If I had one penny for every time that I heard someone imply that God makes hardly any demands on us, I would be the world’s wealthiest buyer of handkerchiefs with which to wipe away my tears and those of others who have grown weary of this pervasive myth. Fortunately, God is far better than “nice,” and a seasoned theologian has explained the matter in book form.
I recently spoke by phone with a fellow Ave Maria Press author, Dr. Ulrich Lehner. Dr. Lehner is a professor in Marquette University’s Department of Theology. He recently wrote a book that has already become popular in various realms of the Catholic Church, not to mention other Christian faith communities: God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Ave Maria Press). In order to experience an introduction of Dr. Lehner’s point within God Is Not Nice, I encourage you to read his similarly-themed First Things piece from December 2017 with a cheeky title, No God But Santa.
Of course, to say that “God is not nice” is not to say that he is somehow “mean”; rather, quite the opposite, we must assert that he is exceedingly better than “nice” – he has the perfect balance of justice on the one hand and mercy on the other. In other words, to be terse, yet hopefully not curt, God is both just and merciful… and we can never take the latter for granted. We can reflect, for instance, on the passage unique to Matthew’s Gospel known as the “Judgment of Nations” (see Matthew 25:31-46), as well as on Christ’s affirmation of “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
The global West is currently wrought with stifling degrees of moral relativism, syncretism, and religious indifferentism touted as religious tolerance, although ending up revealed to be religious illiteracy. How refreshing to recall that God is capable of far more than “niceness” – he is capable of extending to us an offer of salvific redemption, which is far more significant. The following is the transcript of my interview with Dr. Lehner, whose book God Is Not NiceI easily recommend that you read at this juncture in the 21st century.
Where are you from in Germany?
I am from the south, from Bavaria, from near Regensburg. The town, Straubing, is about 20 miles from Regensburg. I studied in Munich, in Regensburg, and at the University of Notre Dame. I identify first as a European.
When did you write the book God Is Not Nice?
I finished the first draft in 2015, but completely revised it, and basically rewrote it in 2016.
How did the book come about?
I teach “Introduction to Theology,” which is a required course at Marquette. I often hear from Catholics who fell away from the faith because they saw Catholicism as a set of rules, and boring, and not compatible with reason. I tackled a lot of that in the classroom, so I figured I would write down my experience.
Do you have a favorite scriptural passage?
No, not really. Not really. If I told you one, I would probably give you a second one, and a third. There are so many. I tend to believe that you have a few favorite scriptural passages that speak to you and make your heart sing, and that echo in your heart and soul, but they change from situation to situation.
Do you have any advice for readers of God Is Not Nice?
The book will help those who are catechizing, or close to Christians in general. I have spoken to Evangelical Christians who have found it useful as well. It is for those who want to have a road map, or some arguments, to help them guide others. It is a book that can be used in high school, or in college, to stir up discussion. It can be a helpful guide during Lent. I sometimes read parts of the book in a meditative way, and am surprised that I wrote some parts. Hopefully, the book will be very helpful in showing that we are called to something more than just “the good life.” We are called to the virtuous life, to become saints transformed in Christ. Faith is much too precious to be treated as a mere emotion, yet that is too often how parishioners, or even entire families, treat the faith, not allowing the faith to transform your life. This is not boring; it is exciting. This is the one thing that is truly important in life.