A few days ago, one of my undergraduate students asked me, “Why do so many people believe that God is like an old man in the clouds?”
I responded, “Because there is no God but Santa”—and after a pause, added: “. . . in sentimentalist theology.”
We have only to look at the usual Christmas movies and TV shows to find the proof for this view. The “Santa God” gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling—like a cozy blanket on a cold winter day—and brings us what we want. This God is the ultimate vending machine: As long as you are “nice” here and there, you get a present and perhaps even a place in heaven.
But what is “nice”? Is it enough to fulfill some basic rules of decent human behavior, like abstaining from homicide (as I frequently hear from students), or some other crime, to count as “nice”? Doesn’t settling for nice mean settling for the moral bottom? Is nice ever an attribute we can or should use for God?
Western religion has largely become a self-serving therapeutic endeavor. It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian or Jewish or Muslim—the push for “No God but Santa” is universal in our society. The moment we diminish the Divine to a moral law of the universe, the moment we rob God of his awe-inspiring mystery, we have started on the road to sentimentalist religion. That road leads to a God who is no longer person, no longer involved in our lives, but rather a feeling that we sometimes seek but that is not worth dying for—and consequently not worth changing your life for! God has become the nice God.
This is the God many college students seek out. He doesn’t challenge the hookup culture, because he is the God of consent and self-determination over our bodies. But such a God is a powerless demon, more boring than elevator music. As with elevator music, no one can stand his presence for long periods of time.
This God comes in many flavors, all of which are bland. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, preaches this God. Peale’s mantra “Never think of yourself as failing!” might be good business policy, but it emboldens you to see yourself as sinless and not in need of radical redemption. Grace becomes a sugar coating. The grace that is an unmerited gift, and transforms the mere human to a child of God by a process of sanctification, has no place in such a theology.
By attacking the idea of the nice God, I do not argue for a mean God or a God of wrath. God is love, justice, and mercy, but if we leave those attributes lifeless, our faith becomes bland, like “salt that has lost its flavor” (Mt 5: 13). This may be why so many seek spiritual fulfillment outside the churches.
If God exists, he is the reason for all that is. If God exists, then he is life, which means fullness, excitement, and bliss. If God exists, he wants to redeem the world from the evil that destroys.
People who believe in the nice God believe he is non-authoritarian—and by “authoritarian,” they seem to envision a fascist-like dictator. Of course, God is not like that. He gives us free will. Yet, if God exists, he is the ultimate authority, because he is the creator and the source of all good; he knows what is best for us and tells us so through his Revelation and through reason. He invites us to make a covenant with him and become his adopted children. His value is the highest, not ours. A God without authority is not God.
Likewise, it is counter to reason to portray God as non-judgmental. If anybody can judge, it is God! Sociologists have shown that two-thirds of Americans see no contradiction between God’s being loving and his being just. But justice entails judgment. Since God is all-knowing, he is the best judge there is, taking every fact into consideration that limits or increases our guilt. That is the merciful judge Pope Francis talks about. A God who pretended we had no shortcomings would be a God who did not take us seriously.
Such justice is not wrath. Wrath is not a predicate of God, but a description used in the Hebrew Bible to convey the experience of an awe-inspiring, “terrifying” God who intervenes in history out of love for his people. The American people seem to know this, because only 13 percent describe God as wrathful, whereas 80 percent describe God as simultaneously loving and just.
Believers in the nice God claim that nobody should try to convert others. Yet, if God exists and has revealed the fullness of truth, wouldn’t you want to share it and have others believe it too? Disagreeing with others about the most fundamental questions in life was once considered a beautiful expression of freedom. It is only today that it seems to disturb our mental wellness. Nor is it the case that nice-God believers (who are usually relativists) do not try to convert others. They insist that they are objectively right, and if you don’t conform to their ideas, you are on the wrong side of history.
Why do I find the nice view of God not only unsatisfying, but also politically and morally dangerous? A nice God props up the status quo. Whatever you do, there is no failure because God is on your side. The nice God plays to our narcissism. Since whatever I feel is right, and good feelings are from God, I am always justified without recourse to tradition or reason.
Tradition ensures that we don’t throw away God’s revelation. Scholarship helps us to understand it better over time, and the magisterium applies it to the needs of the day. The faithful community makes sure that we don’t worship an idol of our making. But if my own feelings are the standards of my actions, I will remain on my sofa, continuing my life without change, while dismissing the deplorables and missing God’s challenge for the ultimate adventure.
No, Santa will never be my God!
Ulrich L. Lehner is professor of religious history at Marquette University and author of God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For.