No One Sees God
The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers
Doubleday, $23.95, 336 pp.
Energized by the recent success of books by such vigorous atheists as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, Michael Novak returns to a theme he first wrote about decades ago in books such as Belief and Unbelief (1966) and Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove (1978). That theme is our human incapacity to understand completely who God is. Because of this incapacity, every authentic searcher, whether or not he or she is a believer, will undergo some version of the Dark Night that St. John of the Cross wrote about. Novak’s early work was very much in dialogue with the thought of existentialists such as Albert Camus, but, in its analysis of the human drive to know, its main debt was to the late Bernard Lonergan, Novak’s former teacher. Novak’s new book on the subject, No One Sees God, rehearses many of the same arguments—and draws from many of the same sources—he used in his first books.
Novak does not seem to have read much theology in the intervening decades. That is not meant as a damning criticism, since Novak’s more recent work has taken him in other directions. Still, it must be said that his response to the contemporary atheist seems at once comfortably conventional and totally innocent of the work of contemporary theologians who have tried to recover the apophatic tradition, which emphasizes our inability to define God. This tradition has a genealogy...