Getting Serious about God

A man prays during Ash Wedneday services at St. Andrew’s in New York City, 2014. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
A Lenten focusing session

God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For is a new book by Ulrich L. Lehner, a professor of religious history and theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. We talk about the book’s themes, and he explains why he chose its slightly disconcerting title.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why would you go and say in your title that God is not nice? Doesn’t he have enough bad press — often because of religious folk behaving badly — as it is?

Ulrich L. Lehner: “Nice” is an adjective that describes some vague and superficial pleasantness. If God exists, he is goodness, beauty, and truth — but not “nice.” It is a reminder that many have settled for an idol instead of the real God. Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic, once said that many love God the way they love their cow — because she gives milk and cheese. That’s the problem: We expect God to fulfill our needs, but we do not want to integrate ourselves into his kingdom.

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As an historian, I despise nothing more than whitewashing history; and indeed you could fill a library with stories of religious folks behaving badly (of all religions, by the way!). Sin and failure have to be expected, but many who indulge in the news about religious people behaving badly do so because they feel morally superior by following their irrational feelings and by being devoid of every true conviction. I have encountered this countless times among students.

It is these people, however, who often are too proud to seek penance and forgiveness and will consequently not be healed. The nice-god Church can also be a church of the proud and successful, living in the illusion that they are better than everybody else. A few years ago, I read somewhere that perhaps the best place for hypocrites is a church. Where else would they have a chance to encounter integrity and change their life?

I had to fight for the book title; originally the publisher did not like it and wanted a different one, but I insisted that it is a conversation starter; it makes people look and wonder, and hopefully pick up the book and read that God is more than nice.

Lopez: You write: “We may instinctively like a nice God — and even go so far as to ‘like’ him on social media. But will we make sacrifices for him and to him? Will we be willing to die for him? Will we make the effort to get out of bed early to praise his name?” Then you respond to your own question: “Probably not.” Ouch. That bad? What do we do about it?

Lehner: I think God is, for most people, just some glitter in their life, but he is not transforming them. That’s why so many are unfulfilled in their faith or abandon it. I am not excluding myself from that observation: There are plenty of times when I get carried away with my own work or this or that, but I am making an effort to come back and let his life ferment mine. It took me a long time to really appreciate Thomas à Kempis’s little book The Imitation of Christ. You can’t just read it; you must savor it and live it.

I think God is, for most people, just some glitter in their life, but he is not transforming them. That’s why so many are unfulfilled in their faith or abandon it.

What can we do? I think the best thing is to live as if God really mattered. I have gotten to know many people, including my own relatives, who would rather go to the gym instead of Mass on Sunday but still believe they are Christian. Yet when you ask them what is specifically Christian about their lives, they can’t point to anything except a prayer they say once in a blue moon or a small donation they gave to charity.

What can we do? Live as if God matters and don’t pretend that living with God behind the wheel isn’t a struggle. Almost none of my students has ever heard this. Instead, they are taught that they shouldn’t think too much about their eternal destiny but should rather focus on their career, the next vacation, etc. They are told to focus on what is “practical” so that they can create their own meaning in life (and such created meaning is fictitious). This is preached in families, and until the families change, the Church won’t.

Lopez: Is “pop-culture theology” dangerous?

Lehner: It depends on what you mean by it. The subtitle is not mine but was suggested by the publisher. In the context of my book, it means widespread, common teaching about God that has become flavorless and bland. Where it has become that, it serves ideologies and agendas but not God. It is dangerous when it preaches false gods and affirms people in their misery, their discontentment, their anger, and their vices. It is the theology of “all will be saved no matter what,” and its pastors preach “you don’t have to change.”

Lopez: You write that “God’s grace doesn’t make us nice — if it did, it would be just a superficial thing. Instead, it transforms us as wine changes into the Blood of Christ at the Eucharist. It flows from God’s very character, and it therefore interrupts all our best-laid plans. We think we know what’s best, but God disagrees because he loves us.” Why are you so sure of this?

Lehner: Because it is the purpose of grace to make us “holy,” not “nice” or “likable.” Certainly there are many holy people who are likable, but it is a side effect. It flows from their love for all people, their compassion, their acknowledgment of their own failures and the greatness of God. Saints are “lovers” not “nice guys.”

It is the purpose of grace to make us ‘holy,’ not ‘nice’ or ‘likable.’ Certainly there are many holy people who are likable, but it is a side effect.

Why do I believe God knows better? If God exists, he knows better — that follows from the definition of God in Christianity. We arrive at knowledge successively, while God’s knowledge is not discursive. Because we run away from the big questions of life, such as mortality, and because we turn to our own selfishness rather than to reality and the order of the world, we constantly lose sight of what is good for us. God, on the other hand, is closer to our true nature than our mind is and ever will be. God’s interactions in our life are never comfortable; they always interrupt our plans.

Lopez: So what is God’s grace? Why is it so important?

Lehner: Without grace there is no life — that would be the shortest answer. Most of my students believe in some kind of god but one who does not reveal himself and does not demand transformation. In their view, you can do whatever you want and still love god; they act like married people who constantly commit adultery but think their spouse will forgive every affair without any sign of remorse on their part. In short, they believe they are morally upright people simply because they haven’t killed anyone (that’s the answer they really give!). That’s life without grace, humans as highly developed animals. Why? Because God’s grace is God’s life in us (I skip the difference between uncreated and created grace), which changes us, ferments us like dough to bring about something new. Without grace there is no such thing.

Lopez: What on earth is “the Mental Teddy Bear God”?

Lehner: The German philosopher Odo Marquard (d. 2015) came up with the term. He was a very skeptical thinker and found it ludicrous how modern people run away from the big questions in life by creating “safe spaces” in their mind. He called these the mental teddy bears — especially the idea of a perfect earthly life without pain and suffering.

Lopez: Why is God so interested in our suffering? How can you be so sure?

Lehner: I think that by reason alone you can’t be sure. You can argue for why God allows suffering. Some, such as John Hick, argue that God permits suffering because only moral evil allows us to become more mature persons and allows us to grow in moral determination and the virtues. Natural evil, on the other hand, God allows because it is linked to the laws that enable human life and our freedom — if he intervened, he would have to intervene all the time. Yet, the strongest argument that God is interested in our suffering is that Jesus himself suffered. In fact, the New Testament mentions several times that he “had to suffer.” Why? My teacher Harald Schöndorf came up with a brilliant answer: Only if God makes himself fully vulnerable and is affected by sin can he really forgive; otherwise he would simply pardon us. I don’t know any other religious tradition that takes suffering as seriously as Christianity.

Lopez: You write: “The journey to knowing God brings us to places we have not been, helps us notice unseen things, and opens our eyes to surprises and delights we didn’t know existed. Only the adventurer is able to see what nobody else sees — and it is this insight that we have lost when we think about God in conventional ways. And then we wonder why life doesn’t make sense — why we are so unhappy and why our existence bores us to death. Deep down, we want that challenge, that journey, that adventure.” What if such an adventure seems terrifying or impossible?

Lehner: It almost certainly will look terrifying! If you read conversion stories you frequently encounter that. Take, for instance, John Henry Newman and Robert Benson. They knew they would not enter a rosy, comfy church but would leave career and acceptance behind and enter a church where they would never really fit in. After I interviewed for my job at Marquette in 2005, I went to church at the Basilica of Saint Josaphat, and while I was praying it hit me that God wanted me there, although I did not feel comfortable about it at all; I did not want to go there and leave my homeland, but I knew it was the right thing to do. My best friend from college knew God was calling her to be a religious, so she visited a number of communities in Germany. While she was at a very strict Cistercian convent, she knew she was in the right place, although a part of her rebelled against the idea. Yet, there was also peace, despite the uproar inside.

Deep down, most of us would rather go with our own inclination than with God’s voice, and hearing the latter is a tricky thing that involves silence, listening with the ear of the heart, and discernment.


Lopez: Why should we take seriously the idea that “God takes sin seriously”?

Lehner: Serious sin destroys our friendship with God. If you don’t take sin seriously, you act like a horrible friend who keeps offending and abusing the person who only has your best interest at heart.

Lopez: Are we as a culture perhaps too far gone to encounter what intimacy with God looks like without chuckling or with thinking this is foreign or silly, pious nonsense?

Lehner: Let people laugh. It usually comes from those who have never studied philosophy and believe “only what they can see,” which is the crudest and most naïve sort of “realism.” Religious experience is studied by psychologists and philosophers with profound seriousness. In the Catholic tradition, however, it does not mean to chase emotions or to abandon reason, but rather openness of heart and soul. After Sunday Mass, we always sit for a moment of thanksgiving, while everybody else rushes out of church. My four-year-old was a bit restless, so I told her: “Don’t you want to listen to Jesus?” She paused a second, looked at the cross, and said, “I can’t hear him.” “You have to listen with the ears of the heart,” I told her.


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