Michael Novak, in his stirring memoir of a journey from left to right, devotes an entire chapter to community, as I noted yesterday. He writes: “One of life’s most time-consuming tasks is to achieve disagreement with an ideological opposite. Without blinking, you might object; ‘It’s not had to disagree. Heck! Most people do it all the time” (282). But aren’t disagreements really inevitable? After all we have different understandings of terms, widely varying perspectives on history, and unique sets of fears and rosy scenarios that we all entertain? But, says Michael Novak, “We are most often like two ships passing in the night” (282). Is he right? Could this really be true? I think so.
One of America’s most wise and important Catholic thinkers in the last century was the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. Novak says that Murray once said two people cannot (to use Novak’s description of Murray’s point) come to a “real disagreement without sticking to the argument for a very long time–maybe long enough to work through a case of brandy together as they ruminate. Patience and time. Careful dissection of differences, endless good will. And, if possible, infinite good humor” (282). Well said!
In politics, as in most church life, we have to find ways to live together in painful toleration. Novak cites Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill as an example of how this worked out for the common good of America during the 1980s. In the end there are few things that we can totally agree upon, some that we can agree upon over time and some that do not give us enough time to work them out easily. So how do we proceed? Novak says, “We do this by finding the point where we began missing each other. I like the lesson of my teacher Reinhold Niebuhr: In my own views, there is always some error; and in the views of those I disagree with, there is always some truth” (283). Niebuhr’s perspective on truth and error is one I encourage every Christian to humbly adopt.
Having said this Novak confesses that he is more depressed and discouraged today than at any previous point in his lifetime. Why? So many are determined to stop talking and to try and run over each other. He cites, of all things, those who embrace the pro-life position, which Novak himself holds as a devout Catholic. This surprised me at first but the more I read and re-read his words the further I was struck by his insight. “I seldom hear pro-life people, for example, make an effort to understand what those who are pro-choice are actually thinking, or try to probe their reasons for that position. The reverse is also true. And I believe I have never watched a television news program in which the time is taken to hear out both sides calmly. On such matters the temptation is to be absolutist: yes or no” (283). What this is, in the end, is “outright disrespect” (283). But the defining characteristic of a healthy civilization is the willingness of a people to engage in conversation.
In almost every modern political argument both sides think that we face the same major crises. Perhaps the way forward is to put these crises on the table and then listen to one another discuss them much more carefully. Having done this we can begin modest negotiation. Perhaps this can be followed by some broad strategies that address what we actually do agree upon. Novak concludes, as if he is writing about the last five-plus years of President Obama’s administration and our badly divided Congress, “Anything beats sitting passive while crises shoot at us by the dozen” (italics his, 284)!
In describing the issue of same-sex marriage/civil unions Novak seems to uphold the moral definitions of his Christian faith while at the same time he invites a state solution that allows for a new understanding of human relationships. Honestly, you will read very few Catholic conservative thinkers who are as reasonable in their approach to this divisive issue.
Novak wants to see community rebuilt because he knows, from his own journey of eight-plus decades, that in the end this is the only way minds can truly change and lives be joined in solving problems. This is not your everyday Fox News contributor. Novak is not interested in slogans and hot-button “single issues.” He is interested in our entire culture and our collective inability to deal with serious issues in community. While I share this concern for the political well-being of America I am even more concerned for the well-being of our churches where the same disease is destroying us at our core.
Later, after talking about climate change, Novak writes: “It wouldn’t hurt each of us to step back for a moment and try to imagine the shortcomings or downsides of our own position” (288). And again: “Maybe a little caution before we make up our minds definitively is actually wiser note that is more prudent, humane, and appropriately cynical” (288). He then questions why the left always sees the solution to issues, like climate control, as lying in the powers of government using coercion. This is a very good question for both sides but especially for the left with its lofty confidence in big government solutions.
A major issue facing America, and the world at large, is the growing rate of poverty. But this is not the only such issue that threatens us–envy, or covetousness, is another. The left, notes Novak, almost always appeals to some form of morality on the “grounds of compassion” (292). For the left community is carried out by the agency of the federal government, at least in many cases. Quoting the acceptance speech of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Novak shows how the left adopted the idea of community when Dukakis quoted from John Winthrop. The problem with this new philosophy, writes Novak, is that “the idea of community (in most of human history) has been tribal, familial, clan centered” (293). The Democrats sought to link this ancient emotive cry for community with the powers and activity of the federal government. The stories Dukakis used in his acceptance speech are almost all about private individuals helping others but the links Dukakis made are almost all connected to the need for a larger (thus growing) federal government. In the end Novak seems right in his conclusion. The left’s ideas are misplaced and ineffective in delivering what they promise. The greatness promised is “self-defeating . . . [and the] consequences are negative” (293-94).
Old conservatives, argues Novak, spoke incessantly of the individual but newer ones speak the language of “work, family and neighborhood” (295). What they have mastered, in many cases, is the “concepts of mediating structures and subsidiarity . . . [and] they strive to bring social healing to lonely individuals” (295). I believe this is right. In this sense the terms conservative and liberal have shifted over the course of Novak’s lifetime. In a real sense his “old” liberalism is a lot closer to the idea of community he now holds than that of his own party that left him in the 1970s.
The narrative that appeals to me here is Novak’s idea about community, and disagreement, can easily be applied to the church. Conservative and liberal are designators that increasingly have less and less meaning in our modern context. What is clearly evident is that we do not know how to practice community in civil, conversational and respectful ways. With denominationalism collapsing all around us we are threatened by a rapid descent into chaos, a chaos rooted in both our private and public behavior which refuses to entertain the possibility that the other person might be right about an issue that we have strong beliefs about. Since we are unwilling to engage in meaningful conversation, especially of the kind that dialogues about real disagreements, our churches are threatened with decline and increasing irrelevance to a new generation that will not support what we call church.
I honestly did not expect that a memoir about Michael Novak’s shift from left to right would speak to such a broad range of important issues when I picked up the book at my local library. I especially did not expect that his personal journey would intersect with mine in terms of the impact that all of these issues have had upon the church in America. This alone made this book an important read for me. I virtually read it twice, something I rarely do at this stage of life. I commend it to you if you lean to the left but I especially commend it to you if you lean to the right since you will rarely read a conservative who thinks and writes like Michael Novak. You will disagree with him but you can learn so much by debating with him and then trying to refute him with serious thoughts and arguments. I dare you!
This book is an intellectual gem, at least as memoirs go. It is well written and, at times, quite moving. Maybe this is why liberal writers praise the book so highly, a fact that I noted last week.