The false concept of a 'nice God' is a 'constant temptation to tame the divine'

Professor Ulrich L. Lehner, who teaches religious history and theology at Marquette University, has written a book with the provocative title, God is not Nice (Ave Maria Press/Alban Books £14.99). Visitors who saw it lying on my desk during the Christmas period commented on it, wondering what the author could mean: wasn’t it unkind or disrespectful to God to refer to him thus?

Having grown up before Vatican II, the title didn’t bother me in the least; having to learn the Penny Catechism and to know the “Four Last Things” by heart (they are “Death, Judgment, Hell or Heaven”), I realised at a young age that whatever God is, he isn’t “nice.”

Lehner’s subtitle expands his meaning: “Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God worth Living For”. Curious to learn more about its genesis, I asked him what had prompted him to write it. He tells me that among his students he noticed “lethargy when it came to everything relating to faith.” Despite 12 years of Catholic schooling, they found faith “boring”, or saw it only as a “nice” occasion for holidays or family celebrations. He began to ask himself “What am I doing here? How can I get some basic ideas across and show them that faith is an adventure and the means of true fulfilment?”

Speaking with the scholarly earnestness of someone who grew up and was educated in Germany before moving to the US, Lehner explains that the false concept of a “nice God” is a “constant temptation to tame the divine. Kant called it “radical evil”. Since the 18th Century it has come to us in the disguise of emotivism: “Whatever I feel is right”. This has led us to sentimentalise God and Revelation; faith becomes a commodity for personal wellbeing.”

Expanding on the word “emotivism”, he suggests it is widespread today. It means that “logic or reason is considered ‘oppressive'”. He informs me that Catholic universities in the US no longer require students to take a mandatory class in logic. “It wouldn’t work because by middle school students are already influenced by the idea that feelings make things right or wrong, not truth.”

Lehner is convinced that if, by middle school, “students are not taught that faith and reason are connected and if they don’t meet joy-filled Catholics they will drift away.”

He believes passionately that transmitting a strong and vibrant faith is the responsibility of parents as well as educators: “Parents must expose their children to the idea that faith and reason are not enemies. My college students have never heard that!” He points out that the digital world that young people live in is “all about emotions.” None of his own five children has a smart phone and neither does he or his wife. His advice to other parents is simple but firm: “Restrict your children’s use of technology. Give them good books to read; challenge their imagination, Play with them, read some of their books and above all, be a role model: pray with them, apologise if you failed, and talk about your joys and sorrows. Show them what life with the virtues is really like.”

If God is not “nice”, how would Lehner define “fear of the Lord” and why is it so important? He reflects that “it is the acknowledgement of a greater THOU, whom we can never fully comprehend because we live in the half-shadow of grace and sin. Fear is the recognition that justice and mercy are one in God. This God is demanding. How much time do we spend with him? The idea that such a God cares for us makes us tremble, reminding us to surrender our lives to him in humility, like the three Magi, who prostrated themselves in front of a new-born in a manger.”

I note that in his book, Lehner writes that “almost all Catholics are secretly Pelagian”. Could he expand on this? He tells me that “many Catholics sincerely believe that their good deeds get them into Heaven.” His students’ reasoning is that they haven’t killed someone and they have given a bit to charity, “so they deserve Heaven.” He adds, “We have forgotten the nature of love and see it in sentimentalist terms, rather than as a gift.” Unlike the ancient Pelagians who lived ascetic lives, “modern Pelagians believe they can earn Heaven by “doing” things – instead of being transformed by Christ.”

I ask Lehner about his Catholic upbringing in Germany and he replies that he “practically grew up in church, which was only three minutes from the family home. All the Mass servers would hang out together.” Three of his aunts became nuns and two uncles were priests. He recalls the priests of his childhood with great affection: “They were deeply formative for me. I dedicated my book to two of them: Fr Karl Haller was a war veteran with a voice that could shatter a rock, but he was also gentle, embodying the joy of the Gospel. Fr Joseph Waas was one of the best-read persons I ever met. He knew about art, psychology, history and philosophy. He embodied how faith and reason go together. He was entirely orthodox yet conversed with anybody who wanted to talk to him and who was searching for truth.”

Lehner is certain that both priests would “rather have lost a hand or leg than not celebrate their daily Mass. As a youngster I picked that up; it impressed me and made me want to go to daily Mass in high school.” About his parents, he says their faith was “quiet but strong – especially when my mother was dying of cancer at the time of my graduation from high school; I could see how profound it was. Now, when I visit my father, we walk together to his daily Mass.”

He adds, “I feel immensely proud of him; that’s true heroism – holding on to the good when your world falls apart.”

And how does he try to teach the faith to his own children? “We pray together as a family and sing Advent and Christmas hymns and carols. In October we say a decade of the Rosary. We often let the children choose the prayers they want to say, such as the prayer to St Michael or the Memorare and to choose who is going to lead the prayers and who will read a Scripture passage.”

Lehner comments: “Many parents think they don’t know how to pray. Well, their children know it even less – so don’t be afraid. It’s not an intellectual exercise; it’s speaking to God, opening one’s heart.” He tries to remember St Francis de Sales’ advice: “Begin with thanksgiving, then promise the Lord something you want to do or change; only in third place, ask for something.”

I tell Lehner I note that Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, former Prefect of the CDF is one of the book’s dedicatees and that I was very impressed by his understanding of the Church when I read The Mueller Report. He replies, saying that Mueller was “a great professor with a fine sense of humour”, adding that “the three things that most impressed me about him were first: he always made time for his students when other professors felt they were too important to do so. In lecture breaks Mueller always walked among the students, chatting and listening, always with a smile on his face. If you wanted to meet up with him, he always made time.

“Second, he was never afraid of arguments against the faith. He knew them all, presented them fairly and showed their flaws. For me he embodies how faith and reason go together.”

“Thirdly, I think his most important characteristic is his absolute loyalty to Christ and to the Church. He is one of those Cardinals who would shed his blood for the Church – I have no doubt about that. And he always despised talking about “conservative” or “liberal” Catholics because these labels are about political ideologies that do not fit the Church. Mueller truly does not fit any category. All he wants is to be a priest serving Christ and His Church. In today’s world, where everybody plays politics, it takes a lot of courage not to take part in political games.”