Renowned theologian, author of 25 books, nationally syndicated columnist, many years professor at Stanford, Syracuse, and Notre Dame, U.S. ambassador, and recipient of the 24th Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, Michael Novak recently faced a new challenge: bringing the truths of the faith to his own adult daughter Jana. The result of their dialogue is Tell Me Why(see review, Page 10), one of the most compelling religious books of the past year. Novak recently discussed the experience with Registercorrespondent Raymond de Souza.
Renowned theologian, author of 25 books, nationally syndicated columnist, many years professor at Stanford, Syracuse, and Notre Dame, U.S. ambassador, and recipient of the 24th Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, Michael Novak recently faced a new challenge: bringing the truths of the faith to his own adult daughter Jana. The result of their dialogue is Tell Me Why(see review, Page 10), one of the most compelling religious books of the past year. Novak recently discussed the experience with Register correspondent Raymond de Souza.
De Souza: Your most recent book,Tell Me Why, written with your daughter Jana, is a deeply personal exchange in which you try to answer her questions about the faith. How did the exchange begin?
Novak: Jana, in her mid-20s, thinking about her future life, possibly getting married, possibly having children, began asking me for the first time questions about religion. She had been resistant to conversations in that area earlier in her life. At first I handed her some books that I thought would be helpful: Chesterton, de Lubac, even the Catechism. But she found these unhelpful—whether she even opened them I am not sure.
But she pursued me with a long fax, listing 15 or 16 different questions that came tumbling out one after another. This reached me when I was in Krakow, Poland, for a summer program. I was delighted to receive this and sat down immediately to answer her. I began to answer the questions one at a time, and then she said that she had more questions. I would send her what I wrote, and she would begin to criticize it, or in some cases, reject it.
She would ask me to reformulate my answers because I was not answering the parts of the questions that she thought were most important. In some cases, that was because I thought before I could answer the question I had to deal with some presuppositions. I said that this was a bit like climbing a mountain: You do have to go back and forth a few times; you don't go straight to the top.
But she kept after me that I was not really on the right track. She kept saying that the places where she was and where her questions were coming from were different than what I was expecting. She felt confident in her questions because she was discussing these matters with her friends. She felt she was speaking for more than just herself,
In every generation there are those who leave the faith. The Scripture itself tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness grasps it not. Every single person has to meet the challenge of the faith. God addresses himself to every soul, and every one has to reply for himself or herself, and no one else can do it for you.
although she was speaking for herself—the questions have her accent, and she took responsibility for what she wrote.
When did you decide to publish this exchange as a book?
I realized that I was going to have to invest a lot of time in this, and that I would have to take time away from other projects. After a couple of exchanges I asked her whether she would like to think of this project as a book. She said yes. So we had that in mind from early on, although the basic questions were already set at the beginning. We found ourselves in a long process—over a year to the finished product—and it was a joint product throughout. In fact, after we had reached about 400 manuscript pages, Jana went through and cut about 100 pages, feeling that those pages were wasted effort that did not address exactly her questions.
This book is about a daughter who does not consider herself Catholic, despite being raised in a Catholic home and having a father who has devoted his life to the study of the faith as a theologian. In this sense you have experienced the pain of many parents whose children no longer practice the faith.
That's true. But in every generation there are those who leave the faith. The Scripture itself tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness grasps it not. Every single person has to meet the challenge of the faith. God addresses himself to every soul, and every one has to reply for himself or herself, and no one else can do it for you.
I used to teach my students—and I said it to my children—that they had to go into a kind of darkness and find the faith on their own. They might be led into that at a time they didn't choose and in a way that they didn't see. They could learn about the faith from their parents and their schools, but then they would have to make it their own.
Now one point that I didn't understand was how bad Catholic education and Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes had become. It surprised me to discover how little my children learned about theology and what we would call catechism. I assumed that they were getting pretty much what we had when we were young. They didn't. And it was foolish of me to assume that.
They didn't learn the difference between Catholics and Anglicans, or Catholics and Lutherans or Baptists.
They didn't learn what Catholics believe about the Pope, or the Eucharist, or the Trinity, or any of the basics that we had to memorize cold when I was young. They didn't learn that. They learned about the homeless and Central America, or psychology and identity—things that they could have learned from The New York Times.
Did you find in Jana's questions any echoes of your own path over the last 40 years? What you are writing now differs from what you were writing in the 1960s, though you were never outside the embrace of the faith.
I don't think that's true, though I see how you could say that. I was no less serious a Catholic in those years than I am now. But there are different things to criticize now. When I began writing it was in the pre-Vatican II Church, where there needed to be more freshness of thinking, more taking up of worldly responsibilities, a greater sense of openness beyond the Church walls narrowly construed—beyond the ghetto even. In all those criticisms my friends and I felt completely vindicated by the Second Vatican Council. We were in favor of the Council before anybody ever dreamed of it. We knew there was a Catholic renaissance coming, and it was in the name of that that we spoke.
That's the way we were educated; to be prepared for that sort of change in the Church. We were taught to be critical about the Church, and to think for ourselves about the Church. Now it may be true that as a younger man my manner was more abrupt and more arrogant and more knowing than I really was. There may well have been something in my tone that was abrasive to others.
Is there anything from that era that helped you in writing this book with Jana?
The writing of Belief and Unbeliefin 1965 was an expression of my own difficulties with belief. Most people do go through a crisis of belief, in which they have to set aside what they have been told by their parents or their teachers. Whether they actually believe it or not is something they have to decide. Reflecting on my own struggles in writing Belief and Unbeliefhelped me in my teaching later at Stanford and Harvard when my students were going through those struggles. I tried to draw on that now when my daughter almost 30 years later is going through a similar struggle.
Was that experience applicable today?
I made some mistakes in talking with Jana because her struggle in the 1990s is somewhat different from our struggle in the 1960s. In the 1960s, our parents had come through the Depression and the Second World War in which their souls had been grievously tested. But their faith was very strong; their faith was in a certain sense almost unquestioning. That's not exact, but it seemed that way to us. The faith has been a great source of strength to them, and they had great confidence in it, because it had been tested, and not found wanting.
It is different now. Many of the students in university with Jana have grown up in atheist or agnostic families. Jana didn't, but in her own rebellion, she found herself agnostic—she didn't want to, but she found herself an agnostic and she didn't know how to answer the questions that surrounded her.
There is so much atheism in the schools now. So many of her friends took atheism for granted. She did not find it attractive—she found it morally confusing and intellectually incoherent. How could people believe so much in reason in their professional work and then think that everything happened by chance or in an absurd way? It didn't make any sense to her.
She described her state very well—it opened my eyes. She didn't find it so hard to believe in God, but she didn't see what difference that makes. How does God connect to my life?
In an earlier generation of apologetics, if the intellectual argument was provided, that was considered sufficient. But you would offer those arguments, and Jana would ask how that made a difference in her daily life. Is this a new challenge for apologetics?
Yes, there was a strong sense 30 years ago that if there is a God, then obviously he is concerned about morals. But there is a disconnect today. Supposing there is a God, what does that have to do with Christianity? Maybe he is not the Christian God—in fact, Jana did not want to capitalize “God.” She did not want the existence of God to be confused with the Christian God; maybe God was only the maker of the sun and the moon and the stars. Or perhaps not even a creator; maybe there was only a presence there and maybe he was totally indifferent to human beings.
So the challenge is to assure yourself that there is a God, or gods even. Second, how do you connect that with the Jewish and Christian God? Third, how do you connect that with the churches that you see today? And running through all those: What does that have to do with my life? What if I don't want to be part of that? What's the difference?
And so what used to be knitted together is all disconnected. That's not a matter of the psychology of one person—it's very widespread.
How then do you present the faith to that mind-set? That is the purpose of the book, is it not?
The book dramatizes the passing on of a tradition from one generation to another. That's what we say we should do, and this book enacts it. This is the handing on from one father to one daughter. In the handing on, there's slippage. You can try to deliver the package and it can drop just before her hands take hold of it. Or you can try to deliver it at a moment when she is just not ready to receive it. It is a very delicate operation and we see how miraculous it is that the tradition should have gone on so long; there are so many gaps between the outstretched hands.
The faith then is truly a gift; it cannot be handed on in a purely human way.
There is nothing automatic that can be done. There is no hose that I could use to pour water into an empty bucket. You can't do that. It remains a free act of the will and it is Jana's own act of understanding that is important. She has to have the insight or not, to have the good will to allow the insight or not.
Your book uses tradition by employing probably more than a hundred texts from spiritual writers—not all of them Christian.
St. Augustine teaches, in his essay on the art of catechizing, that each soul is different, and you must discern what each soul is asking of you. I wanted to convey to Jana that one advantage of belonging to a tradition like that Catholic tradition is that there are so many witnesses, and that you don't have to find out everything for yourself. You can look among these witnesses for the ones who have shared your experiences. You don't have to be a prisoner of the late 20th century. You don't have to look at things the way your friends do. The advantage of having a tradition is that you have all these other ways of looking at things available to you.
Were you surprised that the tougher questioning was on the nature of God and Church rather than the “hot-button” moral questions?
It would normally be a surprise, but Jana has had a lot of suffering as a young woman. She has undergone a lot, and so has a great moral strength. She has had to learn to deepen the moral side of her nature in order to endure many of the things that she has endured. As a consequence she has a strong moral sense. In addition, she has always been passionately pro-life, for reasons not wholly obvious to me. She has a great love for children; she volunteered one summer to work with severely retarded children, with whom she had infinite patience.
She did have all the moral questions of her generation. For example, it really did bother her that we say that homosexuality is wrong. Why do we say that? This generation simply does not take for granted the traditional truths of Judaism and Christianity on these matters.
But the really difficult questions were the connection between God and Church, not so much the moral questions.
At the end of the book, she pronounces herself still searching.
God is unseen. We can't touch him, we can't feel him, we can't hear him. So the odd thing about God is that our senses, our imagination, our memory, and our intelligence are inadequate for him. So we find ourselves stripped of our own faculties and our own equipment when we try to address him. Therefore we come to him in silence and no one appears, as St. Theresa of Lisieux puts it, quoting from a poem of St. John of the Cross.
I tried to suggest to Jana the kind of darkness or emptiness in which God often is. I was encouraging her to go to First Friday or something like that. It's enough to spend an hour or two in the darkness, even if there are no thoughts or feelings, in the presence of God. God acts in those moments in ways that you cannot perceive. The silence is important. Emptying oneself in God's presence is good for the soul. It's the normal atmosphere of the soul, but life keeps us so busy today that we don't allow these moments to occur.
Not long after we finished the book Jana surprised us by offering to go to Easter Vigil Mass with my wife and myself. It was a beautiful Mass—at least I thought so, though Jana was less pleased with it. The next morning it turned out that she slipped up to the early morning Easter Mass too. She then joined the parish next to us, returned to the sacraments, and has become quite a devout young lady.
That is very satisfying to me, but I would have been quite content if, in God's way, it had taken much longer. She says that she found it very annoying that I would say, when she was about 14, that it was quite OK for her to be in a kind of rebellion or darkness and that she would come through it all right. But I always believed it, about her, and about my students and in my own life.
This voyage through the darkness is something that St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Thérése of Lisieux keep telling us about. I wouldn't say that everybody has to go through it, but most people do.
—Raymond de Souza