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Is God Mean?

There’s a new book out now by Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner, called God Is Not Nice. [2] I’ll be publishing an interview with him about it soon, but having learned yesterday that the book is now in stores, I didn’t want another day to go by without alerting you to it. It’s a serious book that is easily accessible to the general reader and urgently needed by him. It’s a book that I wish I could put into the hands of every Christian parent, pastor, and educator. It’s a powerful weapon for fighting the sentimental pseudo-Christianity we call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Lehner writes:

Our faith has a name for the inclination to disregard God’s order, and that is “original sin.” … The philosopher Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg has therefore spoken of the major decision in each person’s life: we either approach concrete beings according to their inherent order or we surrender them to “our egotistical exploitation.” If we decide to see things and persons within the horizon of their natural goals and order, we tend to get to know them more intimately, we learn to love them, and we mature in our will. If, however, we turn away from this order, we see everything only from our own perspective. The first stance is a natural piety toward the entire world, which we can call Christian realism. The second option is what most of the secular world is doing. Of course we will continue to fail, due to our fallen nature, but the more firmly we decide to approach beings according to their inherent order, the more we will cling to grace and sacramental forgiveness and can hope to make some progress, because we will see the world with “God’s eyes” and not through the lenses of selfishness.

More:

change_me

Realism means being in touch with the real world, with real things. Often I have the impression that we are running away from reality and focusing on feels as if emotions were the only real thing. Through my experience with religious education textbooks and catechesis classes in both Germany and the United States, I have come to see that much of our parish life is centered on sentimentality or the chasing of feelings. Children are invited to “feel” and “experience” this or that, but they are rarely given any content for their faith. It does not surprise me that they leave the Church if they find better feelings elsewhere.

The research on how theologically and morally vacant young American adults are today is staggering. I’ll be talking about some of it tonight at my Notre Dame lecture on the Benedict Option  [3], in part as an answer to Jesuit Father and papal adviser Antonio Spadaro’s risible claim that things aren’t so bad in the Christian West.

In the context of Lehner’s book — which, again, is written for the man and woman in the pews, not for academics — I want to draw attention to this piece about Bart Campolo [4], son of leading progressive Evangelical pastor Tony Campolo. Campolo fils left the Christian faith for atheism. Excerpt:

Campolo doesn’t think he’s a special case. On the contrary, he believes the current world of ‘progressive Christianity’ (what he calls “the ragged edge” of Christianity) is heading towards full-blown unbelief. Speaking during the Wild Goose Festival (the American version of Greenbelt) Bart was clear: “What I know is if there’s 1,000 people at Wild Goose today, then in 10 years from now three or four hundred of those people won’t be in the game anymore.”

Campolo is predicting that as many as 40% of progressive Christians will become atheists over the next decade. In his view, the process of abandoning Christian doctrines is almost addictive. Once you start, you don’t know where to stop. It might begin with “dialing down” your view of God’s sovereignty, but it could easily end with unbelief.

“When you get to this ragged edge of Christianity when people say ‘God’ they sort of mean ‘the universe’ and when they say ‘Jesus’ they sort of mean ‘redemption’ – they’re so progressive they don’t actually count on any supernatural stuff to happen, they’ve dialed it down in the same way I did.”

When Campolo changed his theology to match his experience, it was the beginning of the end.

Bart says he’s “skipped over” the “progressive re-vamping” of Christianity and gone straight to the logical conclusion that God doesn’t exist. He reckons that Progressive Christians should stop pretending God exists in the form of “the universe” or other wishy-washy language.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism [5] — even in its right-wing forms — is the last stop on the way out the door to unbelief. Once you start determining religious and moral truth by what feels right to you, there’s no way to stop the unraveling. The fact that most American Christians (as Christian Smith and others have shown) are in fact MTDers, and the church in general is not pushing back on this, is a harbinger of collapse. The title God Is Not Nice is not meant to say that God is mean, but rather that He is wild and undomesticated. He is not nice; he is holy. Lehner is here speaking of God as C.S. Lewis’s Mr. Beaver spoke about Aslan: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "Is God Mean?"

#1 Comment By Egypt Steve On October 27, 2017 @ 2:09 pm

I understand, I think, that Rod and other orthodox (both Capital O and small o) Christians believe themselves to be following not their own inclinations and feelings in matters of religion, but rather to be conforming themselves to the Word of God as revealed in scripture and through the tradition of the Church. It’s not a matter of what “feels right” to them.

But how do they decide that Christianity is true, rather than Islam or Judaism, or some form of Paganism? Isn’t it their own internal feelings, their own intuition as to what must be true, of feels right to them, that makes them Christians rather than Muslims? I don’t see how they can avoid the charge that they, too, see and judge matters of the spirit from their own perspectives — that in the end, they are making themselves the ultimate arbiters of what is true.

#2 Comment By Kali On October 27, 2017 @ 2:40 pm

“Abashed the Devil stood, And felt how awful goodness is…”

Why do those without faith think it’s a good idea to try to stand up to, or mouth off to, pure righteousness? God is Righteousness itself, and if that’s not enough to make a person quake, they need to meditate on that fact a bit more. Of course blessed are we that He is also Love, endless love… which makes His power that much more dangerous, and that much more fantastic.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 27, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

Tough Mudders and the Biggest Loser and Gluten Free Diets are the novenas of the modern age.

That’s not very complimentary to the meaning and purpose of novenas in past ages. Generally I agree with Sam’s critique of modern time schedules and priorities. Maybe past ages were not so different?

Didn’t take long for the trolls to show up on this one, did it?

Could you elucidate on that? Which commenters are being pegged as trolls, and why, is not self-evident. Nor, for that matter, is which comments are definitively non-trollish.

#4 Comment By TA On October 27, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

Once you start determining religious and moral truth by what feels right to you, there’s no way to stop the unraveling.

I don’t understand this. Or, more specifically, how this isn’t just true for everyone and therefore isn’t saying anything.

You frequently mention your “conversion” from agnosticism experience when visiting Chartres. You’ve used more poetic terms, but that experience boiled down to: “Now that I’ve seen Chartres, theism feels right to me.”

You then did a bunch of study and eventually decided that Catholicism (not sure if you considered anything non-Christian?) felt right.

Or, in more logical terms, your statement can be rewritten as: There is a way to stop the unraveling, once you start determining religious and moral truth by what feels wrong to you. (i.e. not q implies not p)

The most saintly, Christian people I know do their best to avoid doing what feels wrong to them, so I don’t see how that works.

#5 Comment By JonF On October 27, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

Re: I’ve seen no one become an atheist after they reach full maturity.

*Raises hand*

As I said, I’m sure it happens, but it seems more likely that atheism is something that’s set in late adolescence, possibly connected with the general teenage rebellion against one’s parents and their norms.

Re: For more non-data anecdotes, you can visit exchristian.net anytime.

Plenty of people become ex-Christians, or Recovering Christians, or whatever– but that’s not the same as being an atheist. Ex-Christians are very often people who stopped going to church and don’t much bother with religion one way or the other. Some of them become pagan, some New Age spiritualists, some are what I call vague Deists (“God exists, maybe there’s an afterlife, but none of that matters to me right now”) or Indifferent Agnostics (“I have no idea if God exists and I really couldn’t care less.”). It’s not like there’s a rigid dichotomy between Christianity and Atheism with no middle ground or other alternatives.

#6 Comment By Jonathan Davis On October 27, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

[NFR: You are pretending to read my thoughts.]

I truly do not see where you think I am doing that. I am being critical of some aspects of your book (which generally was quite good), When I say, you don’t take it to the logical conclusion, I am not suggesting that you agree with my criticism but are intentionally withholding. I am suggesting that my position is logical and would like to engage you on it. Perhaps, email would be a better medium?

[Besides, I know a lot of Evangelicals whose lives have been more clearly transformed by the Gospel than the lives of some Orthodox. Let us be humble and learn from each other.]

This is entirely beside my point. I know the very same. I am suggesting that one cannot cling to orthodoxy in the long term without an extrinsic arbiter of orthodoxy that either requires the clear ecclesiastical structure tied to Tradition as understood by Catholic, Orthodox, etc. or the rigid tradition/law of communities like certain Islamic and Orthodox Jewish faiths.

[I think it entirely unrealistic to expect every Christian in America to convert to Orthodoxy.]

Right, and I think it’s similarly entirely unrealistic to expect these Christians to adopt a lasting Benedict Option mind set for the same reasons I don’t think real monastic communities are possible for them either. I don’t think they have the theological/epistemic framework to sustain either.

Again, that is not a dismissal of their faith, relationship with God, or religious tenacity. But it is a limit to the execution of the ideas in your book. One final thought, I appreciate all you write, and again, your book is quite good. But I feel like you are unwilling to engage deeper critiques of it and usually write off any critic as misunderstanding you or putting words in your mouth. I would like to see you respond on a more epistemic level to disagreements with your big idea.

#7 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On October 27, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

The rigor of living in accord with the Buddhist faith is intense. Understanding the Four Noble Truths and adhering to the Noble Eightfold Path is often difficult. But the more one practices Buddhism, the easier and more automatic it becomes: for example, the more a person practices non-attachment, the simpler it is to recognize emotions without indulging them (I would say it “becomes second nature,” but human beings do not possess even a first nature). A person also witnesses a decline in suffering both in her life and in the world around her.

That said, Buddhism also has its MTD-type practitioners. I think they may occur in all religions.

#8 Comment By Pat On October 27, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

Will,

Are you conflating emotions and experience? They are not at all the same thing. One can think rationally about one’s experiences. Certainly some people might not do so (I’m not at all sure that’s true), but do you think that applies to Campolo? Or do you claim that not agreeing with authoritarian religion is evidence of one’s inability to think rationally? If that’s your position, we will have to accept fundamental disagreement and move on.

You left out entirely the question of conscience, which is the key one to me. Even if I had experiences of a god, if the god I had experiences of asked me to act against my conscience I hope I would have enough moxie to refuse. Folks are quoting a lot of Lewis in this thread, but I haven’t yet seen any reference to the ass dressed up in a lion’s skin who fooled so many people into thinking he was Aslan.

#9 Comment By Matth On October 27, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

I find my own thoughts while reading the Benedict Option reflected in Jonathan Davis’ much more coherently phrased comments.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity from scientific agnosticism. It was a long time between when I stopped believing in a purely materialist reality to meaning and when I started believing in the claims of the Orthodox Church, but there was no intermediate church home in that time.

However, my youth was spent around evangelically-minded Southern Baptists, and I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of both the Baptist and the evangelical points-of-view, as well as their own traditions.

As I read the Benedict Option earlier this year, I kept thinking to myself, “Why doesn’t Rod take his argument to its conclusion: the Ben Op requires traditional liturgical life?”

I wondered a few times if the decision not to take the arguments to that end were purposeful. I wondered if the decision might be on the part of his editor, too, pushing him to an ecumenical dialogue.

Eventually, I decided that it was probably because of his own lack of experience with the evangelical movement. I’d certainly like to hear more from him on these questions.

We certainly can hope for the conversion of all American Christians to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but a much more likely scenario (and the one that Rod himself continually says is happening) is that there will be no more American Christians in a couple of generations. The ones that remain will most likely be either radical Protestants (I expect Reba Place will exist in 100 years, as may even the Shakers), or will belong to a long-standing liturgical tradition.

In any case, Jonathan Davis’ criticism is much more substantive, and I mostly want to add my voice to his requesting a response.

#10 Comment By Anne On October 28, 2017 @ 12:24 am

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is Christian Smith’s judgment call on what young people have told him they believe about God and religion. As is so often the case with social commentary, it says as much about him (and how he judges faith) as it does about those he’s writing about. And what he’s known for writing about is how young Americans are losing the faiths they were brought up in at one point or another between adolescence and age 30. Since MTDers appear to him the least religious of those who claim to be religious, he assumes they’re one step away from unbelief. But the fact is his own data doesn’t show any cause-and-effect on that score, only that adolescents who profess the same conservative faith as their parents tend to stop believing at later ages than others who are either not as close to their parents or profess more liberal beliefs, or both. Bottom line, according to the Smith surveys, a majority of all American young people eventually leave the practice of whichever religious faith they were brought up in as children, conservative and “MTD” alike. Conservative kids just linger longer, which makes sense to me. I just wonder how much of that is due to these kids’ stronger desire to please their parents, or at least not to break their hearts?

#11 Comment By l’autre J On October 28, 2017 @ 3:08 am

Oh how the disproportionate focus on mercy and forgiveness is soaked in humanism.

Fortunately conservative Christians cannot be fairly accused of either.

I’ve seen no one become an atheist after they reach full maturity. I’m sure it happens, but usually that is something that is set by the late teens. What Campolo should have said is that some fraction of those people may end up as unchurched Deists, “Spiritual but not religious”, which certainly is something I’ve seen happen fairly often, including among people from “conservative” churches when people grow disillusioned with them.

You and Trin are right, in my experience, that the general change from theism is to Deism. Younger people who do this obviously don’t join, but older people who do this tend to stay in churches in which their life isn’t made too difficult. My grandparents were clear examples of this.

And meanwhile some people may go the other way, becoming much more orthodox (small “o”) and attending a more conservative church out of dissatisfaction with a liberal one. You can see that especially along Catholics and Episcopalians.

Oh, my parents did this as Protestants thirty years ago. Ironically their current Baptist church has a significantly more culturally liberal congregation now than the ELCA one they left under protest had then. But the official theological stances taken at the pulpit and in the church charter and views in the oldest cohort in the congregation, to which they belong, remain more conservative.

#12 Comment By Johan On October 28, 2017 @ 10:27 am

“Our faith has a name for the inclination to disregard the arbitrary rules and speculative fantasies of the power-trippers who invented the religion, and that is original sin.” Fixed it.

#13 Comment By Rob G On October 28, 2017 @ 10:51 am

~~~Bart Ehrman has a lovely story at the start of his book Misquoting Jesus where he explains that his descent into agnosticism began when a professor told him that “Maybe Mark made a mistake.” Ehrman had previously been taught that the bible was without errors. Once he understood the possibility that gospel writers might make mistakes, he started to question everything. Had Ehrman been brought up in a church with less rigid teaching, his faith might’ve survived the episode.~~~

Yes and no. The faith of Ehrman’s upbringing erred not in its rigidity, but in locating that rigidity in the wrong place. I was raised in a very similar tradition to that of Ehrman’s, and experienced a similar crisis as a “non-traditional” undergrad in my mid-thirties. The response to my experience of Ehrman’s quandary was not to begin to question the whole thing, but rather, realizing I was “stuck,” to basically say to myself, “Things seem to have gotten really convoluted in the past few hundred years; I wonder if the early church had anything to say about all this stuff?” Having been raised in fundamentalist Pentecostalism I had never really looked at the early Church, nor had I any expectations that I’d find any real answers there. To make a long story short, five years later I was Orthodox.

The point of this is that if Ehrman and Campolo did not look seriously at both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, they did both themselves and their subsequent readers a disservice. I firmly believe that the answers to these sorts of questions can be found in the Church’s tradition. I may, of course, be wrong. But the person who never looks has no chance of ever knowing.

#14 Comment By Rob G On October 28, 2017 @ 11:11 am

“I wondered a few times if the decision not to take the arguments to that end were purposeful. I wondered if the decision might be on the part of his editor, too, pushing him to an ecumenical dialogue.

Eventually, I decided that it was probably because of his own lack of experience with the evangelical movement. I’d certainly like to hear more from him on these questions.”

Obviously I can’t answer for Rod, but I was raised Pentecostal, spent almost 10 years in Evangelicalism, then became Orthodox 20+ years ago. Frankly, I do not see the problem with Rod’s approach. Why is it not possible to “bracket” the question of traditional liturgical life temporarily while exploring general issues that we all have in common regardless of tradition? Isn’t there a value to pointing someone in the right direction, or must we necessarily provide a detailed map?

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On October 28, 2017 @ 11:36 am

I suspect that if we were to go back in history and were able to get the honest opinions of God-fearing, church-going Christians, we’d find a sizable percentage just “going along” with the local belief because it was easier to do business and get along with the neighbors. It’s just that now we’re being more upfront about our agnosticism.

(I’m a pagan, and the very last thing I would do is pray to my gods. Maybe pray to keep them away from me, perhaps….the last thing I want to do is attract their attention.)

#16 Comment By First_Deacon On October 28, 2017 @ 11:38 am

“I’ve seen no one become an atheist after they reach full maturity. I’m sure it happens, but usually that is something that is set by the late teens”

I really would be curious to see a decent study on that (but good luck finding one properly done though). I grew up in a family with an atheist dad, and in his case it was set by age 18-19, as soon as he got away from his Irish Catholic mom and into his freshman year at college. He never looked back.

To the extent that I could tell what was going on with them, some mature liberal Christians in the Episcopal church I used to attend seemed to follow the Spong slide (John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop and author of many books, for those who have never heard of him). God was never entirely jettisoned, just repeatedly reinterpreted.

“And meanwhile some people may go the other way, becoming much more orthodox (small “o”) and attending a more conservative church out of dissatisfaction with a liberal one. You can see that especially along Catholics and Episcopalians.”

Partially true of me – I was a convinced atheist at the age of 7 (almost certainly because of my father), didn’t become Christian until graduate school, and started out in the Episcopal church. Not there anymore, am Orthodox Christian.

#17 Comment By Anne On October 28, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

Anybody who predicts 40% of any given population will change their minds and agree with him within the next 10 years betrays a fairly notable superiority complex. And in this case, the sufferer apparently shares his affliction with Christians who think most of their co-religionists are sentimental twits.

In any case, aside from the fact that believing God wants us to be happy is no more likely to wreck havoc on the world at large than believing the status quo, natural or man-made, reflects God’s Will, it’s virtually impossible for humans to put their faith in a God who doesn’t will their happiness. They may believe a “mean” Deity created world a la the Manichaens who at first impressed Augustine, but the kind f “faith” both ancients and moderns have spoken of is reserved for a God who wills His people good fortune. How that works on earth can be the subject of endless speculation, but there’s no getting around the basic principle.

Bottom line: Even the Suffering Messiah told his disciples to address his Father as Abba, “Daddy,” and to pray as a child. You’re never going to impress more than a small cadre of rigorists by tossing that attitude aside for a less “vacant” point to view.

#18 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 28, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

As is so often the case with social commentary, it says as much about him (and how he judges faith) as it does about those he’s writing about.

This is the trouble with a great deal of social science. There are verifiable empirics, actual data, which can be studied, but a great deal of social research is simply someone who has an opinion engaging in tautological arrangement of data and anecdotes to find patterns that confirm their premise. This is indeed one of the reasons I am contemptuous of the concept of “moral therapeutic Deism.” The man found what he expected to find, and gave it a name that fit his thought pattern.

#19 Comment By Rob G On October 29, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

~~~This is indeed one of the reasons I am contemptuous of the concept of “moral therapeutic Deism.” The man found what he expected to find, and gave it a name that fit his thought pattern.~~~

I don’t think Smith claims that the phenomenon is new, even if the name is. The progressive Protestants of the early 20th century were already leaning in that direction, as were the Unitarians and Universalists of the Victorian age before them. The point is not that MTD is a new thing, but that it’s becoming ever more common, such that it’s now something of a default position for many people.

#20 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 29, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

My point is not that MTD is a new thing or an old thing, but that it is a thing mostly in the mind of Smith. He can look back in history as long as he wishes. It is his way of casting his personal demons and categories over a variety of individual choices and preferences, using the world as his personal Rorschach test.

#21 Comment By Rob G On October 30, 2017 @ 7:17 am

“My point is not that MTD is a new thing or an old thing, but that it is a thing mostly in the mind of Smith.”

How can it be mostly in his mind if its basic fundamentals and implications antedate him by a hundred years? The availability of the writings of opposing Christians of those periods are there to prove that it did. It’s only today’s progressive Christians themselves who believe that “progressive Christianity” is something new.

#22 Comment By l’autre J On October 30, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

Isn’t it their own internal feelings, their own intuition as to what must be true, of feels right to them, that makes them Christians rather than Muslims?

Pretty much.