Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions about God, by Michael Novak

(Pocket Books, 1998, 321 pp., $24)

Atheologian is never accepted in his own home.

Prominent theologian Michael Novak is now moving into the pleasant evening of his career, in which accolades and honors come frequently. He is the sort of author whose books are adorned, as this one is, with the glowing endorsements of cardinals (John o'Connor), archbishops (Rembert Weakland), Harvard professors (Mary Ann Glendon) and (top this!) papal press secretaries (Joaquin Navarro-Valls).

But his daughter can bring him up short, telling him that his well-crafted answers to her questions about God are “pretty abstract” and lack a “practical conclusion.” It can be safely wagered that the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize in Religion does not often hear that.

It is an occasion for gratitude that Michael Novak is, aside from many other things, Jana Novak's father. He is a father who earnestly wants to hand on the faith of his fathers to his daughter, a bright, twentysomething Duke graduate who no longer considers herself Catholic.

This fascinating book gets started when Jana, resistant to conversations about religion in the past, faxes her dad some questions about religion and morality. Michael answers, Jana objects, Michael tries a different approach, Jana's questions become at once deeper and more precise, and the exchange continues until it becomes a book.

Tell Me Why is the result: a father who has mastered the Catholic tradition writes apologetics for his daughter, who despite her Duke education (or perhaps because of it) knows precious little about what Catholicism is all about.

“I want to do the best thinking and writing I can, because as far as I'm concerned this is your inheritance, or the most important part of it,” begins Michael. “I received nothing more valuable from my mother and father—and their mothers and fathers, and so on back to the twelfth century—than the life of God through the sacraments of Jesus Christ.”

Jana asks penetrating questions, and persists until they are answered in a manner she finds satisfying. To be honest, her initial list of questions, wherein the various controversies of sexual morality played too large a role, was disappointing. Such questions, while important, are really rather boring compared to more fundamental questions about why religion is important, how to choose a Church in which to belong, the link between faith in God and practicing that faith, and what demands the Christian vocation makes in terms of family life, professional life, and the pursuit of sanctity. Though still a young woman, Jana manifests her maturity in her decision to devote most of the book to taking up these compelling questions before turning to the contemporary excitations about sex.

Michael's task of handing on the faith faces obstacles that are as new as the faith is old. As is fitting for an exchange that began with a fax, Jana represents quite well the religious temperament of her generation. It is marked by a sort of mild atheism, or at least agnosticism, which is open to supernatural claims—as long as they do not claim the status of ultimate truths, or worse, make moral claims upon their adherents. The contemporary separation of morals from faith is evident as a theme through Jana's questions and means that Michael faces the difficult challenge of doing, to coin a phrase, “so what” apologetics.

An earlier generation of apologists—Chesterton, Knox, Lewis—assumed that if the intellectual argument was won, then everything else follows. In this, we found traditional apologetics along the following line: God exists, God creates all things with a purpose, God creates man for beatitude, God wishes to save man in a social way because he is a social creature—ergo, you must belong to the Church which God established, and follow its teachings, in order to be saved.

To which Jana's generation says: “So what?” Jana has little problem believing that God exists. But what does that have to do with the Church? And even if one should belong to the Church, what does that have to do with homosexuality or women's ordination or whether I should have children?

“So what” apologetics is not for those lacking in perseverance. Readers are therefore lucky to have as their guide a father who is not going to give up on his daughter. It is endearing that the different sections of the text are introduced as either “Jana” or “Dad,” not “Michael.”

Dad does not go to work unaided. He calls upon the tradition, liberally sprinkling the text with quotations, long and short, Christian and otherwise, that speak to the problem at hand. We hear Dante on hell, Newman on heaven, plenty of Scripture, and perhaps the most beautiful quotation in the tradition on tradition itself: Charles Péguy likening the handing on of the faith to the holy water, passed from fingertip to fingertip, by which we bless ourselves, our babies, and our dead. Michael presents the arguments in modern language, but does justice to what we would find in Augustine or Aquinas or John Paul II (the chapters on Christian sexual love and womanhood are marvelous).

There are also original twists. In the discussion of women's ordination, Michael highlights the importance of Christ's maleness by arguing that the Sermon on the Mount would have been unre-markable in the culture of the day if delivered by a woman.

While he adapts himself to the newness of his daughter's questions, Michael does not flinch from making demands that underscore the urgency of the task. “Why, you ask, is religion, any religion, important?” he writes. “My simple answer is: Because it is true. If it isn't true you shouldn't accept it. You wouldn't want to turn to religion merely for comfort, security, or peace of mind.”

The book allows us no happy ending, no dramatic return to the faith—though life generously provides one (see InPerson, Page 1). As such, many parents who find themselves in the same situation as Michael Novak will see echoes of their unfulfilled hopes here.

It is hard to think of a more important book published this past year for Catholic families. The great Catholic tradition, the Novaks tell us, is there precisely to help us do what tradition means, i.e., to hand on the faith. That tradition is not static. It is being enriched all the time, even as a theologian takes the time to answer the questions of a daughter clever enough, and courageous enough, to ask her father to tell her why.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian of the Diocese of Kingston, Ontario.