Today's young adults, torn loose from their moorings by accelerated social change, rapid globalization, and the constant novelty of the entertainment culture, are searching for meaning and intimacy. Some of them wonder if the faith that worked for their parents' generation will work for them as well. And when they ask, parents rejoice.
In the summer of 1996, Jana Novak, daughter of Catholic lay theologian and political philosopher Michael Novak, faxed her father 14 religious questions, ranging from sex ("Is it really solely for procreation?") to science ("Can you be an evolutionist … and still be Christian?") and not forgetting the Bible, Buddhism, and birth control.
"A father dreams of this," Michael Novak writes; Jana "does not like to be told anything she can figure out for herself, which has sometimes left me out of it and not a little perplexed."
The result of Jana's inquiring mind and Michael's fatherly eagerness is Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God. While the elder Novak has written the preponderance of the book's words, its subtitle makes the exchange sound more one-sided than it actually is. Jana is a tough-minded inquisitor, and she does not hesitate to tell her father when he begins to use her questions as pretexts to pontificate on his favorite topics. (Kudos to both the authors and the editors for leaving intact some of the cheekier exchanges and for letting us glimpse a real father-daughter dialogue and not a prettified catechism.)
Michael Novak is a traditional Catholic—but he is not a narrow or uninformed one. His definition of what Catholic means in the phrase Catholic church illustrates his breadth: "always learning, always opening itself to other cultures, trying to discern all the workings of God's grace in the world."
The elder Novak has opened himself to the wide variety of Christian traditions and seems in particular to have learned a great deal from evangelical Protestants. He explains to Jana:
The evangelical way insists upon a strict communal discipline under the Scriptures—with high emphasis upon certain nonnegotiable basics: salvation comes through faith alone, given in commitment to Jesus as one's personal savior, after a confession of sins, with trust that by his atonement for our sins our sins are washed away. (We Catholics join them in these basic affirmations.) … Their belief in … individual conscience and direct access to God's mercy ("the priesthood of all believers"), however, does not take away from them their communal sense of fidelity to the Scriptures . …Individual believers are not, in this sense, "Lone Rangers," as some … would have you believe.
And later in the book he writes: "On your point about evangelicals, Jana, I too have noted the tenderness toward Jesus in [their] hymns and expressions … , which I wish Catholics would emulate. Evangelicals seem to stress so much more effectively a personal encounter between each of us and Jesus, as if we ourselves stood in the scenes described in Scripture."
But however much the elder Novak appreciates evangelical emphases, he claims to need something else: "The philosophical turn of my own mind requires abstract reflection on the nature of God and the Logos; I need more than tenderness." In addition to finding evangelical faith too bare of abstract reflection for his tastes, he differs with classical Protestants on purgatory, Scripture, conversion, and the extent of human depravity.
Nevertheless, he does not attempt to prettify Catholicism for his questioning daughter: "The Catholic Church may be the mother of all the other Christian churches … ," he writes, "but in history she has been a difficult, often sinful, and problematic mother. Pride, selfishness, lust, every scarlet sin imaginable has wracked the church of Christ." And later he echoes Saint Paul: "It's a pretty lowly bunch God picked for his people."
Michael Novak's theology is characterized by his passionate commitment to truth, real truth, objective truth—not the mere personal, true-for-you-but-not-for-me truths so popular with his daughter's generation. But what every clear-headed Christian will appreciate about this book is that the commitment to truth leads not to abstraction but to a person: "The reason that truth is characteristic of reality and/or of propositions is that there is an intelligent, loving Creator of all things, Who is the origin of all truths." And later he writes that the Incarnation is "not just a 'tenet.' If you grasp its implications, and welcome Christ into your life according to his words, it will shatter what you were before."
Throughout this volume, Michael Novak is talking to his daughter. And he knows that no matter how compellingly he articulates the things he believes, he has no guarantee that she will believe them as he does. "I remind myself," he says, "that you will find your way, and that your real dialogue is not with me but with God."
Saved from anxiety
Venerable Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (now about 70 years of age) has also written a book for his children and people like them: Why Christian? For Those on the Edge of Faith. Rather than engaging in a concrete dialogue with any one of his own four children, Hall has constructed a composite interlocutor: a genderless, faceless, undergraduate student stocked with questions asked by his students and his own children over the years. This approach lacks the immediacy of the Novaks', but it allows the author to set his course without correction from a real-life dialogue partner.
Hall contrasts the religious sensibilities of today's dechurched young Canadians with those of his own generation. His cohort was rebellious, fighting the church as part of the authority structures of society. Today's youth, by contrast, are "far enough away from Christianity to be curious about it again" though "inherited Christianity is not reason enough to stay Christian."
In the normal course of things, Hall would be classed as a liberal Protestant—Paul Tillich was one of mentors—and he writes with religion's cultured despisers looking over his shoulder. Yet he bemoans the liberal/conservative split in contemporary Christianity and feels that there is a more biblical, more faithful third way. He refuses to "pursue the ultraliberal route of presenting Jesus as one among many revealers" of God, only "possibly the most important."
Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His
Daughter's Questions About God,
by Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Pocket
Books 321 pp.; $24.00.
Why Christian? For Those on the
Edge of Faith, by Douglas John Hall,
Fortress Press, 182 pp.; $15.00
What Christians Really Believe—and
Why, by Stanley J. Grenz, Westminster
John Knox Press, 159 pp.; $12.00
He stops short of saying that Jesus is God; yet he asserts that "Jesus 'puts us in touch with God' in a unique and decisive way." He believes that despite the work of debunking scholars, the Gospels can tell us enough about Jesus for us to know enough about the God he reveals. Hall adds that we must interrogate that historical witness to Jesus because it helps us know who Jesus is not. "Nothing is more … offensive," he writes, "than a 'Jesus' who is little more than the pathetic attempt of little minds to render their own pet theories and pursuits absolute!"
And by listening to the biblical witness, Hall tells his young listener, we discover that following Jesus is demanding. "God's love comes with strings attached. It binds us to itself. It contains an inherent discipline," he writes. "Discipleship is the discipline to which Jesus introduces those whom his love beckons. Following him is not less rigorous than the moralities from which he delivers us; it is more rigorous, because its essence is loving as one has been loved," which loving "won't be learned without suffering."
Hall's young listener is worried about life's significance, about the possibility that our existence is purposeless, that perhaps we are superfluous. This, Hall proclaims, is the burden of our time. He declares that modern Westerners no longer worry about death (when was he last in a hospital or nursing-home ward?) or guilt. We are in desperate need of salvation, not from sin but from our anxieties over purposelessness and a sense of superfluousness: "There is no more horrendous scenario for the human future than one in which only a few human beings have any meaningful vocation," Hall writes, focusing intently on North America, forgetting the Holocaust and today's brutally resurgent tribalisms. Surely real sin and real guilt and real fears of death attend the terrors of ethnic cleansings.
Hall's defense of Christianity mixes much truth with a sadly shrunken vision. What truths does he see? That salvation is not from our creatureliness. That the Incarnation is not just God showing us what God is like, but is God participating in our life. That the God of the Bible does not want to save us (merely) as individuals, but wants to save the whole creation. That faith is relational, a response to God's faithfulness and not a mere conclusion of the mind. That we are all sinners because we are curved in on ourselves. That the church is necessary because the gospel is a message of reconciliation.
What does his shrunken vision distort? He believes, for example, that the "real impetus" for claiming that salvation comes exclusively through faith in Jesus is Western imperialism. That religion is always about power. That we are not sinners because we are bad. That salvation is not for an "otherworldly state." That there is no standard pattern by which to live as a Christian.
If Hall's readers take to heart his picture of Christianity, they will find a demanding vision of sacrificial love in community. But they will also have a too- small vision of the human predicament and a too-small God to save them from it.
A theology for Alanis Morissette
If Hall has been harking back to Tillich to understand his young friends' anxieties, evangelical Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz has been listening to popular culture in order to understand who is influencing the seeking generation: Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne, Doug Coupland, Friends, and Kurt Cobain. (He also analyzes the messages of not-so-Gen-X culture: Star Trek and Star Wars and The Celestine Prophecy and Superman and Norman Mailer.) In response, Grenz offers a summary of Christian teaching crafted for just such seekers. And while What Christians Really Believe and Why addresses a mood more than an age cohort, the mood Grenz senses is very Gen-X.
Unlike the Tillichian Hall, Grenz does not imply that sin is merely whatever gets in the way of personal fulfillment. Sin is, in Grenz's account, enmity against God. And the solution is not simply the God who empathizes with us in our weakness, but the God who saves through a sacrificial death on the cross.
Perhaps because it lacks an actual or even a composite dialogue partner, What Christians Really Believe and Why is less engaging than the other books considered here, but two distinctive contributions make Grenz's book worth reading.
One is his treatment of the infiltration of monism into Western culture. Cyclical pre-Christian world-views rebirthed in the weirdnesses of Wicca; the vapid pantheism of philosophical Hinduism, now repackaged and marketed in The Celestine Prophecy and Star Wars; the nihilistic monism of Buddhism; the pagan psychology of Jung: When whirled in the blender of popular culture, Grenz says, these become the bearers of a "new immanentalism," the belief that God (not the biblical God, but the Force) is not only with us, but he is us—and the old-growth forests and the living, breathing Earth. Of course, it can feel mighty good to be at one with the universe. But such good vibes offer no future. Grenz exposes the hopelessness and the helplessness and the resignation implicit in this immanentalism, and says, If you want hope or help, come to Christianity with its transcendent God who is directing history toward his own bright ends.
A second key notion is "life-in-community." This is Grenz's favorite subject (see his 1994 book Theology for the Community of God), and he rightly sees the longing for intimacy with God and with other people as a driving force of today's seekers. He notes, for example, that "an entire generation is reaching adulthood without a sense of being connected to the traditional sources of relationship, such as strong family ties," and that the intact-family sitcoms of the fifties have been replaced by dysfunctional-family programming (The Simpsons and Married … with Children) and nonfamily friendship networks (Seinfeld and Friends).
The danger of making community the highlight of theology is that it can easily horizontalize the Christian faith, turning it into one big group hug. But Grenz contrasts the accidental community envisioned in Friends, with its Gen-X apartment dwellers being there for each other, with the new community envisioned in Scripture. He refuses to reduce the search for belonging to the horizontal and retains an accent on God: our longing can only be met by communion with God, and the community to which we are called is formed by the Holy Spirit.
What baffles this reviewer is that in worship, in baptism, in the Eucharist, Grenz sees only human activity: In these acts of belonging, we declare our belonging and reaffirm our belonging. One needn't revert to medieval sacramentalism to see the priority of God's action in creating the new community continuing in the fundamental acts that sustain that community.
Grenz, like Hall and Novak, is engaging in apologetics, the branch of theology that explains and defends the faith to those outside it. A necessary part of apologetics is explaining where the truth being defended comes from and why it is reliable. Evangelicals, while acknowledging the role of tradition, experience, and reason, have always put the accent on the Bible when they explain why they believe what they believe about God. Grenz, who teaches at a prominent evangelical institution, is strangely silent on the Bible, yet he does not hesitate to turn to sociological theory: "Beliefs arise out of the community in which we participate," he writes in his opening chapter, and in his chapter on community he writes:
We use borrowed categories to create the plot that gives us our sense of self. These categories come from the social groups … in which we participate . …Turning from self and toward God … involves the introduction of a new plot line into our personal story. We "borrow" the categories for this plot from the biblical story.
That vague borrowing of a biblical plot line for our lives is as close as Grenz gets to any statement about the authority of the Bible for Christian belief or life. His book is, of course, an attempt to address postmoderns, but it is curious that no attention is paid to the Christian account of how we know what we know about God. Fortunately, Grenz is clear that truth is truth because it is true. "Rightly understood, faith affirms that in some sense what I believe is true regardless of my affirming its truth." And that is as it should be.
Taken together, these three books show that talking to young adults about the faith is a daunting apologetic task. Even today's church-bred, church-raised young adults are as shaped by their peers and their culture as they are by churchly ways of thinking—perhaps more so.
The shape of that culture is a quest, a pilgrimage—but it is a quest without a Holy Grail and a pilgrimage without a Holy Land. With varying degrees of success, Hall, Novak, and Grenz tell these questers that the search can have meaning and that God is both on the road with us and at the end of the road ahead.
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