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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

God is Not Nice

God is Not Nice

God is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For

We do not need to look very far to see that our postmodern world is in a state of utter chaos and confusion. Many have lost their way because they no longer believe in objective truth. Instead, they make themselves into the source and arbiter of all truth. How has postmodern man come to exist in such a state? Dr. Ulrich Lehner, a professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame, convincingly argues that, because we misunderstand the nature of God, we cannot discover the true happiness and fullness of truth for which we are longing. We turn God into our own image, forming and shaping him in a way that makes us comfortable but devoid of joy.

Lehner’s work systematically offers examples of how we can misunderstand the nature of God, forming him into something that makes us feel good. We find these misunderstandings are prevalent in our culture, but reading this book can help us when we encounter these errors in others or even in ourselves. Two examples will give readers a taste of what they will find in Lehner’s book. In chapter three, he deals with the argument that we do not really need God’s grace or assistance in attaining eternal life. He explains how we have come to this understanding via the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, and then, more recently, via the beliefs against divine providence promulgated during the Enlightenment by Immanuel Kant. As Lehner explains: “Ultimately, he [Kant] thought, with Voltaire, the hero of the French Revolution, that we have to be the masters of our own fortune—otherwise, we will remain inactive and lethargic.”[1] How often we find this mentality in our culture. So many individuals believe that we are the masters of our own fate—how much this has infected the American “self-made man” philosophy. As the remedy for this attitude in our culture, Lehner describes the Catholic understanding of grace and the fact that moralism—doing what is good to merit heaven—will not actually enable us to “earn” heaven. For, much to the dismay of many individuals, we cannot actually know if we are saved.

In chapter six, Lehner explores the “God of surrender,” in which he treats of “love”. He begins by pointing out that all of us know the difference between loving and liking. He shows that we can fall into a false understanding of love, one which contradicts its true meaning as the act of willing the good of the other. We often think that, because God loves us, he will do nice things for us and make us comfortable. In reality, however, as Lehner points out, “We have to remember that we are already a temple of the Holy Spirit, at which God gazes every moment of our grace-filled existence in joy. Instead, however, we expect to be in touch with God only superficially and on Sundays; thus the bond between lover and beloved is broken” (p. 72-73). This false concept of love further infects how we love other people. God does not want us simply to “affirm” others in their beliefs, even if they are false; rather, he calls us to love them truly and show them the way of truth. Therefore, the God of love calls us to a twofold conversion: firstly, within ourselves, so that we do not become merely comfortable with our lives and our sin, desiring, rather, to sacrifice ourselves and give everything to God; and secondly, in our relationship with others, so that we can offer them the truth that will bring them closer to eternal life. Lehner describes this conversion in terms of light: “This light of God’s love is so bright that if we accept it, it permeates even the darkest corners of our lives and makes them as radiant as the stars” (p. 78).

From these two examples we can see that Lehner is calling Christians, and even non-believers, to understand God as he is presented in the Scriptures and in the life of the Church. God is not boring, as Lehner indicates in his introduction, although many within the culture believe that he is. Rather, as Lehner keenly describes, “We all need the vaccine of knowing the true transforming and mysterious character of God: the God who shows up in burning bushes, speaks through donkeys, drives demons into pigs, throws Saul to the ground, and appears to St. Francis” (p. 3). These images, however, are not what most people consider when they think of God. As Lehner explains throughout his book, many people think of God as nothing more than a nice grandfather wishing to bestow gifts upon us.

Lehner’s remarkable book demonstrates that God is calling us into an adventure, in which he calls us to sacrifice ourselves and give ourselves entirely to him. How could it be otherwise? The God who called Abraham from the land of Ur into a foreign place, led his people out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and let them wander through the desert for forty years could be nothing other than the God of adventure.

This book can serve as both an apologetic tool and a guide for our own consciences. While Lehner’s profound understanding of history, theology, and their connection to the modern world is evident in his writing, this work is written in such a way that those who have not had a rigorous theological education can understand the heart of his arguments. This is because Lehner frequently speaks from his own personal experience, which helps the reader connect with his message. Thus, it is a perfect book for those who are looking for a deeper understanding of God than the one presented by the culture. As Lehner makes clear in his introduction, it is easy for all of us to fall into these traps of understanding God as a “nice God,” rather than the God who is calling us to sacrifice and suffer for him.

Dr. Ulrich Lehner’s book addresses the many misunderstandings of God that prevail in our culture, refuting them with solid logic and a deep love for the Catholic faith. It is an essential text for those who are engaging people in the postmodern culture, or for those who desire to come to know God in a more profound way.

[1] Dr. Ulrich Lehner, God is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2017), 32. All future references will be intra-textual.

For more information about Dr. Lehner, please visit https://theology.nd.edu/people/ulrich-l-lehner/

The Catholic Writer in Exile

The Catholic Writer in Exile

Shakespeare's Catholicism

Shakespeare's Catholicism