Like many others, I was grieved to learn of Michael Novak’s passing. Though I had never met him nor corresponded with him, I did feel in a very real way that he had been my teacher. My classroom with him had been his Templeton Prize address, “Awakening From Nihilism.” I was five years old in August 1994 when Novak delivered it, but his wisdom has not faded with time. Reading the address as a college student in the late 2000s, I found its prophetic witness every bit as true to the world I lived in as if it had been delivered that day.
What I found in “Awakening From Nihilism” was (at last) a coherent, fully-formed case for truth. In my evangelical education, every teacher I learned from cared about and loved truth, but few could explain why truth mattered to freedom. My evangelical teachers stressed, rightly, that without regard for the truth, Christ and his kingdom were inaccessible. But for many of my peers, the pursuit of truth was—and is—diametrically opposed to the pursuit of freedom. “Truth” is often received as a frozen, cerebral word; “love,” “justice,” and “authenticity,” by contrast, are the words of the artist and humanist. Even those in my life who knew that truth mattered seemed resigned to this mentality, appealing to truth over and against freedom in the name of religious obligation, not human flourishing.
In his lecture, Michael Novak destroyed this false dichotomy. He destroyed it with history, deftly observing that the horrors of the twentieth century were the fault not of theocrats (as the New Atheists repeatedly insist) but of relativists. Murderous authoritarianism, Novak said, assaulted the truth long before it assaulted the people. The gas chamber and the gulag were indeed monuments to a superstition, but not the superstition the postmodernists claimed.
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. …
What those learned who suffered in prison in our time—what Dostoevsky learned in prison in the Tsar’s time—is that we human beings do not own the truth. Truth is not “merely subjective,” not something we make up, or choose, or cut to today’s fashions or the morrow’s pragmatism—we obey the truth. We do not “have” the truth, truth owns us, truth possesses us. Truth is far larger and deeper than we are. Truth leads us where it will. It is not ours for mastering.
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.
If in truth we find human dignity, then the reverse is also true: Where truth is cast aside, so also is human dignity. This is the paradox missed by the architects and missionaries of the sexual revolution. But not for much longer. Though vulgar relativism found a friend in moralistic therapeutic deism, the assault of the sexual revolution on both body and soul is becoming less obscured. Pornography consumes young men and spits them out, weak and withdrawn. Abortion, long laden with politically correct euphemisms like “safe, legal, and rare,” is taking off that mask, as Planned Parenthood contractors sift through human anatomy and murmur, “It’s a boy.” Radical gender ideology is sexualizing even elementary school spaces, while cultural elites cheer the surgical self-mutilation of teens. This is tyranny, not freedom.
Nor is it still relativism. The authoritarians of whom Novak spoke exchanged the truth for a lie, and then mandated the lie. Isn’t this precisely what we see in our supposedly “tolerant” age? Threatening freedom of conscience in the name of sexual freedom may seem to be a contradiction that any sane person would catch. But, as Novak reminded us, “freedom” is mere pretense for those who reject the claims of truth. Relativism was always meant to be deposed by New Morality. Relativism says, “Hath God really said?” New Morality says, “I am god and I hath said.” Those who advocated for a moral revolution against truth have no right to be shocked at the thuggish absolutism of New Moralists. Novak warned them: “To surrender the claim of truth upon humans is to surrender the earth to thugs”—thugs, whether they run nations and prison camps, or school boards and circuit courts.
This was the light I had waited for. Truth was not opposed to human flourishing and happiness. In fact, only truth can foment it. To escape from truth is, as Francis Schaeffer wrote, to escape from reason itself, and into the waiting arms of strongmen.
Is there hope? Yes indeed. The title of Novak’s address is important: “Awakening From Nihilism.” Awakening is possible. It is possible because virtue is not the creation of ideologues or the exclusive property of the state. Rather, virtue is real, objective, and available to all, because it is grounded in God. “The free society is moral, or not at all,” Novak said, and our hope for a moral and self-restrained culture is based not on humanistic self-worship, but on God himself: “The human person alone is shaped to the image of God. This God loves humans with a love most powerful. It is this God who draws us, erect and free, toward Himself, this God Who, in Dante’s words, is ‘the Love that moves the sun and all the stars.’”
We can awake from nihilism because there is ever and always One who is never asleep. The promise of autonomous self-creation through the casting aside of truth is a lullaby, but the hope of forgiveness and resurrection and new creation is the morning dawn. For those of us who want our generation to wake up from nihilism, we must do more than grab the sleepers. We must shout, over the slumber, “Awake, O sleeper, and Christ will shine on you.”
Samuel D. James serves as communications specialist to the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.