Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why Is God Not Nice?

Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner demolishes Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Readers of this blog know that one of my biggest bugbears is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,  a fake, insipid version of Christianity that views God as a cosmic butler, and being nice as the utmost in moral greatness. This is the de facto religion of most American young people, according to sociologist Christian Smith. Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner has written a powerful new book that tears MTD apart in a way that is accessible to the general reader. God Is Not Nice is a must-read book for parents, religious educators, and ordinary Christians who want to be free of the cardigan-wearing pushover deity of American pop culture, and introduce themselves to the radical greatness of God.

Note well: Lehner does not argue that God is “mean”. His point is that God is far more mysterious and filled with grandeur than the tame middle-class moralist far too many Americans today take Him for. Think of Mr. Beaver’s description of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

That’s the Almighty King that Ulrich Lehner wants to reveal to his readers.

I was so excited by Prof. Lehner’s book that I felt compelled to talk to him about it. Lehner, who teaches at Marquette University, agreed to an e-mail interview. Here it is:

RD: Let’s start with the obvious question: What do you mean that God is not
nice? Are you saying that God is mean?

UL: No, God is not mean, but nice is a terrible description of God. Originally, the word derives from “nescius” which means ignorant and was used in the Middle Ages to describe foolishness. Then, “nice” people were “dumb” people. It is only since the 1700s that it has meant pleasantness. Yet, the God of the Bible is not pleasant like our favorite meal or TV show: Once we use “nice” to describe God, we smuggle in vagueness, shallowness, and subjective pleasantness to describe the Divine. It’s a symptom of our time that we think of God in these terms – we only want a God who makes us feel good and help us, but that is ultimately an abuse of God, and idolatry, as C.S. Lewis already realized.

Very early in your book you make a radical statement, one that is true, but that I am sure makes no sense to contemporary Christians: “We are part of the cosmos and experience our connections within it.” What are the implications for that statement? Why is it so alien to the modern
sensibility? And what does it have to do with whether or not God is nice?

Many contemporary Christians live like secular individualists, apart from one hour on the Sabbath. Some ten years ago Alasdair Macintyre opened my eyes with his book, Dependent Rational Animals. He showed that we cannot be virtuous alone, that we are all dependent on each other, and that when we forget this dependency, we sink into a moral abyss. I think we are not only disconnected from how we are dependent on each other in society but also as parts of creation: We are standing in a hierarchy of ends, and each of these has to be treated with respect, whether it is animals, natural resources, or human
beings in all stages of development.

I also think we rarely consider our role in a bigger story because we are too obsessed with our “own.” But our stories only make sense if they are embedded in something greater. If there is no bigger story, all we do and achieve will, as Bertrand Russell said, be “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” Modern Christians unconsciously buy into this religion of despair by numbing their experience of the cosmos, and in this way they lose touch with reality, the idea of order, and also the sense of wonder.

When you are in such despair, you need a drug that helps you survive, and that’s the ‘nice’ God; it’s the pill you get from the divine therapist. Do you remember Luke 17:11-19—the story of ten lepers healed by Jesus? Of these men, only one returns to thank God and Jesus—only one. The other nine saw God as a “drug” and once healed never bothered with him again. Once you realize how idolatrous such a view of God is, how it plays into the hands of militant atheism but also into the erosion of true faith, you cannot but reject it.

You say that Christian asceticism is “the utmost realism in the world.” What does that mean?

We religious believers, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are often mocked as people who have lost touch with reality. I think the opposite is true. Authentic religion invites you to accept reality: the created world around you, your own body with all its failings, your weak mind and soul, and the otherness of God.

Asceticism means training (St. Benedict calls life in the monastery a “School of the Lord.”). It calls us to give something up, not just a certain good or treat but a certain desire. It attempts to retool and re-educate us. Imagine if you used the same desire you have for your favorite foods for becoming holy, the same desire you have for a salary bump for becoming a Saint!

By giving up goods, we learn to re-focus our desires—we set aside our prejudices, the ways in which we were conditioned to see the world, and become more aware of reality. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, summarizes this beautifully: “It is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the spirit, but to feel and taste things inwardly.” You could say it even succinctly: Small is beautiful! The less we desire things, the more we can taste them inwardly. This is, by the way, something that connects Christian asceticism with Buddhist spirituality, which calls this attitude “mindfulness.”

Science and entertainment are “coping mechanisms” moderns use to deal with the inevitability of death. How does this work? Why isn’t it enough?

I once picked up a Noble laureate in chemistry at the airport in Chicago for a conference at Notre Dame. During the two hour or so trip, all we talked about was imagination and Tibetan art. The man was supposed to give a talk on the sciences at the conference but said: “Tibetan art and philosophy are so much more interesting!”

Another time, I had dinner with a Fields Medal winner (the Nobel prize equivalent in mathematics). I asked him what he loves to read the most and he said: “Philosophy and Theology. Thomas Aquinas shaped my mathematical imagination.” Most great scientists will tell you how important imagination is, and that the heart’s greatest desires are not met by the hard sciences.

We all have the desire to be loved, to be heard (Taylor Caldwell explained this better than anybody else!), and so forth. Whenever I read Pascal with my students, I am in awe how good he was at uncovering modern coping mechanisms, for example how we distract
ourselves from the truly important questions in life (e.g. What if I died tonight? What is the meaning of it all?) —I always have one or two students who cannot hold back their tears in class. They realize that they have been duped by their parents and society.

Everybody dies alone, and even if we can in some distant future prolong our existence by uploading our memory to a supercomputer, it won’t be us, but a copy of our memories only. We as humans end. Work, money, fitness, etc. are used to cope with the fear of death. On our birthdays we often hear: “Health is the most important thing.” Yet, what is health? Is it the most important thing? Is there something like absolute health, or do we mean the absence of diseases that impede us from doing what we desire and truly want?

No major thinker in the last 3,000 years has ever said that health was the greatest good in life, and there are good reasons for that. What good is the absence of pain and illness if there is no love in your life?

On the question of happiness, you draw a distinction between Aquinas, who said that our true happiness as communion with God, and the economic philosopher Adam Smith, who defined happiness as “a state of pleasantness produced by Him.” Why does this difference matter to us today?

Everybody wants to be happy; the better question is, though, what do we really want? I think we often don’t know because our desires can be misguided. Smith thinks we should desire the state of pleasantness, the feeling of happiness. Yet, this is very subjective, varies from person to person, and can be extremely destructive. Our pleasant Western life style destroys the planet and the life of future generations. In short, Smith accelerates our narcissism and addiction to things, while Aquinas reminds us that true happiness is never found in a feeling but in communion with somebody else.
Feelings are important, but what I find so disturbing is the naiveté with which we are told to trust our feelings, as if they were little gods who can never fail. Yet, we all know how easily we are misguided by feelings, how they are influenced by our surrounding, our sleep patterns, food, depression, etc. In short, they are a terrible guide to reality if they are not vetted. This vetting is called discernment in the Christian tradition—and we seem to have handed it over to the malls.

I was once present at a gathering of Catholic professors and public intellectuals, all talking about the cultural crisis, and what might be done about it. It was striking to me to observe the professors who teach Catholic undergraduates trying to convince the older scholars there that the world that formed them had disappeared. The older Catholics seemed to be
laboring under the idea that American Catholicism (and the American moral and civic order generally) was basically sound, despite some setbacks, and that Catholics simply needed to make better arguments. The younger professors responded by saying that reason is pointless when you’re dealing with a population of young Catholics who know next to nothing about their faith, as is typical today. What has your own experience been in
this regard — and what does this have to do with your new book? 

As a historian, I am convinced that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to these problems. The Church has to be reinvigorated and use all the tools she has. It is true that reasonable arguments do not reach many, but you have to ask yourself why. Many grow up in families where truth is absent; everything is centered around things, feelings, and consensus. If you are told from middle school onward that there is no such thing as “truth” and if your parents don’t give you a solid, basic understanding of reality (and metaphysics), the case for reason is closed. Consequently, promiscuity is OK because there is no ‘objective’ morality, divorce is OK, take your pick.

Catechesis has not helped families, but schools cannot remediate what has failed in the family. Parents are called to teach their kids. The next book I want to write is a philosophy book for middle- schoolers for that very reason.

And yes, young Catholics don’t know much about their faith; we have many fine Catholic theologians, but if we don’t teach the faith in our communities, make the families a “school of the Lord,” what else can we expect?

The secular cultural critic Philip Rieff once wrote that what we need today is a restoration of “holy terror,” by which he meant “fear of oneself, fear of the evil in oneself and in the world. It is also the fear of punishment.” Without this fear, said Rieff, authority is not possible, and we become monsters. Can you elaborate on that insight in terms of your book’s discussion of the reality of sin? 

I haven’t read Rieff, but Chesterton had a similar idea when he wrote the Father Brown stories, as did C.S. Lewis when he wrote The Screwtape Letters. We should be terrified by the abyss of evil within us; if we are truthful to ourselves and God, and examine (examination of conscience) our own, dark “upside down” (to use an image from the Netflix series Stranger Things), we might have more humility.

Every saint I know called himself/herself the greatest of sinners, because the holier you are, the more attuned you are to your own faults. Fear is a survival mechanism but it can also impede us: I think I would prefer to talk about vigilance and awareness. We should be aware of our own weakness, of how easily we fail and become monsters (the history of the
concentration camp guards can teach us that!), and that we can only be truly vigilant with the wisdom the Holy Spirit gives to us.

Why are the Christian martyrs so important to us today? Or rather, why ought they to be important to us, even though nobody ever talks
about them?

I think a lot of people think of martyrs as Christians from a long-gone time of persecution. Yet many were killed in recent times and are still being murdered; many were killed in Christian countries like France, Spain or Mexico. In my Enlightenment book, I shed some light on martyrs of the confessional, for example a priest who would not speak about the confession of two deserted Prussian soldiers; King Frederick II—famous for his “tolerance”—had him hanged and let his corpse rot on the gallows. This chaplain died because he denied the state’s authority over the sacrament.

In our society, hostility against Christianity is growing; we are identified with racism, sexism, and every evil under the sun. The martyrs give us courage: there is something worth suffering for! When push comes to shove, people with convictions can become heroes.

Would you talk about classical and traditional Christian definition of freedom as “freedom to do good,” and how that contrasts to the modern sense of freedom as the absence of constraint on the individual will?

Freedom is more than the what many modern thinkers would like us to believe. It is as if we have exchanged a three-dimensional idea of freedom for a one-dimensional counterfeit. In the modern understanding, boundaries are always considered as limitations to freedom and are hardly ever something positive. It is more valuable to potentially choose something bad rather than to be perfectly free to choose the good.

A classical definition of freedom, on the other hand, takes into account that true freedom can only exist when one is to free from the bonds of slavery to worldly things, unexamined choices, and societal expectations so that one is free to become who God/nature intended him or her to be. I always remind my students that the whole point of the “liberal arts” that
so many call superfluous is to liberate them so that they can pursue the good.

Finally, where do we go from here? God Is Not Nice is a terrific, highly readable diagnosis of the problem facing Catholics — and indeed all Christians — in post-Christian modernity. What do you want the reader to do when he finishes the book?

Realizing that God is good beyond measure, forgiving and merciful, and
that we just have to do one thing: (re)turning to Christ and giving him space in
our life.

The book is God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering The God Worth Living For, by Ulrich Lehner.