Dr. Manfred Lütz’s book God: A Small History of the Greatest was a best seller in Germany for months. It’s an answer to atheists, an offer for those seeking God, and a help to the faithful.
Lütz, a psychotherapist and physician, theologian and philosopher, is a pugnacious, humorous speaker on God and atheism. He is also a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and counselor to the Congregation for the Clergy.
Register correspondent Robert Rauhut spoke with him in Munich.
Why a book on God? And why is it such a success?
For more than 40 years, we have been talking about the decisive significance of the God question — in theology, in philosophy, in many social debates. But there is no book, in my opinion, which you can give to a normal atheist with the remark: “This is something you can read. There are all the arguments inside, in an understandable language and a little bit entertaining.”
Why should an atheist go to bed with “God” in the evening, if it is not at least entertaining? I was not sure whether it would work out to write entertainingly and comprehensively about God. I went on holidays, took along George Minois’s History of Atheism, imagined a clever atheist, and thought about what I would tell him. And that worked. I gave the book to a butcher and a philosopher to check, and they both liked it. That was my target. And this project was successful.
Today, theology has a language problem. If it once again responds to the existential questions of the people in their language, one will go down well and be sought after very much. Because the question about God’s existence is either a question for all or a question for no one.
Have you met Pope Benedict?
I know Pope Benedict XVI, as he was then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and it was a strange feeling that someone whom you know from detailed discussions is suddenly the Pope. He is a brilliant theologian, who never expresses himself in a contrived way, but as simple as possible. I find that exemplary.
If the faith funny?
I think faith can give a certain cheerfulness. Not in every existential situation. Certainly Nietzsche is right when he admonishes Christians to look more redeemed. If one permanently complains in the Church — the progressives about the conservatives and vice versa — it is difficult to make clear to young people that we are proclaiming a joyful Gospel because the dermatological skin result with a face full of worry lines denies that. I think humor suits every Christian. Humor is the ability to call oneself into question. And in my experience, someone who laughs is in a better condition to think about his well-worn opinion.
What do you remember from your childhood and teenage years, having been born in Bonn, Germany, in 1954?
I have two younger sisters. I can remember my childhood fairly well, especially my grandmother, who was a very pious, and at the same time, a very self-confident woman.
I remember having played as a 4-year-old together with an older girl who pompously told me about the war and the nights of bombardment, which she probably only knew from accounts of other persons. All of that sounded quite horrible to me.
At school I was very interested in the confrontation with National Socialism. I was ashamed of what Germans had done to the Jews. Later on, I organized — together with a teenager group of able and disabled — a German-Israeli youth exchange and the only pro-Israel demonstration during the Iraq War in 1991.
I was formed in a Catholic way. Faith, prayer, and the attendance of Mass were a given. We talked a lot about faith in my family. And I also became an altar server.
What about 1968? Was it a new era?
I can remember well the tensions at the election of Pope John XXIII: The council was a sparkling event for me. But being 14 years old, I lost my faith in God.
But that had nothing to do with that time. I was simply skeptical about everything “childish,” and I had the impression that to believe in God was childish. I still went to church, though, because I hoped to hear good arguments for the existence of God in a homily. But there I got disappointed. However, in the encounter with convinced Christians and by good literature, I found again my faith.
But in the ’70s, the universities became training camps for new ideologies. How did you react?
When I came to the university, the “’68ers” were already “grandpas” for me. I deepened my Catholic faith and represented it pro-actively. This was not the “mainstream,” but led to interesting discussions. I also put great emphasis on debating argumentatively and not only with some silly clichés by the other side. I thought the attitude of the medieval disputatio exemplary, in which one first had to present the enemies’ strongest arguments and after that was allowed to present one’s arguments against those.
Your first passion was medicine, specifically psychiatry. How did you deal with the issues of abortion and contraception?
I studied medicine because I wanted to work with humans. I realized at the end of my studies that I wanted to become a psychiatrist. It was much more satisfying for me to liberate somebody from a mental disorder or to ease from such a disorder than repairing a broken leg. In the question on the anti-baby pill and abortion, I thought the Catholic position definitely prophetic and represented it with the joy of debating, especially against those who swim with the tide.
Aren’t faith and psychiatry two different spheres?
In my clinic I am a psychiatrist and no theologian or pastor. Many patients know about my formation and that is good. I do not want an atheist unnecessarily worried that I would not respect him in the same way as the Christian patients. I take account of a strict separation of roles.
We also have competent pastors. But pastoral care is something different from psychotherapy. It goes deeper. That’s an existential encounter. Psychotherapy is a target-oriented methodical relationship for a time for money.
Twenty-five years ago I founded a group of abled and disabled teenagers without professional assistance. This group still exists. In it, I have experienced that disability can also be an ability. The disabled live more consciously the limits of our human existence. In that way, they perhaps live more intensely and “truer” than we who always have this inclination to drive out the limitations of earthly existence. So in essential questions, we can learn more from the handicapped than they from us.
Robert Rauhut is based in