Politics & Policy

Victories — and Defeats

The dictator, the maple trees, Notre Dame, the pope, and the atheist.


What a thrilling victory for democracy was wrought in Venezuela on Sunday, December 2. Despite being blacked out on television and nearly drowned in a smothering red sea of banners and signs exhorting, “Vote Si! for Chavez,” the people of Venezuela voted No! to virtual dictatorship. It was a brave vote. A vote that seemed to have had in advance little chance of success. Nonetheless, democracy won, and dictatorship lost. A very hopeful sign for the world.


A victory for beauty has also just occurred, just a block down the street from us, and also about three blocks away — the blazing dark red of two small sugar-maple trees, such a deep red and so late in the season as we have never seen before. On December 2, even under a grey sky, these perfectly shaped trees still carried a full complement of leaves, brilliant against the tall, dark trunks of the almost denuded trees around them. To be sure, even the taller trees bore a fire of leaves until just a week ago. Never have we seen the brave leaves hold out so long, displaying for us weeks of gradually intensifying color.


Defeats are what we fans of Notre Dame football suffered through in unprecedented numbers during the season of 2007. No Notre Dame team in more than a century had lost so many times — nine out of twelve. Nonetheless, in some ways this might have been the most impressive season yet. The team was very young. They made a slew of mistakes, too many in almost every game. Right up to the last game, which they won (against Stanford, at Stanford), the Blue and Gold fumbled three times during the first quarter, two of those near the Stanford goal line, and stopping cold two highly probable scores.

At the end, though, the freshman quarterback was at last infusing his own passion into the game, and demonstrating remarkable self-possession. The freshman tailback gained more than 100 yards for the third straight week. The freshmen on the defensive and offensive lines began to show patches of real strength. Coach Weiss seemed duly humbled, willing to learn, and protective of his guys. After a nerve-racking loss to Navy in the third overtime, the whole Notre Dame team trotted across the field to congratulate the Navy team and their delirious fans in the visitors’ corner of the stadium. That was a show of class and generosity of spirit quite moving to all who saw it.

And I did get to see it — plus the losses up at Penn State earlier in the year, and Boston College. This was the first time since my high-school years on the Notre Dame campus (1947-51) that I had seen so many games in one season.

One of the great things about sports is learning to lose. Anyone who has played a lot of games knows what it is like to lose a good share of them, including some heartbreaking important games. It is not so much that such experiences “build character” — rather, they let you live out the fact that what feels like death, the taste of ashes in one’s mouth, is, after the pain subsides, only an episode. Resurrection follows. One can at least strive mightily for that, even in this one arena.


For the first week of Advent, when the Christian calendar begins a New Year, one month before the secular calendar, the very learned and intelligent Pope Benedict XVI sent round a Letter on Hope, as the greatest gift Jewish and Christian faiths brought into Western (and now universal) history. The expectation of a future better than the past. The knowledge that the Creator of all things has invited human beings into His friendship, not by coercion but by their own free will. This gift is better than any other on earth.

Recently, I visited the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, to listen to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza on atheism. This is the first debate that I have ever heard Christopher lose. In it, I heard Christopher describe his own view of the world, which may be abbreviated as follows: It was just 100,000 years ago that humans finally appeared on this planet. On average, these poor creatures died by age 25, and suffered (often horribly) from disease, earthquake, flood, famine, and cyclones — not to mention murder and warfare. Only after some 96,000 years does Jewish history begin, and only after some 98,000 years does Christian “salvation” come. For all those thousands of years the Creator/Designer left human beings to suffer. Then, even after Judaism and Christianity arrive, the suffering continues almost unabated. In addition, these poor human beings are badly designed. They have developed too much adrenaline, and the frontal lobes of their brains are too small. All these together leave humans in a bleak condition in a bleak world, and with very little hope. Who is responsible for this bad design? Hitchens blames the Creator.


Benedict addresses these two points and many others. Benedict agrees that the condition of humans before the Jewish and Christian news of God’s intentions was as bleak as Hitchens says. The idea of progress was not present in consciousness. The idea had not yet been born that the Creator is a Person of goodness, reason, and friendship, especially disposed to those creatures He created free (as Jefferson noted). And that God wanted to invite humans into His friendship. The idea that each human is free in his individual conscience — not the conscience solely of city, tribe, or even family — had not been introduced. The idea that the human mind is proportioned to the world as it is, and capable, in the image of the Creator, of creating new inventions, discoveries, and means of progress in history, had not yet been grasped by the mind of humans.

Yet, Benedict notes, there is still more than this. Even the human capacity for invention and technological progress, we find, is not a consistent bearer of hope. Humans remain both free and also drawn to self-love, arrogance of power, irrational ambitions, and moral decadence (see Federalist 6). Thus, at any time even instruments of great good can be turned into instruments of unparalleled evil. Of this we had much evidence during the 20th century.

But humans need a reason to hope for justice, truth, and love. They need a reason to go on. In dire circumstances, this reason must be able to count on more than the human capacity to deliver. For the reality is that all human beings suffer from deficiencies and evils of all kinds. Yet the horrific evils that millions experienced in the last hundred years required more than logic, science, and crazy utopian ideas. Hitchens and others are free to accept or to reject the hope that Judaism and Christianity implant in the souls of many. The fact is that this Jewish and Christian hope, once it became the driving force of Mediterranean and European civilization, produced an unrivaled and enduring burst of optimism, inquiry, and stunning progress.

The atheism of the last two centuries, Benedict observes, is distinctive in its moralism. It chooses the pretense of being more moral than the Creator of all things. It holds that the Creator ought to have come up with a better design. They would have done it more brilliantly. Brave new world, and all.

Judaism and Christianity have the advantage of dealing with the world as it is. They take it with all its hurt and folly, stupidity and egotism, natural disasters and disasters by human hands. Both faiths prepare their daughters and sons to face a vale of tears, to meet much suffering equably, to keep their hopes unbroken no matter what, and to show courage worthy of the children of the True God. For both faiths, suffering is an irremovable fact of life. Nonetheless, suffering may be alleviated by tender care for the poor and the ill, and suffering can transform human beings from empty suits to practitioners of heroic service to others. Judaism and Christianity have given hundreds of millions of human beings–in the Socratic word — “chest.”

Since both the light of reason and the light of faith emanate from the same Source, the intelligent Creator of all things and would-be Friend of His conscious creatures, they cannot in principle contradict one another. If they appear to do so, either those using reason or those using faith are making mistakes, and need to go back to see where the errors arose. This very check-and-balance — this creative rivalry — sparks a remarkable thrust forward at the heart of our culture.

Hope, an overriding confidence in betterment (personal and communal), is a powerful driving force. Even many who claim to be atheists retain at least this gift from the infusion of Judaism and Christianity into the heart of our culture.

Benedict praises atheists for many of their intentions and achievements. He points to experiences the human race has endured in our time to call attention to the inadequacies of atheism. He proposes what billions have found a more promising path.


Those of us who hoped for the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy, and predicted it early in the conclave, now have in this encyclical on Hope, and his earlier letter on Caritas, more than enough to fulfill our high expectations. Both “letters to the world” confront central crises of our time, for whose solution nihilism, relativism, and atheism provide far too little help.


On the subject of victory and defeat, bleakness versus hope, here is my favorite story from Peanuts: Charlie Brown is swinging the bat — strike one, strike two, strike three. Lucy tries to comfort him: “That’s all right, Charlie Brown. You win some, you lose some.”

Charlie Brown thinks it over. “That would be wonderful!”

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.


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