Those of you who found yesterday’s excerpts from Michael Novak inspiring (Americans “live like pigs”) might also enjoy the following, from his same graduation address, in which he solves the problem of evil by claiming it isn’t a problem at all. In fact, according to Novak, suffering is the very purpose of life, the fire in which our souls are refined:
“Another truth on which Jewish and Christian life is based is this: God made us all, every one of us, to suffer. Even the good people, like Job, suffer. In fact, the Lord directly tells us, looking right into our eyes, what to expect from Him: “Those He loves, He makes to suffer.” Look at His Son, the Suffering Servant Who best shows us what the inner life of God is.” 1
Yes, the inner life of God is all about suffering. All that other stuff that Jesus preached—love, forgiveness, compassion—was window dressing; what Jesus really wanted to show us was that we all have to suffer and die. If he could have, he’d have climbed up on the cross directly from the manger, bypassing all that pointless preaching in between. So if you’re not suffering, it can only be because God doesn’t love you.
“Why does God do this? Why does He make the good suffer? I remember the sweetest person in our family, a cousin with a difficult husband and darling children, who quite young was stricken with cancer, and for months and months wasted away in front of our eyes. She was as thin as a child when at last she was released from her pain. Very little left of her.”
Novak then adds to this a description of his wife’s painful death from cancer, before insisting that
“Our God, the Jewish and Christian God, is not a “nice” God. He treats us like adults. He expects us to be brave, and to go on loving others even under the lash of great pain. He set the example Himself. He told us that each of us, too, would have to take up our own cross, and die with Him. He didn’t beat around the bush. He told us exactly what to expect.”
He didn’t, however, tell us why, so Michael Novak will explain:
“But why on earth is the world made this way, not some nicer way, without evil persons, without some horribly evil outcomes? Without so much suffering? Without little girls sobbing in their beds all night? That’s what Ivan Karamazov asked. I notice this in all literature and in all history: Heroines and the heroes suffer greatly. Often, to prove the height and depth of their humanity, they have to die.”
Ah: the point of suffering and death is emotional depth and dramatic resonance! Of course, what often makes the suffering and death of literary characters heroic—and, for that matter, what often ennobles the suffering of actual human beings—is that it’s intended to relieve or prevent the suffering and death of their loved ones or even of total strangers (“It is a far, far better thing that I do…”). They don’t suffer and die so much as an example for others to follow, but in hopes of sparing others, as much as possible, the same ordeal.
Michael Novak continues, waxing poetic:
“Our lives are a little like a smoldering twig fallen down inside a fire. Sometimes the ember has to die, to give out one last brilliance, before going cold forever. As the priest-poet writes—the poet I love best—in our fireplace we watch “blue-bleak embers fall, gall themselves, gash gold-vermillion.” To show a very great beauty, to prove an overpowering love, to force up a goodness refined by fire as gold is fired, the hero, the saint, the lover cannot—cannot—“gash gold-vermillion”—except in suffering and death.”2
For Michael Novak, esteemed Catholic theologian, suffering is not so much to be endured as to be celebrated. God apparently could find no other way to refine our souls but to put them through the fire. Of course, this seems to conflict with Catholic doctrine about Original Sin, which doctrine claims we were created to live blissfully with God only to have that bliss disturbed by Adam and Eve whose sin brought suffering and death into the world. I don’t know Mr. Novak’s position on Original Sin, but I do know you can’t have it both ways: either human beings brought suffering upon themselves contrary to God’s intentions, or God created human beings to suffer from the outset.
“That is certainly the rule that God Himself follows, that He laid down for His own Son, that nearly every great love has proved. That is the only way the Lord Creator could see a way to teach us that the inner secret of all of creation, the way that creation “shows forth the glory of God,” is by suffering love, by death. In dying, beauty “gashes gold-vermillion.”
All in all, that’s quite the pep talk. I can only imagine that the high-school graduates to whom Novak addressed these sentiments were inspired to go out and start suffering. They certainly wouldn’t feel inspired to alleviate suffering, since Novak didn’t so much as suggest that, much less to rage against suffering the way Job did. Novak fails to mention Job's complaints about his unjust treatment, much less the fact that those complaints went unanswered by God. In fact, and speaking of the Book of Job, Novak here resembles Job’s “false comforters” who desperately sought to find meaning in Job’s trials, and whose rationalizations were dismissed by none other than God Himself.3
A bit of advice: if you’re looking for a commencement speaker, I’d think twice before inviting Michael Novak.
2 The “priest-poet” to whom Novak coyly refers is Gerard Manley Hopkins.
3 As Michael Novak certainly knows, Job suffered--and his children died--so that God could win a bet with Satan. This is not the most exalted or the most attractive theodicy on offer. In fact, the Book of Job is no theodicy at all, despite attempts, ancient and modern, to spin it that way.