about ultimate ends than if we were talking about how best to build a mousetrap.

    If you say you are trying to trap a mouse but instead you hurt your finger, someone should point out that you’re going about it wrong. This is pretty much what I meant to say about Novak. He isn’t doing the very thing he set out to do.

    And I’m with you about markets. I think I’ve made clear I’m not trying to divinize dialog or commerce or any such thing. I don’t think that they will solve all of our problems for us in some messianic way, as some do. Rather, they are things to be used carefully precisely because their powers are beyond anyone’s control (as all the big in my city are learning today).

  16. Clearly I am attempting to badger you into making a stronger statement about the substance of communitarian ethics — for which both I admire your resistance — but also wish that there was something more to be said, at least with respect to a positive purpose for the humanities generally — which is ever more suspect in the eyes and minds of many.

    That said, your original statement regarding the ‘open, honest question’ does not imply it is an imperative for all, although I continue to guess that you think so, at least for this ethical debate. As do I.

  17. Maybe you’re looking for more than I can offer! But yes, you’re alluding to important things here. One thing this conversation did bring out is a dependence on communitarian ethics and the non-necessity of dialog as such.

    But, as you say, for the present purposes, the “open, honest” stuff is certainly to be striven for.

  18. Are not ‘diversity’ and ‘dialogue’ ultimately the same in purpose and intent, at least in the abstract? If we can not say what is the purpose of the latter, does this not mean that we also do not know the purpose of the former?

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