Stripping away the niceties with a sling blade, Ulrich Lehner shows that God is more strange and beautiful than we imagine, and wants to know and transform us in the most intimate way.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
— Proverbs 9:10 (NIV)
Don't worry — I'm not talking about the time you've had it out of the library. I'm talking about the time we Christians have been collectively delusional about God.
It's possible, of course, that this is a constant of the human condition. But I think there's something different about the character of our recent delusions. For at least a century now, we've portrayed God as a nice, sweet, adorable guy — so nice and sweet, in fact, that we couldn't really bring ourselves to adore him.
Eighty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr lampooned this peculiarly American religion — in which "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." And we have succeeded wildly in exporting this therapeutic gospel.
You know it because you've seen it. You can recognize it in the Sunday worship of suburban mega-churches and, I'm sorry to say, not a few Catholic parishes. Find your padded folding chair, and you'll soon encounter a user-friendly God who wants to meet you where you are, affirm and reassure you, and keep you entertained with soothing music for an hour. Incarnate, that God is your "personal Lord and Savior" — personal, like a life coach, fitness trainer, or ski instructor.
Ulrich Lehner is not the first to observe that the preaching of this nice gospel corresponds rather exactly to the collapse of Christianity in the global North and West. 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?
Read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and you won't find the nice, sweet God anywhere. In Genesis he appears with power, he judges with justice, and he promises mercy. His mercy is credible, however, only because his might and justice are manifest.
Read the prophets and ponder the God who appeared to Abraham, Moses, Balaam, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Daniel — the God whose nearness made them fall down and cover their faces, the God whose light shone upon the hidden corners of their souls.
Eighty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr lampooned this peculiarly American religion — in which "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."
Nor is this some "Old Testament God" who became obsolete with the New. This is the God Simon Peter encountered in Jesus (Lk 5:8) and John saw in his visions (Rv 1:17).
The God of biblical religion is disconcerting, disquieting, commanding, demanding. He can be shocking.
He inspires awe and something like fear. In fact, Isaiah — whose own call was a frightful thing — lists "fear of the Lord" among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:1–2).
Such is the God of the scriptures, the creeds, and the sacraments. Consider the words to an ancient eucharistic prayer — words still in our hymnals today.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
This God comes to us for communion, but he demands the homage that is his right by nature — and our duty by nature. What happens next is astonishing: he gives himself to us as food! Yet it is only astonishing when we know who he is: the Creator, the Almighty, the God who shook the patriarchs and prophets to their sandals.
He has come to be our food, not our antianxiety medication or antidepressant. He has arrived not necessarily to make us feel better but to make us like himself — to make us "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:4, KJ21).
The children of God will bear a family resemblance to their Father. "You shall know the truth," Flannery O'Connor said, "and the truth shall make you odd." So we should not be surprised if our neighbors find our faith offensive or even intolerable. The gospel has that effect on people. The poet W. H. Auden told the story of a vicar who "once reduced his congregation to hysterical sobs by a sermon on the Passion." The poor man was dismayed by his success, and he immediately sought to comfort the people in the pews, saying, "Now, please, please don't be upset. Remember this happened a very long time ago. Indeed, perhaps it never happened at all."
The Good News isn't nice, but it's true. The sobbing people knew that far better than their embarrassed pastor.
Ulrich Lehner sees clearly what Niebuhr and O'Connor and Auden saw: that the nice faith is not the Nicene faith. He sees the absurd and self-contradictory nature of this recent project, and he names it. His diagnosis and remedy are more thoroughgoing and useful than any I have seen to date.
The pages of this book are the work of a true theologian. A theologian is one who prays; and one who prays knows that God is changeless but nevertheless wild and not tame. One who prays to such a God knows a God who can be worshiped — knows a God to whom sacrifice can be made — a God for whom we can live and die.
Scott Hahn "Foreword." from God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2017): ix-xii.
Reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press.
Scott Hahn holds the Fr. Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and he is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. From 2005 to 2011 he held the Pope Benedict XVI Chair of Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Dr. Hahn is the bestselling author of numerous books, including Joy to the World, Angels and Saints, Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, The Lamb's Supper, and Reasons to Believe. He is editor of the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible and Letter & Spirit: A Journal of Catholic Biblical Theology. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and their six children.Copyright © 2017 Ave Maria Press
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