Still Waking Up: Michael Novak, 20 Years Later

Twenty years have passed since Michael Novak delivered his Templeton Prize address, “Awakening From Nihilism.” It is, in my humble estimation, one of the best and most insightful analyses about modernity’s standoff with God, truth, and freedom. Though “Awakening From Nihilism” is most concerned with learning the lessons from the past–specifically, the tyranny and bloodshed of the 20th century–it also carries stunningly prescient observations about the complex yet intimate relationship that freedom and human flourishing have with theism and theistic moral categories.

My question is, have we fully awoken from nihilism’s deadly sleep? I would argue that, while explicit expressions of nihilism are not the norm in American culture, we still are not awake. Novak’s most important point in his address was that the powers that assaulted democracy through war and oppression were also assaulting truth in the process. For Novak, jettisoning of truth inevitably led to jettisoning of liberty and human dignity.

To obey truth is to be free, and in certain extremities nothing is more clear to the tormented mind, nothing more vital to the survival of self- respect, nothing so important to one’s sense of remaining a worthy human being-of being no one’s cog, part of no one’s machine, resister to death against the kingdom of lies. In fidelity to truth lies human dignity.

Novak addressed this to “vulgar relativism,” which he correctly perceived as anthemic of the emerging postmodern culture. Is relativism as prevalent today as it was in 1994? I’m not sure. Certainly the emerging ethnic and religious landscape of America has afforded multiculturalists the luxury of weaponizing pluralism from a democratic reality into an ethical mandate. And it is doubtless true that relativism, particularly in sex, is the most marketable worldview for mass media.

However, I think talk of relativism obscures what is really going on in civil and religious culture. Christians and other traditionalists just a few years ago often spoke of postmodern relativism as if it were attainable. They wrote about Christianity’s role in stemming the tide of relativism, or about rediscovering the role of truth and values in a culture where “everything goes.” This was a mistake. It was not a mistake to talk about relativism and how to respond to it. Rather, it is a mistake to speak of relativism as if it’s actually a live option for civilization. Relativism is just a word, like “infinity,” that exists in the universe of concepts and nowhere else. Relativism never has and never will happen.

Christianity–the authentic, biblical, historic kind–presumes that relativism is false. It doesn’t offer proofs or detailed axiological arguments. “In the beginning God” is a sentence that contains every possible negation of relativism that can be conjured.

I believe that what Novak and so many others addressed as relativism was really an emperor with no clothes. It called itself relativism to get a seat at the table, but really it was a New Morality. The New Morality is nihilism after it declares itself. Those who believe that nihilism and relativism go hand in hand would do well to remember that even Nietzsche believed in superman and thought his arrival would signal eschatological significance. Nihilism may lean on the crutch of relativism for a time, but it walks erect on feet of New Morality. Relativism says “Hath God really said?” New Morality says, “I am god and I hath said.” Nihilism finally has taken off its mask and revealed itself, not as atheism but idolatry.

It is a profound mistake to suppose that the postmodern man wants to be godless. If this were true he would not seek to punish those who offended his godlessness. He would learn “toleration,” a word that implies something disagreeable that is nonetheless allowed to exist. We don’t “tolerate” that which we enjoy, agree to and endorse. We only tolerate that which we reject. Yet New Morality is not interested in toleration; it wants justice, justice for all those whom (in its view) have been oppressed and marginalized and–worst of all–catechized into submission and restraint.

The New Morality comes fully equipped as an entire worldview machine. It has theology, a kind of secular process theology wherein humanity recognizes that the old testaments of the Divine lead to discrimination. What’s needed is a fresh conception of God as a pacifistic activist whose primary concern is preserving human autonomy and rights. This kind of god is agreeable to all and is welcome in the public square, so long as he arrives unaccompanied by tradition or historic doctrine. The New Morality also has its own anthropology, but it’s a generous sort. You can disagree that personhood is simply animate matter featuring chemical processes and consciousness, so long as your conclusion–that the purpose of humanity is to build a better here and now, for tomorrow we die–is the same. And the ageless question, “Why evil and suffering,” also gets an answer from New Morality: Because human beings have spent millenia learning from inferior versions of themselves (aka, ancestral tradition). Peace on earth will be achieved as humans (not men and women, for gender is oppressive and cruel) finally abandon the beliefs and rituals of the past and adopt wholly progressive lifestyles.

Now we can see the nihilistic slip under the emperor’s new clothes. New Morality differs from the relativism that Novak addressed only in its honesty.

As Gandalf said of Sauron and Saruman, “For all their cunning we have one advantage.” Christians stand upon the rock of truth and reality. Christianity is incarnational fact, telling a Gospel about God and man that is both internally consistent and externally explanatory. Most of all, Christians carry inside of them the living Christ of the cosmos, the animate Spirit of the resurrected Son of God who is still at work in this world that was created for Him, by Him, and through Him. The reality of Christ is seen through his church, “spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.” It is the church that it is a living witness to the faucet of light inside the cavern of nihilism and New Morality.

 And yet, even in prison, truth is a master before whom a free man stands erect. In obeying the evidence of truth, no human being is humiliated rather, he is in that way alone ennobled. In obeying truth, we find the way of liberty marked out “as a lamp unto our feet.” In obeying truth, a man becomes aware of participating in something greater than himself, which measures his inadequacies and weaknesses.

As New Morality continues to sponsor the showdown between man, God, and truth, we will see something happen. As Adam runs farther from his Maker he runs farther from himself. He is never less what he should be than when he is hiding from God. New Morality promises human happiness and dignity and empowerment if only we will look away from revealed truth and look to ourselves. Yet the opposite is true: We will only become more human, more fully ourselves as we submit to what is true and good and final and real. Nothing in this universe confers more dignity to a human being than the knowledge and obedience of truth. The opposite is also true: Nothing robs us of our humanity more than believing in lies. It is not sectarianism or even social utility that is at stake in the war for the souls of people, it is personhood itself.

I am grateful toMichael Novak for trying to wake us up from nihilism’s dreadful slumber. I fear we are again falling off. Or perhaps we never fully awoke in the first place. Waking is, after all, a gradual process. Momentarily opening the eyes is no good if we stay in bed and simply shut reality out yet again.

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